Korean immigrants use it to tune in Seoul soap operas; for the Vietnamese, it's a source of ancient love stories. The Iranians, understandably, have a penchant for historical dramas.
And the Indians, blessed with a movie industry that outproduced Hollywood last year, can watch almost anything they like.
The home video cassette revolution has hit Washington's ethnic communities. What began four years ago as a curiosity has become a cultural force. Cassettes of foreign feature films like "Shaan," the Hindi James Bond, or "Wedding Wagon," the Korean television soap opera, are helping thousands of immigrants bring old world values into their new world living rooms."They are good for families, good for teaching children to respect parents," says Rosa Banks, the Korean-born owner of the Dong-A Market in Fairfax City, where requests for installments of the Korean soap "Wedding Wagon" are almost as frequent as those for the store's oriental food.
The serial tells of a traditional, arranged marriage, something that Banks says may be new to the children of many Korean immigrants. "It is good for the children to see this," she says.
Any Indian, Vietnamese or Korean grocer in the Washington area worth his spices knows that there is no better drawing card than a shelf stocked with the latest releases from overseas. The tapes rent for as little as 40 cents and sometimes come free with the purchase of a $20 bag of groceries.
Whatever the price, the home video showings have become weekly social events, providing solace for the homesick, nourishment for the nostalgic, painless language lessons for Americanized offspring.
"We can get 'Mein Aur Mera Haathi' Me and My Elephant for my daughter," says Indian businessman A.R. Loungani. "She is 8 years old, she knows nothing about her country, this way she can learn."
Washington does not rank high among American cities in homes with video tape recorders, but don't tell the thousands of immigrants who've purchased video players. The machines costs about $400, and even the most recent, and least affluent, of Washington's Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants have made the recorders a priority.
"People will plan and buy video equipment like they plan for a car. It's very important to them," according to Chander Vanjani, a video cassette and equipment dealer in Baileys Crossroads. "If they don't have it, they go to a relative who does."
Three years ago, the 10 members of the family of Thuy Nguyen, a sophomore at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School, chipped in to buy a video recorder, figuring it would work out cheaper than going to local showings of Vietnamese movies at $10 a ticket.
"Every day my brother goes to the video store and rents a movie. We watch it after dinner," Thuy said. Her brothers prefer Chinese kung fu movies; she likes the ancient love stories in her own language. Her mother helps her with the words she can no longer understand.
Down the street, Minh Nguyen's Mekong Center market in Arlington's "Little Saigon," rents Chinese and Vietnmase video cassettes, but Nguyen also keeps a film going all day long in back of store as a customer lure.
Elderly couples, teen-agers and children dawdle in front of the television screen throughout the day. "Families like to speak Vietnamese, hear Vietnamese, sometimes have a party," Nguyen says.
Unlike the Indians, who can boast of hundreds of video titles, the Vietnamese must choose from fewer than 15, most of them dating from before the fall of Saigon. Still, Nguyen's customers are willing to watch them over and over. The few new releases, from a California-based Vietnamese production company, are much sought-after.
Not too long ago, movie theaters were the only option for Washington's Asian immigrants in search of films or television programs in their own languages. As the tapes have taken hold, however, the area's theaters have faltered. Washington's two Indian movie theaters, longtime community centers, were forced to close.
It's hard to keep them down at the moviehouse once they've seen the tiny screen. The tapes are "cheaper than taking the whole family to the movies," says businessman Loungani.
"Whether we like it or not, it's here to stay," says Punita Bhatt, an English professor and Indian film scholar. "It's like what TV did to America in the '50s. We've gone from seeing movies in big movie houses to everyone sitting around the idiot box at home after dinner. You can characterize it, but you can't fight it.
"Before, when we had movies, going to a showing was almost a social event," says Bhatt, who used to operate an Indian film theater in Takoma Park. "You went there for the company, the films were a way of keeping in touch with the community. Now, if you don't have video, you feel cut off. When the theaters closed, people were forced to buy video . . . . Friends of mine who swore they'd never buy them, have bought them."
The video fare varies sharply from country to country. The Indians, whose homeland started the boom a few years ago by exporting cassettes of movies made in Bombay, watch avidly to keep up with their country's movie-mad culture.
The small Japanese immigrant community in Washington keeps up with Japanese television programs copied by relatives back home; elderly Chinese eat lunch watching movies on the television screen at a Baptist church in the heart of Chinatown, and commute out to the suburbs on weekends to watch at the homes of affluent relatives. Washington's most recent arrivals, Iranians and Afghanis, rent copies of television movies and variety shows smuggled out before the revolution.
"There is absolutely nothing to watch in Iran now," says Nasser Rastegar-Nejad, an Iranian-musician-turned-merchant living in Falls Church. "just religion shows." So Rastegar-Nejad rents old movies and television shows. "Dramas are most popular. Also 'Nassar eddin Shah,' " the story of an Iranian dynasty.
Despite their popularity, the tapes fail to fascinate everyone. Generally it is the youngest children, eager to adopt new ways, who resist them. "Only old people like to watch Vietnamese movies," says Minh Nguyen.
At Punita Bhatt's College Park home on a recent weekend, only one of the two teen-aged girls present to watch an acclaimed new release from India actually saw the film, and that was at the cajoling of her parents. The other daughter went downstairs and watched "Saturday Night Live."