banter | HOMETOWN
“But you can do a lot of remote things
Sun is the new face of immigration in
Montgomery County. He and his family
moved here in 2002 from California so
he could take a job in the burgeoning
industry of genomic research and today
he works under contract for the National
Cancer Institute as a software developer.
He has three daughters—ages 14, 6 and
4—and a wife who commutes to a job
teaching business at Bucknell University
They live in the Travilah section of
Rockville, a center of the region’s booming Asian population. One in seven
county residents has Asian origins, but
at Lakewood Elementary, which the
middle Sun child attends, the figure is
Yet something is missing in his life.
He has a good job, but his lack of language and cultural skills holds him back
from being an entrepreneur, from doing
“some stuff” on his own. Meanwhile, the
booming Chinese economy means that
many friends who stayed home are getting rich.
In a way, an old axiom has been turned
on its head. To Sun and many expatriates
like him, China—not America—seems
like the land of opportunity.
“We always thought that everyone
would want to be here and never leave
and that’s no longer true,” says Lily Qi,
who was born in Shanghai and works
for County Executive Ike Leggett on
economic development. “We’re very
mobile, we’re always looking for the
next opportunity. People are itching to
do something beyond their very predict-
I met Sun after President Obama
spoke at a ceremony in December at
the National Archives naturalizing 31
new American citizens. “We can never
say it often or loudly enough,” said the
president. “Immigrants and refugees
revitalize and renew America.”
I asked U.S. Citizenship and Immigra-
tion Services if any of the 31 were from
Montgomery County. They weren’t, but
the agency put me in touch with other
new citizens who were local residents,
including Sun. And as I heard his story,
I realized some dimensions of his life are
Like virtually every immigrant in
every country in every age, Sun is
torn between two worlds. Now 46, he
has aging parents back in China, but
also three children who are American
citizens and barely speak Chinese. He
cannot live in the same country as all of
them at once. And he’s not fully at home
in either place.
Separation from family and friends
“comes with a huge emotional cost” for
any immigrant, says Qi. “Holidays are
But China has changed since these
immigrants left. “You go back home and
you don’t feel you belong there either,”
she says. “You’re just a guest.”
As Sun’s journey demonstrates, tradi-
tional immigration patterns have been
seriously disrupted by economic and
technological upheavals. “For the whole
of American history, immigrants have
come here on one-way tickets,” says
Vivek Wadhwa, an immigration scholar
at Duke University in North Carolina.
Not anymore. No matter what his pass-
port says, Charlie Sun is really a citizen
of Cyber Nation.
That was not his goal growing up
in Shandong province just south of
Beijing. His mother was a self-taught
expert in Chinese medicine who eventually worked in a hospital pharmacy and
young Qiang (his Chinese name) would
help her gather medicinal herbs in the
That led to an interest in plant sci-
ence, and eventually, an offer to do
graduate work at UCLA. But his poor
English produced growing frustration.
“It was very hard to understand what the
teacher was talking about,” he recalls.
His financial aid package included a
teaching obligation but he failed a language proficiency test—twice—before
passing. And he hated the food, especially Italian food. “They put cheese on
everything,” he says with disgust.
Still, Sun was ambitious and clever.
When the IT boom hit California, he
switched his biology major to computer
science. When a full-time job opened up
at a small company in Los Angeles, he
dropped out before finishing his degree.
After the family moved east he realized how fractured they had become.
His wife, who taught part of the year
in Singapore, traveled on a Singapore passport. The girls had American
documents. Sun still had his Chinese
passport. “It was very complicated,” he
says with a laugh.
So last year he and his wife applied for
American citizenship. It was not the culmination of a lifelong dream but more a
matter of convenience. As long as he has
his smartphone, he is not limited by his
location or identity. Information flows
across borders in real time.
Recently a factory exploded in Sun’s
hometown and when he learned about
it on Vchat, he immediately called his
parents. They hadn’t heard the news yet.
Sun knows China has an authoritarian government. In contemplating a
return to his homeland, he sees a trade-off: economic opportunity for political
openness. And meanwhile, as a card-carrying Cyberite, he can sit in Rockville
or Shandong and pretty much have the
same conversations and do the same
deals. Except the corned beef is better
in Rockville. n
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and
politics at George Washington University
and has written a book about modern
immigration, From Every End of This
Earth. Send ideas for future columns to