According to the 2000 census, 256,563 foreign-born people arrived in metropolitan Atlanta between 1990 and the end of the century, changing an historically white and black society. This series tells three stories out of the thousands, focusing on immigrants who were coming of age on the rim of a new world. It is based on in-depth reporting that spanned 18 months, along with interviews with teachers, students, police, prosecutors, social workers, sociologists, public health officials, and demographers.
Dreaming Against the Odds
'Today I Feel Like I Want to Do Something With My Life'
By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 9, 2002; Page A01
ATLANTA--Nallely Ortiz watches her mother in a cloud of steam at the stove. Her mother knows only a few words of English. She sweeps the carpet with a broom, as if they still lived in a dusty colonia in Mexico instead of an apartment across from a Waffle House in suburban Atlanta.
Her mother offers vague advice -- school will give you a good future -- but she doesn't really understand what it takes.
"She's all back in the day," says Nallely, who is 16 and knows exactly what it takes. You wear bent glasses to a high school populated by creamy Abercrombie & Fitchies who blow right past you in the hallways. They think your destiny is a maid's uniform at the Red Roof Inn. Bienvenido, announces a sign hanging in the school hallway, in a gesture to the thousands of Nallely Ortizes who suddenly fill classrooms across the South.
Nallely has pierced America in ways her mother can't imagine, been subjected more closely to its cruelties and its glittering temptations.
Pigs feet boil on the stove. Nallely pines for Bed Bath & Beyond. "This place is getting on my nerves," she says.
In the South, someone new is trying to move up from the bottom. She has long brown hair, all nutmeg and hazel, born in Mexico but raised on Chick-fil-A and hopes of reaching the American middle class.
Nallely arrived in Atlanta in 1991. The city had its Deep South delicacies and its waxy magnolias, but if you were a new arrival from Mexico, the idea of Dixie meant nothing. This was the place for jobs, in one blinding low-wage landscape: Olive Garden, Nail Xpress, Vacuum World, Superhair, Two Minute Car Wash, Big K, Mattress Plus, jobs that went on forever, or at least as far as your mother's car could drive without breaking down.
Nallely's parents came to Georgia with 326,000 other Latinos, more than half from Mexico. California and Texas were already settled out. The South was an open frontier. Atlanta had the 1996 Olympics and a construction boom.
There was Sheetrock to be hung, restaurant dishes that needed washing -- and suddenly some public schools were 30 percent Latino, with low-income parents who spoke no English and teachers who spoke no Spanish.
One of the consequences, in miniature: At an eighth-grade awards assembly last year at Sequoyah Middle School in the Atlanta suburb of Doraville, the gymnasium rocked with Destiny's Child's "Survivor" as a procession of black, Asian and white students strode to the podium, parents applauding from the bleachers. The school was 48 percent Latino, but few were in the gym that morning. Across campus, seven of the eight students in the suspension trailer were Latinos.
The ascent to the middle class does not come easily. Half the Latinos who start high school in Georgia do not graduate with their classmates. In the 1990s, the teen birth rate for Latinas in the state jumped 50 percent, according to the state's public health department; it dropped 30 percent for black girls and 1 percent for white girls.
Against this scenery, Nallely Ortiz makes her moves. Her name is pronounced Na-YEL-ee. Slouchy and henna-streaked, she has a calculated air of indifference. When she smiles, she catches herself, and her face reverts to a sort of beautiful blankness. She is really a shy person, burdened by an awareness that she's a dweller on the lowest economic rung.
She speaks English with an easy southern drawl and guzzles sweet tea like a Georgia native. One of her favorite books is "To Kill a Mockingbird." Home is an $800-a-month, two-bedroom apartment north of Atlanta in a limbo land called unincorporated Sandy Springs. She crowds in with five siblings, Pampers, monster toy trucks and a little sister watching "Selena" for the 100th time. Nallely prefers the Deftones and Radiohead.
She doesn't like going with her mother to the Buford Highway Flea Market, a 70,000-square-foot immigrant colossus thumping with norteñas and knock-off consumer goods. "That place is for people who like Nike with two k's," Nallely says. "It's for the new-arrives."
But here is her American life, nine years after arriving: Her parents are divorced, and her mother sells Mexican snacks off the porch of their apartment. The family breadwinner is Nallely's oldest brother, Ruben, a full-time cook at Houston's. Brawny and red-cheeked, Ruben is the one who advises Nallely and her siblings on which classes to take or what forms to fill out. Ruben is in the 11th grade.
Their apartment gives almost no clues that four of its inhabitants attend high school: no plaques, no trophies, no books; just a painting Nallely did for art class. The primal fixation of the house is money, counted and recounted, stuffed in envelopes and bras. On a good day, the snack stand can bring in $75. Nallely's mother also caters dinner for a neighbor who comes over after work in his muddy boots, exchanging a $10 bill for a pan covered in foil.
Like an estimated half of the Mexican population in the South, Nallely is undocumented. Papers or no papers -- her family's legal status is pending with INS -- she is as woven into life here as any other 16-year-old citizen. On the Fourth of July, she can be found eating hot wings under the Confederate faces carved into Stone Mountain.
Even with a large family helping her, her future is under no one's particular watch. Her mother is more preoccupied with survival than with pushing homework. Nallely's father lives out of state. Her brother Ruben is stretched too thin. "I can't help her as much as I'd like," Ruben frets. "I have my schedule, and keeping the house going."
Nallely's guiding star is her friend Saul Avina. With red-dyed sideburns and a Lucifer chin tuft, Saul looks like a Zapatista snowboarder. He works for a domestic violence program for Latinos. His mother earns $8 an hour as a banquet server at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He would often say to Nallely, "It's time for a revolution."
Midway through her 10th-grade year, Nallely writes in an essay, Today I feel like I want to do something with my life.
One Saturday afternoon, Nallely is working at her mother's concession stand, peeling mangos and plunking them on sticks to sell for $1.50. She arranges the wobbly display tower of Mexican-packaged cookies and lime-dusted corn chips. The snacks of her past.
"This place is so lame," she says.
Liberation comes when the phone rings and it's Saul. Can I go? Nallely asks her mom in Spanish. Soon she is riding the Number 3 bus with a beaten-up $10 bill in her jeans pocket. The bus heaves down Buford Highway, the largest immigrant landing strip in the Southeast: Koreatown, Chinatown, Vietnamtown and Mexicotown, all rolled into one 15-mile stretch. The Baskin-Robbins is owned by a Sikh who renamed it Basket Rabbit.
From the bus window, Nallely can see the fresh graffiti along Buford Highway. Scrawled on the apartment complexes and sidewalks are names like Flaco, Frosty and Little Shaggy. Police study them like cave drawings, trying to decipher the latest clues in the violence between Sur 13 and Brownside Locos. A week earlier, a 16-year-old was found shot to death on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in the north Atlanta suburb of Roswell. His name was Daniel Cortez and he lived in a Buford Highway apartment complex. His father detailed cars at a Jaguar dealership.
"Doesn't anybody get that the gangsters are just trying to be known?" Nallely says.
The bus passes one apartment complex after another until Nallely pulls the cord in front of one called Plaza Station. She climbs to a second-floor unit. From the stairwell she can hear the music. Saul opens the door and takes one look at Nallely's furry platforms.
"Dude, how many Muppets you kill to make them shoes?"
Nallely smirks. "Dude, they're leopard, not Muppet."
The main piece of furniture in Saul's apartment is an entertainment center that glows over worn carpet. Four remote controls and last year's Sega Dreamcast may not qualify as success, but they count for something. As Saul and Nallely talk about which Starbucks puts the perfectly milky head on a caramel macchiato, a roach walks across the back of the couch.
They end up at Lenox Square mall that night, pacing the polished mezzanine, past Restoration Hardware, Neiman Marcus and Brookstone, where they stand outside the window and stare at a Shiatsu Massage Lounger for $3,000. Saul's T-shirt reads, "It's Better to Die on Your Feet Than To Live On Your Knees."
They take the escalator down into the greasy belly of the mall. The food court is what they can afford, and they sample everything before settling on mahogany chicken and Philly cheese steaks. Saul's red Nokia phone rings to the theme of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
"You never heard of that movie?" Saul says. "It's a classic." To Nallely, Saul knew everything important.
The next afternoon, Nallely is back on her porch at the concession stand, sprinkling chili powder on corn. Her eyes keep drifting to an apartment across the dirt courtyard, occupied by a lanky 17-year-old named Eduardo Valesquez.
Eduardo had recently taken Nallely to the Waffle House across the highway for dinner. He has long eyelashes and a burr haircut. Nallely comes up to his chin. His English is terrible, so they talk in Spanish. Nallely asks him what he wants to do with his life. "Work," he says. Eduardo has already quit school and is doing something with gravel.
The Waffle House, Nallely later thinks. "It's tacky, man."
Eduardo is not Lenox Square. He is not Radiohead. He is not Bed Bath & Beyond.
What Nallely remembers about the Mexican state of Michoacan is her grandmother's house, white and red, with a patio. When she was 6, her father and mother loaded the kids into a VW bus and crossed the U.S. border on tourist visas. The plan was never vacation; it was work. In Atlanta, Nallely's father got a job in a restaurant kitchen. Her mom cleaned houses. Nallely became a first-grader.
The early '90s were the front edge of the Latino boom, when schools were beginning to get overwhelmed by newly enrolled Spanish-speaking students. Nallely was placed in a curriculum for English Speakers of Other Languages; she remembers spending most of her time in the library, coloring. Her real English tutors were Ren and Stimpy on Nickelodeon.
In the fifth grade, Nallely was diagnosed as learning-disabled. Around the same time, her parents' marriage was souring: domestic violence, clothes strewn on the lawn, an eviction. Nallely's mother took the children to Mexico. They returned a month later through the parched brushland of south Texas. "In Texas, there was this big field and we laid under a tree," Nallely remembers. Her grandmother's friend picked them up.
Back in sixth grade in Atlanta, the tools recommended by the school psychologist to help Nallely with learning -- a tape recorder, computer and flash cards -- never materialized. Her teachers met periodically over the years, recommending that Nallely be kept in classes for the learning-disabled, which is where she remains as a 10th-grader.
When Patricia Arrieta, Nallely mother, sees Riverwood High School, set among tall pines and houses with tennis courts, it seems impossible that failure could occur in such a setting. She faithfully attends progress conferences, surrounded by a team of teachers and specialists. An interpreter explains that her daughter Nallely is failing two of six courses. Parent had little to say, a teacher notes in a report.
Patricia does not know what to say. So she wakes Nallely for school, makes sure she has clean clothes and stresses the importance of an education.
Nallely needs more. "My mind just blanks out and I doodle," she says. The letters spell EDUARDO.
The common argument used to be that pregnancy leads girls to drop out, but newer studies show just the opposite: Girls who are discouraged at school often escape by getting pregnant. The Georgia Department of Education's teen pregnancy curriculum -- "Abstinence Focused Sex Education THAT WORKS!!" -- is no match for Eduardo's attentiveness. He is tall and lean and tender. When it rains, the construction site where Eduardo works shuts down. He stays home, and Nallely does, too.
The bus stop is just a curb next to the rush hour traffic of Roswell Road. For 35 minutes one morning, Nallely stares into the blinding glare, searching for the familiar yellow shape. Finally, another kid calls it. "No escuela hoy," he says. No school today. One student goes inside a darkened apartment and wakes his groggy night-shift father, emerging with a set of car keys. Nallely hops in. They drive through lush, hilly estates in a Ford Taurus, paper license tag flapping in the wind.
Ditching what's left of first period, Nallely and a girlfriend duck into the auditorium, where a group of high achievers is settling in for a guest lecture. The speaker is Johnetta Cole, the former president of Spelman College, and her topic is "The Necessity for Thinking Globally and Acting Locally." Cole beats the drums of multiculturalism: Learning about Zapata's Mexico and Rosa Parks's American South is as important as Aristotle's Greece and Churchill's Britain.
"The world's people are here," Cole tells the students, to applause. "You are the world's people." Two years ago, the epithet SPIC was published under the photo of a student in a high school yearbook in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County. The principal offered the student a free yearbook; after parents complained, the school agreed to reprint the offending page without the epithet.
Out in the hallway, Nallely reaches into a piñata and takes a fistful of candy. "You're so ghetto," her friend Ellen chides, as Nallely unwraps a root beer barrel. Nallely leans against the wall, letting the rush press by. "What lunch are you doing today?" she asks Ellen.
"All of 'em," Ellen announces, disappearing into the cafeteria with her DiscMan.
Nallely goes to world history. The teacher passes out review sheets for the upcoming final exam. "The Age of Reformation," she announces. "Remember Henry VIII and all his wives?"
"What a pimp," a student cracks.
The teacher is steely sunshine. "We have two choices for today," she says. "We can study the questions on imperialism and nationalism. Or, I've brought a movie, 'Swing Kids.' It talks about World War II."
Nallely is doodling and says to no one in particular, "the zoot suit riot," hinting at all the knowledge in her head. When the classroom darkens, the movie begins, and Nallely goes to sleep.
She's at a Tool concert with Saul when she gets sick. They leave after the fourth song.
In the shower, the smell of shampoo makes her nauseated.
One menstrual period missed, then two. "Why do you throw up all the time?" Eduardo asks. Standing in the courtyard between their apartments, she tells him. She had lied about birth control. She had thought so often about going on birth control that it took on a phantom reality. Eduardo isn't mad. They walk to the gas station for sodas.
Nallely waits until she is at church to tell her mother. Patricia had not allowed herself to think that Nallely could be sexually active. Her mind goes to logistics. Nallely shares a bed with her mother and a younger brother. Where will a baby go? What about school?
"I'm not quitting school," Nallely says.
She is still a girl. She still swings her younger brothers over her head and leaps in her apartment complex pool with her friend Ellen and runs home in wet clothes across the asphalt, barefoot and laughing. As the summer lengthens, Nallely can no longer fit into her hiphuggers. She wants to go to Ozzfest with Saul but he tells her that cigarette smoke and the mosh pit would be bad for the baby.
Saul submerges himself deeper in his crusade. He's trying to raise money for Caminar Latino, the domestic violence program he works for. He's also traveling to the onion fields of south Georgia to help migrant workers.
A corporation in downtown Atlanta is sponsoring "Hispanic Day" for its employees and Saul lands a spot on the program to make a pitch for donations.
The auditorium of the BellSouth skyscraper is decorated with travel posters of Acapulco. Rented mariachis stroll around with guitars. Four of Saul's colleagues from Caminar Latino have agreed to perform a traditional dance. The young women duck into a bathroom to change out of their jeans and emerge as señoritas with flowing skirts. The trumpets begin.
This version of Mexico is nothing like the one on Buford Highway or Roswell Road where Nallely lives. The folk-fair happiness is too much for Saul. He cups his hands and yells, "Shake that money maker!"
Saul lets another one fly, this time louder. "Si se puede." Yes you can.
And again. "Si se puede." So loud people turn to look.
As the music ends, the emcee calls for a big hand and turns to the dancers. "Thank you very much," he says, his voice deacon-smooth. "A little bit of Latino, right here at BellSouth."
Nallely's water breaks a month early. Her mom isn't home, so a neighbor loads Nallely into the back of a car. Eduardo follows. The U.S. citizen named Sebastian Ortiz is born weighing 5.6 pounds. Already the 11th-grade mother and her infant son have something in common: Both were born preterm with low birth weights.
Sebastian has a thicket of black hair and long pink fingers. A nurse is bathing him when she notices Eduardo watching through the glass. "This is your baby," she says, and Eduardo begins to cry.
Visitors crowd around Nallely's bed. Saul is there, and Ellen from school, and two teachers, including Mrs. Anderson, who finds Nallely so astoundingly calm "that maybe that's the way she expected her life to go."
Life with Sebastian: Apartment K2 drifts off to sleep each night to the hospital-issued Beethoven-for-babies CD. Nallely's mother is worried about money. She cooks more catered pots of tripe and chicharones to sell around the apartment complex. The neighborhood Mary Kay lady, who is Mexican and wears black leather instead of pink, enlists Patricia to sell cosmetics. The days are counted out in sticky coins and crinkled bills.
As a citizen, Sebastian is eligible for all of the things Nallely never was: nine cans of government-subsidized milk a month, with cereal, cheese, eggs and juice when he's older. She also applies for PeachCare for Kids, Georgia's insurance program for low-income children. She imagines that she'll return to school and send Sebastian to a nearby day care called Creme de la Creme, not knowing that Creme de la Creme charges $1,115 a month.
When she takes Sebastian out in public, people lean over to see him and Nallely feels special. Another girlfriend of hers also has a baby, and the four of them go to Wal-Mart for studio portraits.
Mrs. Anderson sends homework packets from school so Nallely won't fall behind. The plan is to return for the second semester. Eduardo is now working 3 to 11 p.m. as a prep cook, so he'll be able to watch Sebastian during the day. "I don't want my baby to have a dumb mom," Nallely says. "I don't want to be working at a restaurant."
But Sebastian puts her in a state of sleep-deprivation. At dawn one winter morning, Nallely is lying in bed. She has an hour to make it to the bus stop. Sebastian blinks beside her in a powder-blue crocheted suit, so sweet-smelling and warm that opting for the cold fluorescence of first-period biology seems cruel.
"Que pasa, calabaza?" Nallely whispers to her son. What's up, pumpkin?
She slips on a shirt printed with the words LUCKY GIRL and pulls up the blinds. Biology will begin without her. Downstairs in the living room, the television gets tuned to PBS. "Dragon Tales" slides into "Reading Rainbow."
An ice storm moves in on Atlanta, frosting over the Microtels and Petsmarts, Nailtiques and Star Cuts. It's too cold to take Sebastian out. Saul Avina calls with reports from the outside world. Nallely says she's staying home "24-7." Sebastian hardly cries, but the tension between Nallely and her mother plays out in silence and denial. Her brother Ruben has a new, $9-an-hour job in the kitchen of a restaurant that serves nouvelle Southern cuisine. "Fried chicken is our signature dish," he says.
On his night off, Ruben sits at the kitchen table, yawning with fatigue from juggling work and school. His sister, Neiva, in ninth grade, brings him her schedule for next semester. "I'm on the college prep," she says, letting a comic beat pass. "I'm just kidding."
Ruben looks over the form.
His sister says she may take French.
"I know French," Ruben says. "Hollandaise. Bearnaise. Crème brûlée. Sauté."
Nallely is sitting in a chair against the kitchen wall, jiggling Sebastian on her knee and holding a baby bottle. "I'm going crazy," she says.
That Friday night, her friend Fritzy Beltran comes over. Fritzy has butterscotch-dyed hair and recently dropped out of 10th grade. "Too much drama in that school for me," she says. Nallely and Fritzy walk up to the Chevron station in their platform shoes, teetering as if on the brink of their lives, which they are. Back at the apartment, Nallely puts on some music, and the living room vibrates, with the girls dancing on the carpet and Sebastian giggling as the bass lines thump his crib.
Nallely goes back to Riverwood High only a few times her 11th-grade year. Sebastian develops asthma, and Nallely and Eduardo pull a few all-nighters in the hospital. Nallely takes a job in a submarine sandwich shop.
She catches the Number 5 bus to work. Sometimes she walks in the weeds along Roswell Road, the footpaths beaten into the red clay by all the others before her. She tries to stay positive but her boss is worried about the smallest details. "He's, like, pepper on the right, salt on the left," Nallely says. "It's like, nobody cares." After a month she quits.
But this is a family that knows how to keep going. Their legal papers come through. Ruben graduates from Riverwood High with a technical degree in culinary arts. His aunt weeps with joy and his mother wonders if she will lose her son to adulthood. After the ceremony, the owner of the restaurant where Ruben works treats the entire Ortiz family to dinner
The apartment complexes along Roswell Road hang banners that advertise "free rent" in Spanish. In the atmosphere after 9/11, employers aren't as quick to hire workers without documents, and overtime has dried up. There is a hint of desperation to the move-in specials. Nallely, Eduardo, Fritzy and another girlfriend with a baby decide to rent a two-bedroom unit for $800 a month. Eduardo is a busboy. Fritzy does hair. Their other friend works at Target. The apartment is an experiment in survival: everyone under 20, two babies, old couches and Ramen noodle dinners.
Summer brings rain and arguments with Eduardo over who's going to cook. Nallely hates being a cliché. She had avoided the Buford Highway Flea Market because she didn't want to be marked as dusty and naive. She flaunted her connoisseurship of American culture. And now she fears that she's becoming what she swore she never would -- a statistic.
Eduardo loves the three of them going to the park on Sundays. He hovers over Sebastian, checking his diaper or rocking him to sleep in his long bony arms. Eduardo wants to be an official family and get married. Nallely is not ready. She clings to her independence. "No," she tells Eduardo.
Her mother encourages her to go back to school, offering to watch the baby during the day. Surprise people, she says.
Nallely does. "People can't really tell you you can't do anything if you have raised a kid," she says. She returns to 11th grade. Saul calls to tell her the latest. He has a new tattoo, an intricate Mexican totem pole on his left forearm, with narrative panels. "Nobody knows how I got to Atlanta," he says. "I'm trying to tell a story, who I am as a person."
A few weeks later, Nallely applies for an after-school job at Publix.
It's cold and misting the day she goes to the supermarket to see about the job. By the time she emerges a half-hour later, a full rain is coming down. The cashier's uniform is teal, and she starts in five days.
The Weight of a Family's Hopes
Parents' Dream Leaves Little Room for Being Average American Teen
By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 10, 2002; Page A01
ATLANTA -- Orchid delicate and tottering around on cork platforms, Amy Nguyen carries a green backpack that could flatten a pack mule. It's loaded with textbooks, backup reading glasses, a calculator, binders; all the gear needed for a well-planned ascent. Amy's parents expect her to become a doctor.
Her mom works in a Vietnamese nail shop, giving $18 pedicures and dumping dirty footbath water while customers leaf through Cooking Light magazine. Her dad fixes car windshields for a living. All hopes are riding on their 17-year-old daughter.
"People will call you Doctor, not Miss," her father tells her, in Vietnamese.
Amy feels the weight of 10,000 fleeing boats. To add even more pressure, she attends a high school in the new immigrant South where Asians have reset the standards for academic excellence. So she jots down quiz dates in her daytimer and tries to unlock the clues to W.H. Auden. She holds a 3.5 grade point average. Her pencils are sharpened, and her bag of Cheddar Ruffles is taped over to preserve freshness. But the fact remains that in her senior year at Duluth High, she is only in trigonometry and not in calculus.
When Amy imagines America, it's not wearing the white coat of a doctor.
It's an existence where being average would be okay.
There are moments when Amy pulls off the role of American teenager: flying across the sunbaked suburbs of Atlanta, P. Diddy blasting on her MP3 player and a bottle of Victoria's Secret body splash rolling around her Honda.
Then her cell phone rings. "Hien!" her dad says, in his high-pitched warble, using the name he gave her in the shack of a maternity clinic in the Vietnamese village of Tan Phu. Her full name is Bich-Hien, which means something like "innocent jewel."
The innocent jewel lives in a place called Gwinnett County. For decades, the white-flight suburb fenced itself off from the urbanism of Atlanta 15 miles to the southwest, banning mass transit from crossing its borders. Then in the 1990s, 95,000 immigrants arrived, and the white wonderland of Gwinnett County became the rim of the new world.
Latinos are 11 percent of the half-million people living here, but it's the 7 percent Asian population that is most audacious: in entrepreneurship, in school performance and in the leap toward the middle class. What was once white suburbia is now a Bladerunneresque topography of strip malls with the bling-bling of Asian cash registers: Shanghai Beef 7 Ways and Indian DVD stores, Vietnamese nail shops and Korean dry cleaners waging their $1.50 shirt wars.
Against this backdrop, Amy Nguyen's parents believe that anything is possible. Their daughter knows better. And yet she keeps pushing. Midway through her senior year, she pulls into her driveway from school. "I don't want to be an embarrassment to my family," she says. "You don't understand. White people are two parents and two kids. Asians are like the whole extended family. Something happens, everybody knows."
The Nguyens left Vietnam in 1991 with nothing more than a set of twined-together suitcases. With the help of a Catholic aid organization, they landed in California's Orange County. Amy's mom got a job doing nails, and her dad delivered take-out food on a bike. The Nguyens adopted cheery American names. Huan became Tony, Sau became Lisa and Bich-Hien became Amy. The Nguyens crammed in with relatives, but they were destined to always be renters in California's expensive real estate market. In 1998, Tony Nguyen heard the economy was booming in the Deep South and he went on an exploratory trip, calling home with the amazing news that he bought a split-level house with creamy carpet for $135,000 in Norcross, Ga.
By working six days a week and splitting the mortgage with relatives who live downstairs, the blue-collar Nguyens can almost touch the middle class.
What remains is the final quest: Amy Nguyen, M.D.
The plan had been explicit for as long as Amy can remember: college, medical school, physician's residency and then marriage. Her parents sprinkle her with cautionary tales, reminding her of her cousin who fell in love during medical school and was two years late becoming a doctor.
By her parents' timetable, Amy should start dating around the age of 26. "Dude, that so sucks," says her best friend, Nadia, a Bangladeshi. Amy downloads sappy ballads about two hearts becoming one and uses them on her voice mail greeting. For now she can only imagine. She is impossibly petite, a size 0 in girlie-girl capri pants that match her purse. She has glossy black hair and teacup skin. Her femininity delights the magnolia brigade of secretaries in the front office at school.
"Isn't she just the cutest thing?" the principal's secretary beams one day, as Amy walks by.
In reality, Amy hopes that she's born a boy in the next life. As a girl in this life, she is hardly allowed to do anything. When she asks her father for permission to meet friends at Barnes & Noble or Regal 24 cinemas at night, the answer is always the same.
"Khong cho," says Tony Nguyen. No way.
While America is the place that allows Tony Nguyen to launch his family's aspirations, it's also full of dream-killing distractions. Amy's job is to study.
But by the end of her senior year -- a year of Saturday nights at home with her parents and Chinese action movies -- the truth begins to glow inside her. Guess what, Mom and Dad? she wants to shout. Maybe I'm not smart enough to be a doctor.
On a warm May evening, Amy drives alone to First Baptist Church in Duluth, a white-columned brick behemoth that's hosting Duluth High's annual academic awards program. As much as Tony and Lisa Nguyen stress education, they rarely attend school functions. They are always working. Besides, they think Americans celebrate the most modest of accomplishments. Good grades are expected.
Amy arrives at the church, finding a seat in the back next to a friend. She listens as the math and science winners are announced. Asian. Asian. Asian. The succession of Buddhist and Hindu students march up to the altar to claim their honors under a giant wooden cross.
Finally near the end of the program, Amy hears her name.
Only 11 years earlier, she was eating boiled eggs in a refugee camp in Thailand. Duluth High is full of hard-luck immigrant stories: Mexicans, Vietnamese, Sudanese, they all had their journeys, across the sea or on the floorboards of a car at midnight. Why, Amy wonders, is so much expected of Asians once they get here?
At the podium, she receives a gold sash for making the honor roll all four years of high school. Not scholarship money to Georgia Tech or recognition for her work in the biology lab, but a gold sash.
Outside, in the church parking lot, she finds her Honda, and tosses the sash on the seat.
Near Amy's school there is an Applebee's restaurant, decorated with local pennants and sports memorabilia to give the feel of an authentic neighborhood tavern. But nostalgia collides with reality. Hanging over one booth is a photo of the 1996-97 Duluth High Wildcat band. Nearly every chin-strapped face is white. Duluth High is now 19 percent Asian.
When Amy started Duluth as a ninth-grader, she had just arrived from Southern California, where half the country's Vietnamese population lived. Georgia was a culture shock. "It was just blah," Amy remembers. At Duluth, the few Vietnamese students there seemed like "FOBs," or fresh-off-the-boats. Amy eventually gravitated toward a middle-class Indian crowd.
"Why do you hang around so many Indians?" asks her ninth-grade brother, Alen, a droll little Viet hipster with a buzz cut.
"Shut up, Alen," Amy says. "Don't be racist."
In 2001, Asians averaged the highest SAT scores at Duluth, 1158 compared with 1091 for whites. Amy's friends are partly responsible. With their blue-black hair, the Indians shimmer, physically and intellectually. Most are in advanced placement and gifted classes. They bemoan Southern life, like the branch of the county public library that has a large selection of Christian books but a lone book on their religion, entitled "Hindu Myths."
Two weeks before graduation, most seniors are starting to coast, but Amy sits in economics class, poised and attentive. The teacher is asking for suggestions on how to gather birth rate information in Third World countries.
"Put beepers on everyone," a student calls out.
"Yeah, like Outback Steakhouse!" says another.
Between classes, the seating chart for graduation is posted in the hall, and Amy scans for her name. Her friend Nadia, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt that says "SLACKER," races up. "Where are we sitting?" Amy sees her name: second row, honors section. Only a handful of the 449 names on the chart are Latino. "Maybe they got tired," Amy says. "Maybe their English isn't good. Maybe they are not pushing themselves." Amy can't imagine such a scenario for herself. Her dad barely speaks English and has a 10th-grade education, but he made inquiries to relatives in California about the finer points of SAT scores. In traditional Chinese culture, where Vietnam has its roots, mandarin scholars held the highest status in society. In America, the well-educated also sometimes get the keys to a Lexus.
Amy's parents hardly acknowledged the biggest accomplishment of her senior year. In a social kingdom dominated by whites, Amy made the homecoming court. Her friends recognized the feat as a grand slam for Asians. Her parents? They'd never heard of homecoming.
Amy persuaded her father to escort her. Neither had ever been to a high school football game. Standing on the field under the lights that Friday night with the homecoming court, Amy wore a pink gown. When her name was called, she took her father's arm. It was all too weird for Tony Nguyen. "I am to be your boyfriend?" he asked, nervously.
Homecoming passed, and the focus shifted back to academics, specifically, the SATs. "Do your best," Amy's parents encouraged. Tony would say this with his hands still dirty from fixing windshields. Amy barely cracked 900. Her parents were sad. Though not sad enough to surrender the doctor dream.
Her grandparents arrive from Vietnam for a visit. They wear pajamas all day and nap on the living room couches, getting zonked on Vietnamese kiddie videos that Amy's 18-month-old sister watches. They are dazed by the blankness of the Woodbine Station subdivision, where garage doors inhale and exhale minivans.
Moving from California, Amy's family bypassed the immigrant apartment ghettos off Buford Highway and proudly settled here in the land of identical everything. To pay for it all -- the house, the minivan, the consumer appetites of their three children -- Lisa Nguyen works six days a week in a nail shop. She wears a white lab coat as if she's a highly trained Swedish aesthetician instead of someone who scrubs feet and breathes chemicals 10 hours a day. When she gets home, her lipstick is gone and her shoulders are sagging. She earns $400 a week. Her nail shop is located in a former Smoothie King.
The number of nail shops in Georgia has tripled in the last 12 years, with most of the state's 6,000 nail techs now Vietnamese. The discount concept has democratized a once-luxury service for consumers, but it chews up people like Lisa Nguyen. At 37, her eyes aren't as keen as they used to be. Lately, she's earning less money because customers prefer the younger nail techs. The Vietnamese women in her shop use names like Kim or Ann or Debbie, but they know only a few key phrases in English.
"What you like, honey?"
"You pick color."
The Nguyens want to open their own nail shop, but the Atlanta market is saturated. So they start making overnight scouting trips to South Carolina and North Carolina, with their Americanized scout Amy riding shotgun. "We have to find where there are more Caucasians, rich ones," Amy says.
Sundays are spent together: Catholic Mass, lunch out and then grocery shopping at the Asian markets on Buford Highway. "Everything is family!" Tony Nguyen says proudly. He insists that Vietnamese be spoken at home and Saturday nights are reserved for a traditional dinner cooked by him.
Sociologists used to think that becoming an instant American -- dropping cultural and ethnic identity -- guaranteed the best pattern of adaptation for an immigrant. Now many believe the opposite is true: Immigrants who keep these ties strengthen the psychological well-being of their children.
But Amy sees America as more than just a staging ground for accomplishment. From the first moment, she had loved everything about this place, especially the unabashed emotions expressed by its inhabitants. People here didn't care if they were caught laughing or crying or kissing. In her culture, life is lived in avoidance of shame.
On the last day of high school, cars honk in the Duluth High parking lot, along with all sorts of other shame-inducing behavior involving bikini tops and shouted obscenities through sunroofs. Amy is supposed to drive straight home. Standing orders. Her parents are at work, dad loosening windshields from their rotten rubber bindings and mom bent over another set of acrylic nails. Amy's friends are driving out to Lake Berkeley in search of a party.
Sometimes, Amy reasons, you just have to go for it.
With the stereo at sonic levels and her friend Nadia in the passenger seat, they are flying out to Lake Berkeley. In the bright May sun, the strip mall scenery of Gwinnett County falls by. "Let me get this straight," Nadia shouts over the music. "I am not depressed over losing his sorry butt. I am over him." The object of her distress is two cars in front, an Indian classmate bound for New York University.
Nadia can't believe whom she's been paired to walk with at graduation. "I've got a white chick I don't know!"
As they get closer to the lake, the road swoops in and out of shade. Members of the convoy stay linked, as they have since their freshman year. Almost everyone is scattering off to distant colleges. But for one last moment they are bumper to bumper, an improbable Asian caravan buzzing through the Georgia pines.
It turns out they are three days early for the party. They decide to regroup at the Taco Bell in town.
"Nothing is planned," Amy shouts, her hair flying in the wind. "That's what's so cool!"
Amy will not be scattering off to a distant college. Her low SAT scores wiped out her chances of attending the University of California -- or the University of Georgia. She receives an acceptance letter from Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. The campus is 20 miles from her house. She has never seen it, but she declares her major: biology.
On the morning of her high school graduation, she takes her gold honors sash from its plastic pouch. She is the first in her family to earn a diploma. But as her dad reminds her, there are many steps to go. She drives alone to the Gwinnett County civic center. She finds her friends, who are draped in enough sashes and pins to look like cadets. When the music starts, they march in pairs into the arena. Parents lean in with cameras, some with tears streaming, some holding signs that read "We Are So Proud" and others shouting names in joy, but the seniors maintain a quiet majesty, keeping stride, chins up.
The assistant principal is a native Georgian who spent three weeks practicing the pronunciation of the names of graduates. He begins with the honors students.
"Natalie Rose Anatu."
"Joseph Bukau Audu."
On and on it goes -- more names, songs and speeches -- until finally the senior class president says, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we're free at last!" The arena rumbles, and caps slice through the air.
Amy hadn't seen her parents in the audience. Clutching her diploma, she wades into the crowd. Tony Nguyen is standing on top of a chair, looking for his daughter.
"Dad!" Amy says, and Tony climbs down and hugs her. The grandparents, squinty and creased, give her an envelope containing $50. Lisa Nguyen, who has not had a Saturday off in more than a year, is holding a dozen pink roses.
The Nguyens blaze off to a Vietnamese restaurant on Buford Highway. At a large table, the waiter keeps coming: chrysanthemum tea, hot pots of catfish soup, okra, rice, dipping sauces and piles of green basil. Delicately, Amy turns over her bowl and says in Vietnamese, "Please eat, grandmother," a sign of respect that allows the meal to begin.
Amy and her mom are together in the kitchen one night. Her mom says she should learn how to cook for when she's married. Amy seizes the moment. "What kind of husband do you see me with?" Amy asks.
"Someone who's good in business," her mom says. "You can't live off happiness."
Amy's father had been so poor in Vietnam that he borrowed his wedding suit. "What about you and dad?" Amy asks. "You didn't have any money."
"Yes," Lisa Nguyen says. "But you are in America."
She doesn't know that her daughter has already fallen. He is 18, Vietnamese and Chinese. Amy spends hours talking to him on her cell phone, which she sleeps with under her pillow. He wants to take her out on a date. She explains that her parents haven't quite adjusted to America. "They want to raise me till I'm old," she tells him.
In the pull between the two worlds, Amy often wonders who she really is. But on a few days, there are no doubts. One Saturday morning she stands in front of her bedroom mirror; hair swept up, light powder on the face, diamond earrings, and most important, a silk ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese dress. A neighbor has asked Amy to be a bridesmaid in her wedding.
When Amy arrives at the bride's house, the porch is already strung with a banner that says "Vu Quy," which sort of means "today is the day the daughter of this house is to be married." A white stretch limo rolls up. The groom's party tumbles out, and three tuxedoed men carry silver platters up to the house. A red cloth is draped over a roasted pig. The lawn is full of people. It's 9:30 in the morning in a cul-de-sac in Gwinnett County.
The adviser from the groom's family stands on the front porch and asks the adviser of the bride's family for permission to enter the house. The guests crowd into the living room, where the main decorative touches, displayed like van Goghs, are four large framed college diplomas.
In Vietnamese, one of the advisers prays to the ancestors for blessings on the young couple. The groom is a pharmacist, and the bride is an accountant. Each wedding gift is held high overhead. The adviser makes an announcement, and all the guests start reaching for their wallets. "We are very spiritual," a guest whispers in English to a visitor, "but we are very practical."
Red sticky rice and Krispy Kreme doughnuts are served, and soon everyone sets out for Our Lady of Vietnam Catholic Church for the priest-officiated wedding service.
Music from the choir drifts outside. The limo driver is leaning against a railing on the church steps. Mel McHenry specializes in Vietnamese weddings. He also teaches at a nail academy, which is how he got in with the Viet community. A black man from the South, he spends a lot of time thinking about how a group of immigrants can make the leap from refugee boat to a limousine in 25 years. He lights a cigarette.
"See, we're born with it," McHenry says of Americans. "We're used to flipping a switch. The bulb burns out and we're pissed off. Them? What switch?"
McHenry dusts a piece of lint from his tuxedo. "There is no such thing as my money," he says. "The money goes to the house. They save that money. You watch the men come out of this church. They're in those $5 Kmart block shoes. They come trompin' out, can't hardly walk."
Later that night, the reception is held at Happy Valley Seafood Restaurant, a Chinese banquet hall with gold dragons on the red velvety walls. All the Vietnamese wedding receptions are held at Happy Valley because the parents like it. Many of their children would rather be in a hotel ballroom in Buckhead. But it's here on Buford Highway they always come. Amy sits near the entrance, signing in the 370 guests, including her parents.
Happy Valley is jubilant bedlam. Waiters crashing into each other with platters of jellyfish soup and chicken feet. Guests taking to the stage to sing Vietnamese karaoke. Old men clinking Heineken bottles, their hands stamped with tattoos from the reeducation camps.
Amy imagines her own wedding. She turns to the other bridesmaid and says, "I'm gonna have my dad walk me down the aisle."
The tranquility is wrecked a few weeks later when Tony Nguyen opens his daughter's cell phone bill. There are hundreds of calls to one particular number. Tony is so furious that he hurls the cell phone into the dining room wall.
"Now that you have a boyfriend," he tells Amy, "you'll probably only go to college two years."
Georgia State University is an urban campus of 27,000 students a few blocks from the state capitol in downtown Atlanta. No ivy, no gargoyles, no rolling green, but Amy has found a quiet place to study in the chemistry department.
Her hair is newly chic, cut to her shoulders. She's taking four courses in her freshman fall semester. The one class she struggles with is biology. Her dad tells her to stay focused and she'll figure out the mysteries of science.
Amy has given up asking for permission to go out on a date. She doesn't want to disappoint her father. "You can say I have no guts, but I can't do it," she says. "Deep down, I'm traditional." College is only four years. She'll do what she's supposed to do. Live at home. Forgo love. Study hard.
She starts working in a Chinese doctor's office, filing records and translating for the Vietnamese patients. She gets a credit card for Banana Republic. Her parents finally find a nail shop to buy in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs. They name it New Top Nails.
As for Amy Nguyen, M.D., adjustments are being made.
She is thinking of becoming a dentist.
Two Jobs and a Sense of Hope
A Young Man From Mali Discovers a Tough Life on a Time Clock
By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 11, 2002; Page A01
Atlanta -- The toilet is stuffed with paper and flooded. Adama Camara retrieves the mush from the water. He's assigned to clean the men's restrooms on Concourse A of Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. Swabbing the floor, he's always careful not to let the strings of the mop touch the wingtips and loafers around him. He puts in new paper towels. He wipes down the latrines and then mucks out the stalls.
Adama does not complain. He will only say, "The people stink."
He speaks four languages but works quietly. He's often mistaken for a black man in the Deep South's sense instead of a newly arrived immigrant from west Africa. One day he's scouring the men's bathroom across from Gate A-19 when a black American walks up. The stranger looks at him and asks, as if to shake Adama awake, "Man, why do you work in here? This is nasty."
It took Adama a while to figure out what the man meant, why he was so bothered.
Displayed under glass at the Atlanta airport is Martin Luther King Jr.'s preacher robe, his watch and his handwritten letters with words scratched out, the words begging for a new day to dawn.
Here it is almost 40 years later and a young black man is scrubbing toilets in the gateway to the South.
For Adama, an immigrant from the threadbare country of Mali, cleaning bathrooms for $6.23 an hour is better than marching off to the diamond mines of Sierra Leone.
"You've never tasted collard greens?" This question has been asked of Adama many times, and the asker is always shocked, as if Adama has failed a test.
When Adama came to Atlanta, part of the past decade's wave of immigration to the South, he was swept into a narrative he was unprepared for. He stepped off the Greyhound with just one suitcase but with two centuries of baggage.
He didn't realize that his job emptying garbage cans was full of symbolism. It wouldn't occur to him to be angry. He has no antenna for racial slights.
One afternoon, a black American co-worker of Adama is sitting in a motorized cart parked on the busy concourse. A white man comes rushing up and gestures to the car. "Where do these things get dispatched?"
"Dispatched?" the worker says.
The man's face falls. "I'll use another word," he says, condescendingly.
Adama is unbothered by such exchanges. "No problem," he'll say, which can irritate his co-workers, who have suffered such exchanges for years.
With a workforce of 44,800, Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport is the largest employment center in Georgia. Such a huge job bank is not lost on the flood of new immigrants. But after the terrorism of 9/11, the airport adopted tighter security measures, and anyone without the right documents couldn't get security badges. Many Latinos vanished. Africans are filling the void.
Africans make up only 2 percent of the 4.1 million people in metro Atlanta, but their numbers are increasing. They come from Ethiopia and Nigeria, Somalia, Mali and Sierra Leone, all parts of the continent affected by war, famine or political upheaval. They are wresting the airport taxi business away from American cabbies, many of them black. They're working fast food and customer service. Some are hesitant to share details of their past. "I ran from a dictator," says an African wheelchair pusher. Most are young and just desperate for work.
Adama's home of Mali in west Africa has been tormented by drought and dictatorship. Mali was once a kingdom on the gold route and later a French colony known as French Sudan. Democratic since 1991, Mali is an impoverished country of 10 million people.
Adama is from the capital city of Bamako. But if asked he will say Nara, because the custom is to claim the village or city where your father was born. In Bamako, Adama lived in a cement house with his father, his father's two wives and their 13 children. No phone, sporadic electricity and not much of a future.
In 1999, at age 19, with a high school education, Adama left Mali for New York. He had relatives in Brooklyn. He worked at a car wash during the winter, earning $3.75 an hour. He was called "nigger" for the first time, by a black customer who didn't like the way Adama buffed his car. In the spring, Adama took a bus to Atlanta. He had remembered it from watching the 1996 Olympics, and it seemed like a place where his hands would thaw.
Adama landed on Buford Highway, the heart of immigrant Atlanta, crashing at a cousin's apartment. On his second day, he saw a group of Mexican men standing on Buford Highway and joined them to wait for pick-up work. Next, he got a job at a car wash, where the boss made the immigrant workers clock off during slow spells and clock back on when business picked up. Finally, Adama heard that Africans were getting hired at the airport.
Now the airport is his whole existence. He has two-full time jobs on Concourse A. He begins at 6:30 a.m. as a janitor for Initial Contract Services. From 3 to 11, he works at the Budweiser Brew House and Smoking Lounge, where he is a member of the utility crew.
His 16-hour work days are numbingly boring and physically grueling. He sleeps four or five hours most nights and takes 300 milligrams of Motrin for his aches. In seven months of working two jobs, he has never called in sick.
"On my day off, I have tea," he says, which means that when he has the morning off, he walks to Publix to buy a baguette and returns to his sparsely furnished apartment and boils water. He drinks his tea from a small glass tumbler, Arabic-style, with lots of sugar.
He is 6 feet 3 with dark skin and a round scar on his right cheek. He walks in a forward-leaning way. He wears a leather choker threaded with an African shell. His English is lilting and accented by French. His smile is so wide it consumes his face. The young women who work at the airport volunteer their phone numbers, and he ducks his head shyly, without bravado, and they find this totally exotic.
On Buford Highway, he shares an apartment with three other Malians. Adama's bedroom is military neat. He sleeps on the floor because that's what he did in Africa. A large digital clock is beside him. When the alarm goes off and he is nauseated with fatigue, he fixes one thought in his mind. "I think about the American dollar," he says. He splashes water on his face, says his morning prayers and then throws himself into the blades of another day on Concourse A.
The Atlanta airport is the busiest in the world, with 220,000 fliers arriving, departing and connecting each day. Adama is right: The people stink. They ball up dirty diapers, leave blood in the sink and use Starbucks cups as spittoons.
Ron Willis is a corporate vice president of Initial Contract Services, the cleaning company hired to oversee most of the 5.7 million square feet of the Atlanta airport terminal complex. To Willis, a strapping Southerner who loves University of Georgia football, cleaning is math, and math is profit. Twenty years ago, it took an hour to clean 2,500 square feet of commercial space. Now, 5,000 square feet can be cleaned in an hour. Riding vacuums and trash compactors have become more efficient, but the main reason is that people are working faster. They have to. Flights are departing earlier in the morning and landing later at night than ever, shortening the window of cleaning time for the overnight crew.
"Think of America in the last 20 years," says Willis, his voice rising with passion. "We've improved in the world because of our productivity." At ICS, the janitorial crew has gone from what Willis calls "traditional" -- mostly single black women -- to 70 percent immigrant.
"Adama's from Mali," Adama's black American supervisor says one morning to a higher-up boss, who is white.
"It's a town called who?" the boss asks.
Adama is assigned the two busiest men's bathrooms on Concourse A. This is Delta territory, with monstrous ebbing and flowing of crowds. It takes Adama 15 minutes to clean a bathroom. He cleans each of his two bathrooms 12 or 13 times a shift.
Clocking in at dawn, Adama walks through the airport, which still has its night calm. The wide concourse gleams from a fresh cleaning. Yawning passengers are just starting to arrive. Adama passes the Cinnabon, wafting sweet and floury, but he is oblivious, silent, beaten back by exhaustion from his late job.
By mid-morning, he emerges from one of his bathrooms and the concourse is thick with travelers. Adama steers his cart carefully. His khakis are splattered with toilet water and sink water. He bumps into Lucille, a gray-haired Initial worker who's pushing her own yellow Rubbermaid bag on wheels. "Roll on my foot so I can go home," she says to him, and he smiles. A man walks up to a trash can between them, leans over and spits.
Adama goes off to clean Gate A-19. He sweeps around the feet of a man eating a Twix bar. When it's time for his 15-minute break, Adama takes off his plastic gloves and walks down to the Initial office. It's behind one of the scuffed, unmarked doors that line the concourse. Inside are lockers, two vending machines, a desk, some chairs. Mostly it is a refuge from the public. Two janitors are talking about bottled water, a concept that still astounds.
"I throw it away all day long," says a worker named Banita. "Water, water, my, they waste it."
Another employee named Pamela reports how a man yelled at her earlier in the morning for tossing the remains of his food in the garbage. "One little crumb," Pamela says, shaking her head.
They are the invisible, and it bothers them.
"These people, they walk on the concourse; they don't see you; they don't move," Banita says. Adama silently eats his Chick-fil-A biscuit. He checks the time. One minute left on break. He crumples his wrappers and returns to the concourse. He likes his co-workers but feels no solidarity at living in history's shadow together. "We are different," he says, diplomatic enough to say this in private.
Most of the Americans think the Africans are arrogant. "They want to be authoritative," says a janitor named Viola. "You are supposed to look up to them. They say, 'no problem,' but they still got this attitude. Now, that's a problem."
Viola glances toward Adama, who is rolling his cart into a gate area. "Adama, though, he sweet."
The plane to Boston has just left the gate. Newspapers are everywhere. Fried rice is scattered on the floor. A Seattle's Best Coffee has spilled and Adama bends over the mess. CNN drones overhead. "In terms of tech, the chip sector is a mixed bag today." Two fast-food workers on break discuss employment options. Wall Street Deli is holding a job fair.
Quitting time is 2:25, but by 2:15, most of the Initial workers are in the office staring down the time clock, their purses wrapped around their wrists and their bags bundled for the fleeing. Adama is still out there cleaning.
After he clocks out, he returns to the men's bathroom he has just cleaned. He goes into a stall with his backpack and strips out of his blue Initial T-shirt. He puts on a green polo with a logo from the Budweiser Brew House and Smoking Lounge. That job starts in 28 minutes.
"Adama, number eight, Bud Lite!"
The Budweiser Brew House and Smoking Lounge is an escalator ride up from Concourse A. Adama works on the utility staff, changing kegs, washing glasses and busing tables. Set among Anheuser-Busch and St. Louis Cardinals souvenirs, there's a lively bar, nachos, good music and an endless supply of ashtrays, all of which Adama wipes out a hundred times a shift. A strange atmosphere for a Muslim. But familiar.
He takes a mop into the men's room. "There is pee on the floor," he says. "Sometimes when you drink, you don't know what you do."
A blonde lights a Marlboro Gold as the bartender slides her a Cape Cod. A big man talks on a cell phone while wolfing two chili dogs. Some guys on stools order another round of Sam Adams.
The majority of the bartenders and servers are black American. The majority of the utility staff is African. Adama's two closest friends work here, Yacouba Goita and Malick Diallo, both from Mali. Their sense of duty is out of proportion with their lowly tasks. They act like maitre d's, not busboys. They patrol the tables, speaking in Bambara, Mandingo or French, their white rags through their belt loops.
A boss lays a hat on Adama's head that says "Budweiser King of Beers." The sound system blasts Grace Jones's "Pull Up to the Bumper" as rain pelts the tarmac outside. The back walls are all glass and jets circle like shark fins. Bad weather means flight delays. The bar is hopping. "Adama, white zinfandel," the bartender shouts and Adama turns for the stock room. He has tried to explain to his father what he does, but how do you explain this? By 10 p.m., he has been working for nearly 15 hours. His back and arms throb from bending over a low sink to wash beer glasses. His clothes and skin smell like ashes.
Last call at the Brew House. Adama mops out the place. Getting back to Buford Highway where he lives requires a train ride and then a bus ride that take an hour. It's nearly 1 a.m. when he lies down on his lion blanket on the floor, the alarm clock set for 5:05 a.m.
"Dynasty" is the curse of Adama's life. With reruns of the TV show broadcast in Mali, Adama's family thinks he is living high in America. In reality, he earns $1,800 a month after taxes. He saves $800 and sends $300 back to Mali, where he's essentially supporting a family of 17.
Lately, family members have been calling more frequently with their wish lists. He is a human hotline in the land of plenty. One morning he's cleaning the men's bathroom across from Gate A-19 when his cell phone rings. "Alo?" he says. It's his brother calling from Mali. Daddy says send more money.
Africa occupies a unique psychic space in Atlanta, a city known as the black capital of the South and home to the nation's fastest-growing black middle class. At the airport, the underground walkway to Concourse A features a permanent exhibit of art from Zimbabwe. Adama rides the escalator past the photos of wild hippos and giraffes, untouched by the gesture to the motherland. "In Mali, the animals are in the zoo," he says.
The cultural disconnect works both ways. Schree Potts-Ramsey is the operations manager of the Budweiser Brew House and Smoking Lounge. Two years ago, when she hired her first African employee, Potts-Ramsey, a black American, didn't know what to expect. "Have you ever seen 'Coming to America'?" she says, referring to the Eddie Murphy movie about a fez-wearing African prince who visits America. "Okay, I'm thinking that, and elephants."
As Potts-Ramsey hired more Africans, it fell to her to give them a crash course on American customs. They may speak four languages and know obscure facts about the 53 countries in Africa, but someone had to tell them about deodorant.
"No, sweetie, not once a week, once a day," Potts-Ramsey explained. And women? "Never dinner on a first date. Always lunch or brunch."
What is brunch? they wanted to know.
They are always setting out to explore America. Once they asked for directions to Indianapolis. They claimed they were going on their day off. "Yeah, right," Potts-Ramsey said. The next time they clocked in for work, they presented her with a coffee mug that said "Indianapolis."
A few of the black American employees complain to Potts-Ramsey about hiring so many Africans, citing their weak English. History may have split them up centuries ago, but there is no natural cleaving back together here at the Brew House.
Attempts are made. One afternoon, an American waitress named Yvonne says to a Nigerian employee, "Did you hear about that lady from Africa who they tried to bury up to her neck and then stone her?"
"No, I didn't hear about that," the Nigerian says.
"Well, Oprah's gonna help her," Yvonne says.
Potts-Ramsey is a more revered figure than Oprah in some parts of Mali. Her photo hangs in several houses, sent home by the Brew House Africans. They are grateful that she gave them $8.75-an-hour jobs and coached them through life here. One Saturday, she was at home in the suburbs when the doorbell rang. There were Yacouba and Malick. "We are here to clean," Yacouba announced. They even took down the ceiling fans and cleaned the blades.
The next day, the doorbell rang again. This time, Yacouba and Malick were dressed in African garb, brilliantly colored grande boubous and silk hats.
"Where y'all goin', all like that?" Ramsey asked. They were accompanied by 15 platters. "We have prepared dinner for you," Yacouba said.
Adama has "the grip." Aching, fever, soreness everywhere. He is exhausted. His one-hour commute to the airport from Buford Highway adds an extra two hours to his double-shift workday. He decides he must leave the immigrant life of Buford Highway and move closer to the airport.
He settles on a black neighborhood on the perimeter of the airport in the city of College Park. The move takes him deeper into the experience of being a black man in America. He's walking home from the bus stop one night when a white police officer stops him. Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Show me your I.D.
Adama isn't scared or angered by the incident; he is more unnerved by the occasional sound of gunshots. His apartment complex has steel bars and dyed-red bark thrown on the ground instead of grass. Jets scream overhead. Adama lives with two other Malians who split the $650 monthly rent. Across the street, a Nigerian runs a convenience store called Quick and Cheap with bullet-proof glass and gouging prices: $1.29 for the can of peas Adama buys.
Adama is so careful with money that he examines a pack of Wrigley's before buying it. But he wants to buy a car. With a car, he would be able to take a girl to dinner instead of meeting her at Plane Delicious at the airport food court.
Raiding his savings account, he buys a 1994 Mazda. The car conks out while he's driving home from work. The problem is grave, he learns the next day, when a shade tree mechanic from the Ivory Coast comes over with Yacouba and Malick to diagnose the car. It's the engine. No one told Adama that a car engine requires oil.
The mechanic advises that a used engine will cost $800. Adama goes upstairs to his roachy apartment. Condoleezza Rice is on TV. Adama turns off the sound and plays his music. He is homesick. He looks out the window and sees run-down apartments identical to his own. He puts his head in his hands.
He calls Yacouba and says he's catching the train up to Buford Highway. Yacouba, who has recently discovered bowling, goes to the Asian market and buys a frozen lamb's head. Soup is on the way. Malick comes over. They all watch the news in French on satellite TV. They pop in bootleg dance videos from home, the bouncing sounds of Salif Keita competing with the accordions from the Mexican apartment next door. Ten miles from Turner Field, the tiny seeds of Mali.
When it gets late, Yacouba makes a pallet for Adama on the floor and hands him an alarm clock.
"He is lonely where he lives now," Yacouba says.
In Mali, Adama knew one white person, a Mormon missionary. That's one more than he knows in Atlanta, after 14 months of living here.
His neighborhood, with its gospel roller rink, neckbone specials, fish houses and tabernacle churches, begins to feel more familiar. He recently saw two skinny boys from Togo kicking a can down the sidewalk.
"More Africans be staying over here now," Adama says, the schoolhouse English he learned in Mali giving way to the local blend.
Adama begins dating an black American woman named Machika Lowe, who's 23 and works at the Oscar Mayer Hot Dog Construction Company at the airport. "You want to go to a '70s party with me tonight?" Machika calls to ask on a Saturday night. Adama has no clue what she's talking about but somehow their relationship works. He takes her to Buford Highway and treats her to an African hair braiding.
Ask Yacouba what his future holds and a look of total peacefulness crosses his round face. "We are going home," he says. Adama? He's not so sure. Maybe he will save enough money to open an African merchandise kiosk in Underground Atlanta. One thing is certain. He wants only one wife. In America, how could you ever afford two?
Instead of the '70s party, he sleeps for 12 hours and arrives at the airport the next day at dawn. Sunday mornings on Concourse A have their own gentle rhythms. Master Shine the shoe shine man plays gospel music. Can we get some church in here? Shirley Caesar sings.
A janitor who works with Adama rolls his cart of trash by and tips his chin. "Hey, doctor," he says. Adama knows every inch of this place, dirty or clean. He's taking classes at the airport to apply for a job as a $10-an-hour customer service assistant. But for now he bends over a garbage can slimed with Manchu Wok noodles. Just as he removes the bag to put in a new one, a man dumps a plate of food into the unlined can. Adama picks it out by hand.
The world of garbage is unrelenting, but pride is still eked out wherever possible. One of Adama's colleagues comes to work with a set of French wrap nails and a beauty parlor 'do. In the Initial break room, a supervisor tries to advise another woman on what kind of car to buy. She's tired of the bus. He suggests an economical Kia. "I won't ride in a Kia," she says.
By the time Adama clocks off, Concourse A is knotted with travelers and strollers and rolling luggage. It's Sunday and that means no second job at the Brew House. Adama disappears into the men's room and comes out wearing a T-shirt that says "Dirty Dirty," a reference to the rap genre known as the Dirty South. He walks through the terminal and then up the MARTA train platform, where he boards a car. Except for two Dutch tourists with backpacks, everyone has on a stained uniform. The 3 o'clock shift workers have punched out. Adama sits next to a contingent from Popeyes.
After one stop he gets off at College Park and waits for the bus. A young man with a gold tooth gives him a nod. "I like your shirt, man," he says.
"Thank you, man," Adama says, giving a smile that is unreturned.
The day is wan and pale. Summer is gone but there is no fall, only a lack of color and heat. On the bus to Flat Shoals, Adama sits under a Church's Chicken ad. Three pieces and a biscuit for $1.99. Someone has scrawled on the seat in front of him, DA SOUTH.
The bus passes pines and red clay, and rumbles over railroad tracks. The windows are open. A breeze blows across the silent passengers, anesthetized by fatigue. Adama closes his eyes and falls asleep.
1. Describe the life experience of any one of the immigrants portrayed in this Washington Post series. How have they been impacted by their life in America? How do you think immigrant people like them will impact American society, culture and political values?