D.C. region’s Asian population is up 60 percent since 2000, census data show

H.K. Suh was a pioneer among Koreans when he moved his family to Centreville 15 years ago.

His two sons had few Asian classmates at their Fairfax County public school. The closest Asian grocery was in Annandale, a dozen miles away. Forget about Korean restaurants nearby; there weren’t any.

Today, Suh lives in one of the most highly concentrated communities of Koreans in the Washington region, according to a Washington Post analysis of census statistics being released Thursday.

The data provide a richly detailed picture of where the region’s 570,000 Asians live. Chinese are most prevalent in the District and Montgomery County, particularly in Rockville and Potomac. Filipinos are the largest group in Prince George’s and Charles counties. Indians are flocking to Loudoun and Fairfax counties and have become the largest and fastest-growing group of Asians in the area. Koreans are the largest group in Centreville, where 26 percent of the population is Asian.

Suh now can choose from two Asian supermarkets within a five-minute drive. One of the region’s largest Korean churches moved to Centreville last year.A huge Korean spa, Spa World, attracts Asians and non-Asians from around the region. At school concerts, Suh notices that most of the orchestra players are Asian.

“I guess the change was gradual, but it’s been big,” said Suh, 51, a technology manager. “We started seeing more and more Asians move in, then the churches. And that attracted more.”

The number of Asians in the region grew 60 percent over the past decade. While four out of 10 Asian Americans live on the West Coast, Washington has turned into a hub for Asians on the East Coast. It has the nation’s fourth-highest concentration of Asian Indians and Koreans.

On the East Coast, Boston is the only city with a higher percentage of Chinese. Only New York has a bigger Japanese proportion. And New Orleans is the only metropolitan area with a larger concentration of Vietnamese.

Asians are drawn here by the same magnet of opportunity that has attracted so many other ambitious people, making Washington the city with the biggest share of college graduates in the country.

“D.C. is similar to New York and Northern California,” said Amanjot Singh Dhaliwal, an officer in the South Asian Bar Association of Washington, D.C. “The most opportunities are here. You want to go where you have the most opportunities to make money and have a career.”

Indians are the latest wave of Asians transforming the region, having leapfrogged over Koreans a decade ago. For the first time, they make up the biggest group of Asians in Virginia, largely because they have moved to the Washington suburbs.

Their increasing presence reflects the growth of information-technology jobs in the region. Most came for jobs, having attended school elsewhere in the United States or in India, said Qian Cai, head of demographics at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

With their high levels of education and income, Indians are pushing up those averages for the entire region.

“The ability to attract the Asian Indian community here helps to increase the knowledge base of our metro area,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “These are the cream of the crop, in terms of people who have high skills. Their kids are going to our schools and improving the schools in the process.”

Many have been drawn to Loudoun County, near the high-tech corridor around Dulles International Airport. As recently as 1990, Loudoun had fewer than 400 Indian residents. The number multiplied to about 2,300 in 2000. By the latest census, their ranks had soared to almost 20,000.

Reasonably affordable housing is one lure.

“The bang for your buck,” explained Gita Verma, PTA secretary at Creighton’s Corner Elementary School, who was raised in the United States and is of Indian descent. “What you can get here you just can’t get in McLean.”

So many have moved to the area that local theaters have begun showing Bollywood movies. Indian stores have proliferated.

Ashburn Spices, a narrow store bursting with tamarind candy, packets of henna, Hindi DVDs and 20 brands of basmati rice, opened in a strip mall three years ago.

“Ten years ago there was nothing here in Ashburn, and slowly I started figuring out there’s a lot of potential here for a store like that,” said owner Sunil Dahiya, a New Delhi native who lives in McLean.

Word of mouth has created a domino effect, said Pam Bhamrah, a real estate agent who has lived in Loudoun County for decades and has many South Asian clients. “A lot of homes, you’ll know they’re Indian because they’ll have some sort of decoration above the door, like little garland flowers.” And at the local pool, “you’ll see the moms and the grandmas come out and sit in saris.”

The change has been so vast that many Asians say they can hardly remember the days — just two decades ago — when there were barely 200,000 Asians in the region.

“When I first came here in the ’80s, I lived in Alexandria, and I couldn’t find an Asian grocery store,” said Song Hutchins, who founded Asian-American Homeownership Counseling in Rockville to help Asians deal with mortgages, foreclosures and the American financial system. “These days, there’s one on every corner.”

Staff writers Tara Bahrampour and David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
Dan Keating analyzes data for projects, stories, graphics and interactives. He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer at The Miami Herald for exposing vote fraud, and a team that was a Pulitzer finalist the year before for uncovering police fraud.
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