Twelve-year-old Phong raced into his family's bare Wheaton apartment one day and announced to his mother, Truong Ngoc Diep, "You know what happened? Mike talked back to his mother!"

Diep, who fled to the United States with her husband and children from Vietnam in 1975, shook her head and smiled.

"You know, I insist my children speak Vietnamese at home, because in our language the children address the elders using certain words of respect," she said. "I don't want them to lose that, ever."

Diep sadly concedes, however, that she is fighting an uphill battle.

As much as the new immigrants are internationalizing Washington, they are being Americanized by it.

They come here trying to transplant their old values and traditions only to find that in many cases they must compromise and subordinate them -- and in some cases discard them.

Without their "own" neighborhoods here, the new immigrants rely on occasional festivals, restaurants, a few movie houses, religious services and social gatherings to keep fresh the memory of the cultures in which they were raised.

Thousands of immigrant families who have come to the Washington area in recent years find the longest and most difficult battle is not locating a job or a home but keeping traditions alive.

"It's an identity problem," said one priest who works with Hispanic immigrants and families. "Am I an American, or am I a Latin?"

Nowhere does this tension between the old culture and the new crackle with more intensity than within the family -- between husband and wife, and between foreign-born parents and their more rapidly Americanized children. a

"In their home countries, there was often a clan-type relationship with friends and family in the village," said Mary Allman, an official with the Montgomery County Social Services Department. "Everyone sort of took a share and responsibility for raising the children. Here the child is left alone more because both parents worked and there are not the close, clan-like relationships to compensate. The child assimilates quicker, learns the language quicker and the parents feel very uncomfortable."

Consider Frank Borsas.

He was five when his family came to Washington from Greece. Now, he is 17 and thinks of going away to a university in New York. His parents say no. "In Greece, you know, the men live at home until they get married," he says.

Or Martha Gonzales.

She fled with her family from Cuba in 1960. Much of her spirit is still there, and she never gives up trying to convince her 19-year-old son, Rey, to attend Sunday mass. He refuses to go.

"He wants to be like his American friends who don't go to church," she says sadly. "But I know his faith is the same. He still has his crucifix in his room."

In an environment that demands assimilation, the Americanization of the children often suddenly turns family relationships upside down. Children find themselves working as interpreters. Parents become dependent on them and as a result are sometimes scorned.

In the Borsas home in Silver Spring, neither Ioannis (John) Borsas nor his wife Evriklia speaks fluent English. Their three adolescent children speak English and Greek flawlessly.

The children handle virtually all communication with the outside world, while the parents, who work as a tailor and a seamstress, are confined to contacts within the city's Greek community.

"This language barrier creates a wall of separation," said Demetrois Stavrakas, who works with newly arrived Greed immigrants and their problems. "It's an unknown world out there. The parents worry about what their children are doing outside of the home, and the children suffer from peer pressure within their schools. Sometimes they rebel against the parents and say, 'That's old country values. This is how we do it here.'"

The normal concerns of American parents are tremendously amplified for immigrants. None of the Borsas children, for instance, has ever attended public schools here because of their parents' fear of drug use and the permissiveness that allows children, especially girls, freedoms unheard of in their native Greece.

For Vietnamese refugees who have come here, there are added problems. In Vietnam, the social fabric of the family is intimately woven from the eldest to the youngest member.

"In their culture," said Lin Nemiroff, supervisor of the Indochinese Refugee Program in Montgomery County, "a person who is older is worthy of respect simply because of the person's age. But in our society, the emphasis is on youth and the rights of the individual.

"It doesn't take long for the children to begin talking back to the parents, and frequently children in their late teens talk about moving out of the house to be on their own like their American acquaintances. In Vietnam, three and four generations live together, and when someone marries, the wife moves right in with the rest of the household."

The pressures of acculturation are almost equally hard on marriage. Many couples who might have remained together for life in their native countries find themselves in divorce court of before criminal judges as the result of child or wife beating say attorneys and social workers. j

"It's usually much easier for the woman to find work here than the man," said Lilly Santos, a legal assistant in a Washington law firm that among other problems handles private domestic actions. "The men can't handle the reversal of the traditional role as provider. And then there is television, which is always showing American women with a great deal of freedom.

"I have heard men saying that it is all because of the culture. Their women change. The man becomes jealous -- he's already frustrated because he can't find a good job -- and he tells the wife he doesn't want her to wear slacks or makeup. Dresses have to be a certain length."

Within five to seven years, Santos said, the wife begins to consider the inconceivable: divorce or separation. And she is given constant support from her coworkers, who tell her that she doesn't have to put up with all of those problems in the United States.

One Bolivian client the firm had told Santos that her problems with her husband began several years ago when she began watching the largely feminist-oriented television program "Everywoman."

"My husband said that it was all wrong and that I shouldn't watch that kind of thing," she said. As she became more and more convinced that she did not have to submit to male domination, the problems grew until finally, she decided to seek a divorce.

Similar problems affect Vietnamese here, according to Nemiroff, and as a result, "We see a lot of men who are very depressed. They never leave the house, see old friends, and have a hard time finding and keeping jobs. We see a lot of drinking and gambling problems among them now."

For some families or individuals the pressures are simply too much to handle, and if they can they return to their homelands. There is no longer any accurate measurement of just how many do this, but one of the many generally overlooked historical aspects of immigration to the United States is that it always has been, to a significant extent, a two-way street.

When such things were measured, between 1908 and 1957, U.S. immigration service statistics indicate that more than 30 percent of the immigrants who came to this country eventually gave up on the American dream and went home again. INS demographers have suggested that, at least through the 1960s, the precentage remained the same.

Those who stayed, or their offspring, eventually followed the inexorable path toward assimilation.

But immigration is not a phenomenon that ends quickly. Once started -- and it was late to start in the direction of Washington -- it tends to grow. One immigrant finds a city to his liking and writes home. His relatives come, and then their friends, and then the trickle turns to a stream.

For the foreseeable future, more and more will be arriving in Washington every day. And as they do, Washington will continue its emergence as an international city.