By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Katie Xiao emigrated from China when she was 4 and always thought of herself as Americanized -- until she started dating.
Subtle cultural clashes with Caucasian or Latino boyfriends led to unhappy breakups. It made her realize she's more Chinese than she thought. Now she wants to meet a man of Asian descent.
She has recently gone to a chocolate tasting in the District and a cocktail mixer at Arlington County's Zen Bistro, both catering to Asian Americans and immigrants. She spent Valentine's Day weekend making contacts at a Harvard Business School conference called "Asia in a Whole New World."
Sociologists and demographers are just beginning to study how the children of immigrants who have flowed into the country in recent years will date and marry. The generation that is coming of age is the most open-minded in history and living in the Obama era -- where hues mingle in classrooms, nightclubs and the White House. Conventional wisdom has it that they will begin choosing spouses of other ethnicities as the number of interracial marriages rises.
But scholars delving into the U.S. Census have found a surprising converse trend. Although interracial marriages overall have increased, the rate of Hispanics and Asians marrying partners of other races declined in the past two decades. This suggests that the growing number of immigrants is having a profound effect on coupling, they say.
The number of native- and foreign-born people marrying outside their race fell from 27 to 20 percent for Hispanics and 42 to 33 percent for Asians from 1990 to 2000, according to Ohio State University sociologist Zhenchao Qian, who co-authored a study on the subject. The downward trend continued through last year, Qian said.
"The immigrant population fundamentally changes the pool of potential partners for Asians and Hispanics. It expands the number and reinforces the culture, which means the second generation . . . is more likely to marry people of their own ethnicity," said Daniel T. Lichter, a sociologist at Cornell University.
Increasingly, singles are turning to a growing number of niche dating sites on the Internet, such as http://Shaadi.com and http://Persiansingles.com. Locally, one of the largest social networking groups, Professionals in the City, has expanded its repertoire of lectures and wine-tastings over the past year to include "speed dating" nights for people of Asian, Latino or South Asian descent.
Michael Karlan, Professionals' president, said targeting ethnic groups makes sense in the Washington area, which has more than 1 million immigrants. He teamed with the local South Asian networking group NetSAP for a recent event at Gua-Rapo in Arlington that was a noisy sellout with more than 90 attendees.
The 20- and 30-somethings drawn to these events say they have a deep yearning to connect with someone who shares their roots, yet they are conflicted about it. As children, they felt divided loyalties, growing up with one foot in their parents' home country, the other in the United States. Now, as adults, they wonder: Would I be happy with someone as American as I am, or a recent immigrant?
"People grow up the entire time rebelling to our parents, doing everything we could to fit in and spending the majority of our time running away from the traditions and our heritage," said Bhavna Pandit, a political consultant of Indian descent who lives in the District. "Now I'm 29 years old, and I actually care about this stuff." Like many women in the Washington area, she says it's difficult to find a nice guy. And because she's looking for an Indian man, it's harder -- they are in short supply in the Capitol Hill circles she runs in.
Even minor issues can become a big deal, singles say, such as a boyfriend who was wearing a T-shirt with a risqué slogan on it when he went to meet a woman's conservative Iranian parents. One 27-year-old woman is a successful energy financier who goes to clubs in Georgetown but believes an American man wouldn't understand her Indian values. She still lives with her parents in Tysons Corner, and they follow tradition by pooling their salaries as a family.
Researchers spent a decade following 3,300 children of immigrants in the New York region as they navigated adulthood, which led to a study published last year called "Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age." They followed both the "second generation" children born in the United States and the "1.5 generation" -- children of immigrants who came as youngsters -- who were Dominican, Chinese, Russian Jews, South Americans and West Indians.
Researchers found that their subjects were constantly struggling with the desire to be open to people of all backgrounds vs. family expectations, and their own desires to sustain their culture. Most paired with others who shared similar racial or language backgrounds.
Many offspring of immigrants have tradition-minded parents who forbade them to date in high school. Now those same parents are pressuring their children to marry soon after they graduate from college. One Arlington graduate student, 25, fields telephone calls from her mother on the subject daily; she had one date recently, and her mother was already referring to the man by a pet name, which roughly translates from Chinese as "Little Cabbage."
"They make little comments, like, 'Have I found anyone?' and 'We just met our friends who have grandchildren,' " said Rich Park, 33, a Korean American from Annandale. "I want someone who understands what my life story is. I'm the oldest son, so there are some responsibilities I have to do, like be the communicator between my sibling as well as my cousins. If my parents need anything, I'll be the first to be asked."
Their forebears often met spouses through family introductions or arranged marriages. Now families are spread over the globe, and modern love seekers don't want a mate whom their parents found in a note tacked on their temple's events board. The researchers behind "Inheriting the City" found their subjects to be far more open-minded than their parents, whose views could be affected by racial or cultural bias in their home countries.
On a recent night in the back of the dimly lit Zen Bistro and Wine Bar in Arlington, Park and Xiao were among about 30 singles who gathered on bar stools and low-slung leather couches to chat. Karlan moved through the room at four-minute intervals, telling the men when to switch seats. Participants took notes on their prospective dates; they would learn later through an anonymous e-mail system whether they had a match.
One whom Xiao met in recent weeks stands out: a Korean American lawyer about her age. She has seen him a few times.
She is starting to feel "kind of nurturing" toward him. Recently, for example, they were having cocktails at the bar at Zaytinya in downtown Washington, and his jacket collar was mussed. She reached over to smooth it.
She likes his funky black glasses and sturdy physique and the self-deprecating way he writes his e-mails. ("You'll probably find this really boring but . . . " he sometimes writes, prefacing a brainy thought. )
That's very Asian, she thinks. It feels like home.