My Seattle

Five immigrants from China, Russia, Finland, France, and Eritrea share their first impressions of Seattle, when they moved here and why, and what makes them stay.

July 2, 2009

Peter Kuang

Birthplace Taishan, China
Came to Seattle January 1993
Occupation Owner, Green Leaf Vietnamese Restaurant

I was 14 years old when I first came to San Francisco from China. We are from a very poor countryside, and my parents didn’t have any money in their pockets. I had a chance to go to school, but I had to work part time at a restaurant as a bus person; clean up dishes, get some tips to help support the family and pay rent.

After 1991, that earthquake in San Francisco made the economy really bad. I watched the news that said Seattle was in the top three great cities. So that’s when me and my oldest brother drove here to take a look at it. When we got here, every day it was raining. Every day. I said to him, “Oh my god, we came to the wrong place.” But we rented an apartment and got a job at a restaurant. I started as a busboy, then a waiter, came up to management, then I set up a couple restaurants as an owner, and then I jumped into real estate.

Listen to Peter tell his arrival story:

When I was a manager in a restaurant I met my wife. I hired her as a waitress. She didn’t speak any Chinese, and when she asked me my name, I taught her my name is laogong, which is “husband” in Chinese. So she called that name to me all the time, and she got used to it. Then we started dating, and then we got married, and now we have two kids together. —Audio collected by Dan Lamont
Green Leaf Vietnamese Restaurant, 418 Eighth Ave S, International District, 206-340-1388;

Jenny Klimenkoff

Birthplace Vladivostok, Russia
Came to Seattle June 2002
Occupation Part Owner, Far 4

I grew up in Vladivostok, in Russia, which is in the far east of Russia, seven time zones from Moscow. When I was 13, I moved to Moscow for high school. I lived with my grandmother, who was very strict. But then again my parents were strict, too, so it doesn’t really matter, it’s all the same. But my dad and stepmom live here, so I have been coming here since I was seven.

I remember the first time I came. I was with my dad, and we stopped by a supermarket to get groceries. I couldn’t understand why the lights were so bright. Everything was so colorful, and there was so much food. When I graduated from high school in Moscow, my parents wanted me to come here for a year to go to the UW.

Listen to Jenny tell her arrival story:

When I first came here it was very hard for me to get used to the fact that everyone was smiling all of the time. No one smiles in Russia. Seattle has much friendlier people, and infinitely better customer service. But I thought, Jeans all the time? I just couldn’t handle it! And the weather was gray, and everyone was dressing in gray and black. Now I see more color, and definitely more interesting personal style. I do appreciate that Seattle is kind of laid back, and what I consider small-city feeling. I guess another thing that I really love about Seattle is the coffee scene. I love it, I love it. —Audio collected by Dan Lamont
Far 4, 1020 First Ave, Downtown, 206-621-8831;

Ulla Freeman

Birthplace Kuopio, Finland
Came to Seattle June 1982
Occupation Owner, Tuuli Finland

I came to America in 1976, when I was 21 years old. I had grown up in a tiny farming village in Finland, and I had visited Helsinki only once, maybe twice. It was solely my decision to leave Finland and see the world, which I did when I got an opportunity to work for a doctor in Palo Alto. I met my husband when I basically walked into his art studio one day. It was September 11, 1976.

When our oldest daughter was born in 1980, we decided to move up to Seattle and start a school, and that’s what we did. We founded the Northwest College of Art in 1982. Seeing the nature, the fir trees, the water, the fish, my first impression was: “Oh, this is like home! I’ve come to Finland!” Coming to America and seeing the Native Americans and everybody else doing their music and their dance, that’s food for my soul.

Listen to Ulla tell her arrival story:

And so now, having this location with Tuuli, I’m really blessed because all these people come to me in my store, so I don’t always even have to go looking for those relationships. If my customers learn about Finland, I learn of their culture, and that’s absolutely the reason, I think, that I have been able to stay and be happy in America, and sort of content. —Audio collected by Dan Lamont
Tuuli Finland, 1407 First Ave, Downtown, 206-223-1112

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Sebastien Le Toux

Birthplace Rennes, France
Came to Seattle March 2006
Occupation Forward for the Sounders FC

At the beginning, when you arrive in the U.S., you go out of the airport, and the cars are big, the roads are big, the buildings are big—everything here is big. You ask for a coffee, and it’s a big cup that you can stay the whole day with. So it was a lot of that in the beginning: “I know this isn’t France anymore.” And the first challenge was getting to know all of the big roads, like the 5, the 405, the 90, the 520, the 99. I was living in Tukwila and I was lost: What’s north, what’s south, what’s east, what’s west? I was always looking at Mapquest to see what was the best way to get somewhere. Now, I’m living on Whidbey Island. It’s peaceful. That’s what I prefer.

Listen to Sebastien tell his arrival story:

In my first year, I spent time with another player, Nate Knox, who was also in his first year here, so we were discovering together the city, the good places. He was my translator and my teacher, too, because I wasn’t speaking very good English. But he was from New Zealand, so at the beginning, I was talking a little bit with a New Zealand accent. So sometime, when I was saying some word—because I was asking Nate, “How do you say ‘tree’ or ‘car’?”—when I was repeating it to another American, they would say, “What are you saying?” I would spell it, and then they said, “No, you say it this way.” “Okay, okay,” I would say, “I had a bad teacher.” —Audio collected by Dan Lamont
Seattle Sounders FC,

Zerbabiel Tesfamichael

Birthplace Asmara, Eritrea
Came to Seattle August 1992
Occupation Supported Living Nurse Horizon House

My name is Zerbabiel, but I go by Zerbab.

I left, in 1985, from Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. There was a lot of killing, torture, maltreatment—you name it. So being an Eritrean and as young as I was—I was 21 then—it was not easy to live life. And war is coming closer to the city, so I feel that I have to leave for a safe place. So we found a guide who would smuggle you out of the city to Sudan. To pay the guide, my mother had to sell the gold jewelry that my father had given her.

In Sudan, I worked at an agency that processed refugee resettlement cases from Khartoum to America. I had a friend who worked with me there, and we were still having connection after he moved here. He told me that Seattle was a good place, so I took his word, and I’m very happy when I come here because it’s very beautiful. I have always been tired of the scorching sun in Sudan. On top of that, you have the dust: It comes and sticks to your sweat. Finally—I’m happy here. It’s cold, it’s always raining, the greenery is wonderful.

At first, I was kind of isolated, but it was not that hard. The fact that I had been through so many hardships and difficulty in my previous life—especially as a refugee in Sudan—this was just piece of cake. And America has been very generous to me. And this is not only the wealth, but I’m also talking about the freedom, the Constitution, way of life. All the civility, it just blows my mind.
Horizon House, 900 University St, Downtown, 206-624-3700;

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