I was driving down a busy local street recently when a flash of color darted past.

Shaking me out of my rush-hour stupor were three golden women in multi-hued saris--human butterflies improbably floating across traffic on a busy suburban thoroughfare. Grocery bags in hand, the trio giggled as they headed toward a nearby apartment complex, their garments whipping the breeze like banners.

The scene's loveliness had nothing to do with my husband's decision the next week that he and I needed an evening away from our kids--and that he needed the perfect margarita to celebrate it.

Pulling up to a favorite local Tex-Mex restaurant, we were stunned to learn it had closed. Around the corner, we stumbled upon a Latin American restaurant we'd never noticed. Twenty minutes after we'd gotten our drinks, something hit me.

"We're the only non-Latinos here," I whispered.

Around us were more than 40 brown, beige and ivory patrons in the bustling Wheaton restaurant--half of whom sat sipping Coronas in a darkened section where they watched a large-screen broadcast of a Haiti vs. Cuba futbol game.

Of course, that scene had no connection to the day curiosity guided me into a local international market. Cashiers' voices had Caribbean, African and Korean lilts; shelves burgeoned with canned items, sodas and packaged goods whose brand names I'd never heard and whose preparations I couldn't imagine.

In truth, all three scenes--which took place within about four square miles of each other--are connected. So is the scene at the office of a Mount Pleasant ophthalmologist I recently visited, where many patients conversed in Spanish. Emerging from his office, the doctor greeted an elderly patient with "Senora." Taking her hand with touching courtliness, he escorted her inside.

What connects these disparate scenes is how amazing they can seem to Americans like me--and how the main way I experience them is to stumble upon them.

I grew up in Midwestern homogeneity, where nearly everyone I saw--neighbors, pastors, doctors and most teachers--were African American. When I was bused to a mostly white school at 13, that world expanded to include WASPs, some Latinos and ethnic whites with names like Mantekounis and Papakaladoukas.

Some of us aren't sure what to make of our current "multi-culti" world. I read about people across the globe voting to curb immigration; sense the fear and resentment some Americans feel toward their different-looking and -sounding neighbors. I feel the bewilderment of folks who sang "We Are the World" before their local schools actually reflected it.

Encountering my neighborhood's newest Americans, I long to ask one haunting question: "What is your America like?"

There have never been so many nations within our nation, linked and separate, distant and rub-up-against intimate. Never so many restaurants, markets, hair salons, doctor's offices and small businesses where English is barely spoken. So many enclaves where entire worlds exist, hidden in plain view.

Most of us know nothing about them.

A patient at the ophthalmologist's office, El Salvador-born Josefina Fuente, explained why physician Samuel Stoleru is essential to her America.

"First, he speaks Spanish," Fuente, 58, said through a friend, Jose Antonio, whose English is better. "Second, he's in the neighborhood. White doctors--we're not here to criticize, but their attitudes, sometimes . . . " Her words trailed off.

"I used to go to an English-speaking doctor," she continued. "But when they see that you're Latin or a different color, your treatment is different."

"If I don't like what [Dr. Stoleru] does, I can tell him."

Stoleru, a native of Cali, Colombia, who also has offices in Upper Northwest Washington and Clinton, smiled at her words.

"Most [Latino] patients tell me that, and not only patients who are working class, but those from the embassies, who speak English very well," Stoleru said. "There are things you may say that just don't mean the same thing in English."

Stoleru, who inherited his practice from his now-retired partner Lucian Bauman, a Paris native who'd traveled extensively in Cuba and Puerto Rico, sums up his feelings for his clientele, which includes nearly as many immigrants from Central America as U.S.-born citizens:

"I like the variety."

Of course, we hear more about fellow Americans who don't, whose ancestors' immigration was long enough ago for them to reject more recent seekers of democracy.

But I suspect more are like me: loving all that was wonderful about the America we grew up in, while appreciating the emerging America where more people don't look, dress or think exactly us. Hoping to learn the textures, sounds and tastes of the many Americas, even if we have to stumble onto them.

We like the variety.