Naperville, meet Asia
Amid its Big Mac drive-throughs and big lot car dealerships, a booming Chicago suburb makes room for dim sum and ornamental swords
by Stephanie Zimmerman
couple of decades ago, Napervilles teachers were unlikely
to encounter a child carrying an ornamental sword to school, or
a parent who doesnt understand that an art shirt is a painting
smock, or a boy getting teased because his first name is Fuk, a
good luck word in Chinese.
these days such cultural collisions are regular occurrences in the
far western suburb of Chicago.
world is changing, says Miriam Yeung, curriculum coordinator
for the English as a Second Language program in Naperville School
District 203, which counts among its students Indians, Pakistanis,
Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Indonesians, Cambodians,
Thais, Vietnamese and Laotians. This is happening not only
in Naperville, but elsewhere in the country.
a quiet prairie town, and in 1980 a growing suburb of 42,346 people,
Naperville has ballooned in the last two decades. The DuPage County
suburb had 85,351 residents in the 1990 U.S. Census and 128,358
in the 2000 count.
population boom includes a significant migration of Asian people,
many of them highly educated professionals lured by the areas
technology jobs. Napervilles Asian and Pacific Islander population
was 1,179 in 1980 and 4,133 in 1990. In 2000, when Asians were counted
separately from Pacific Islanders, there were a whopping 12,380
Asians in Naperville, or about 9.6 percent of the total population.
a time when the state and national Asian populations climbed, more
Asians moved to Naperville than to any other Chicago suburb.
alongside one of the many McDonalds or car dealerships, a
visitor is increasingly likely to find an Indian restaurant, a Korean
video store or a Chinese grocery selling freshly prepared dim sum.
On venerable Washington Street, there are trendy painted giraffe
statues, a Restoration Hardware shop, the hip-looking Samba Room
and the Chinese-oriented Truth Lutheran Church, which took
over the towns old Nichols Library and put up a sign on the
lawn in Chinese characters. At Napervilles City Hall, residents
will find a list of translators who speak, among other languages,
Cantonese, Mandarin, Gujarati and Urdu.
whole community has become more diverse in many, many ways,
says Gary Karafiat, Napervilles community relations manager,
who points to the citys jobs, schools, low crime rate and
housing as reasons for the influx. People of all different
ethnic groups think, Hey, thats such an attractive community
to live in.
George Pradel, a resident since 1939, says the 8,000-plus Asians
who have arrived in the last decade are fitting right in.
we first got here, there was nothing but farms and I had no vision
that things would look like they do now, the mayor says.
Liaw, chairwoman of the physics department at North Central College
in Naperville, still visits Chicagos Chinatown occasionally.
Not that she needs to. The Asian strip mall on Maple Avenue, just
outside town near Kennedy Junior High, has everything she needs.
Theres a Korean video store, an Asian beauty parlor and the
Tokyo Restaurant, which serves sushi and Korean food. Theres
also Susans Place, which serves everything from grilled cheese
and corned beef to moo shu pork and Szechuan chicken. The crown
jewel is the Central Food Market, which stocks aisle after aisle
with Chinese candies, Japanese cookies and Korean kimchi, as well
as dried seaweed, cuttlefish, noodles, sushi, grains, Korean cabbage
and enoki mushrooms.
feel very welcome here, says Liaw, who came to the United
States more than 30 years ago from Taiwan and moved to Naperville
in the 1980s. But she says the warm feeling comes from more than
just the Asian influence she sees in town.
also the acceptance she enjoys as a Napervillian. Her children babysat
for the littler kids in their neighborhood. Now grown up, those
kids mow Liaws lawn. All our neighbors are good friends.
scene on Maple Avenue is being played out increasingly across Chicagos
suburbs, which saw a surge in Asian migration in the last decade.
Asians moved from the city to the suburbs at a higher rate than
any other minority group and have established themselves in such
places as Schaumburg, Skokie, Hoffman Estates, Mount Prospect and
Glendale Heights. Many others, like Liaw, have bypassed the city
entirely and moved straight to the suburbs.
still small compared to the areas African-American and Hispanic
populations, the Asian population is the fastest-growing in the
suburbs, says Max Dieber, director of research services for the
Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. Its easy to plot
their distribution on a map: Just follow the jobs-rich I-88 and
65 percent of the total population of Asians lives in the suburbs,
about the same rate as for the Chicago area population as a whole.
It probably has a lot to do with them being economically driven
and not discriminated against, Dieber says. By contrast, many
more African Americans and Hispanics have remained in Chicago.
the areas burgeoning Asian population, the fastest-growing
group is Asian Indians, which includes Pakistanis. In Naperville,
Asian Indians account for about 41 percent of the Asians, while
Chinese account for about 34 percent. There are smaller numbers
of Koreans, Filipinos and other Asians.
423,603 Asians were counted in the last U.S. Census. While thats
just 3.4 percent of the states total population of 12.4 million,
their numbers are up substantially, from 282,569 or 2.5 percent
of the statewide population in 1990. In the six-county Chicago region,
Asians make up about 4.6 percent of the total population. In Naperville,
they are about 9.6 percent of the population.
Chicago, there are some working-class Asian enclaves, such as the
Vietnamese-Laotian-Cambodian presence in the Elgin area. But the
Asians who have settled in many of the western and northwestern
suburbs are middle- to upper middle-class professionals who share
the same dreams about suburbia as their predecessors of mainly European
population [in Kane, DuPage and Cook counties] is immense,
says Robert Wheeler, interim associate provost at Northern Illinois
University in DeKalb and chairman of the schools Presidential
Task Force on Asian Americans. There are a lot of students.
They are bright, well-motivated their parents care about
education. In the Naperville area, some of the biggest-drawing
employers, before the recent economic slump, have been Lucent Technologies,
Motorola, Tellabs and Amoco. Jobs in high-tech industries, which
recruit in countries such as India and Pakistan, account for many
of the more than 8,200 new Asian residents in Naperville over the
past 10 years, the highest raw growth of any suburb. Its
an extremely supportive environment, says Frini Sundararajan,
a native of India and director of software development at Lucent.
is involved with the Asian American Association for Advancement
at Lucent, a 1,200-member employee organization. The group educates
its members in local corporate culture and exposes the larger community
to Asian culture. It holds mentoring programs, career seminars and
drama, music and food events. Members include Chinese, Indian, Pakistani,
Taiwanese, Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese employees.
theyre all well-educated, interested in technology and
perhaps most important new to the area, theres
a certain amount of bonding that goes on, Sundararajan says.
If we were in China or India, it might be different, but here
we see a lot more in common.
K. Gupta, a transplanted Indian and a marketing manager at Lucent,
agrees. I think that diversity brings out the best in all
of us, Gupta says. We work very closely. Its a
very tight group.
their parents find professional acceptance, Asian children in Naperville
have their own support systems. Children from Chinese families have
their choice of several weekend Chinese schools where
they can keep alive the spoken language, character writing and culture
of their parents.
Gao, chairwoman of the math department at North Central College
in Naperville and an eight-year resident, says her sons Saturday
afternoon Chinese class at Kennedy Junior High was just one reason
she felt welcome in Naperville. When I moved to Naperville,
it just had a settling feeling, that I can settle down here. Its
wonderful, Gao says. The white parents in her neighborhood
all value their childrens education very much, like
we do. We have lots to talk about.
who is with District 203 where 10 percent of the students are Asian,
finds that many Asian families choose Naperville precisely because
of the schools.
new arrivals have done extensive research on each schools
test scores before they go house hunting.
so, there are plenty of chances for misunderstandings, such as when
a Sikh boy from India had to stay out of school for a week while
his parents were persuaded that his ceremonial sword would violate
the schools no weapons policy. Or when the parents of the
Chinese boy named Fuk had to be gently nudged into choosing a nickname.
Korean parent, after receiving a letter from a teacher asking her
to provide an old shirt to be used as an art shirt, called Yeung
in utter confusion. There was a long silence on the phone
and the parent says to me, I looked up the word art
in the dictionary and I looked up the word shirt in
the dictionary, but there was no art shirt, Yeung recalls.In
another incident, several
into a meeting where Yeung was discussing the ESL (English as a
Second Language) program, the parents raised their hands in exasperation.
What is ESL? they wanted to know.
stories, while perhaps embarrassing for the people involved, show
the lighter side of what happens when cultures dont as much
melt as collide.
while there havent been any reported incidences of violence
between white and Asian residents, not everyones experience
has been smooth.
Sue, now a second-year law student at Northern Illinois University,
spent much of his childhood in Naperville beginning in the mid-1980s.
When I went to junior high, there were very few Asians,
Sue recalls. In the yearbook there were maybe six of us.
parents, who are of Chinese descent but were born in the United
States, never sent Sue to the weekend Chinese schools, instead wanting
him to become more Americanized, he says. Though Sue was a third-generation
American, some of the white kids called him such names as chop
saki and told ethnic jokes. I would get made fun of
by the kids. Now, because there are so many Asians in Naperville,
you wouldnt get that at all anymore, he says.
the Lucent marketing manager, remembers being called camel
jockey when he was new to this country in the 1970s. But that
sort of thing doesnt happen these days, at least not in Naperville,
he says. Ive lived 27, 28 years in this country, more
time than Ive spent in India. I feel that Im a true
American. If something is wrong, I stand up for my rights,
Sue says some of the longtime Asian residents like himself feel
little kinship with the new arrivals. Sues family has spent
as much time in Illinois as some of the entrenched Irish or Polish
politicians made famous in Chicago. They stay separate,
he says of the new and old Asians. I
think it has to do with being Americanized and blending in.
says that while the suburb has grown more cosmopolitan, I
still think of Naperville as more white, Leave It to Beaver,
conservative. Some of the longtime Asian residents have strived
for that ideal. Most of my Asian friends, theyre all
Republicans, conservatives, Sue says.
while many Asians share white Napervillians political attitudes,
Asians havent jumped into the local political scene in earnest.
One is serving on the transportation advisory board and one is on
the library board. Very, very few have volunteered for boards,
Mayor Pradel says. Im not sure that thats their
goal. They take part in the community, but they also take part in
Lee, assistant to Gov. George Ryan for Asian-American Affairs, says
thats true across the state. I think in a lot of ways
it is kind of a cultural thing, he says. Some of it
may also be due to the fact that they dont know its
the Asian residents of Naperville and other suburbs stand a good
chance of fitting in with these historically white towns. Strip
away race, and they are people who want nice homes, well-paying
jobs and a good education for their children.People really,
truly are the same everywhere, Yeung says. Theyll
pay their taxes, theyll keep up their lawns. They just want
a better life.
Zimmermann is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Issues, October 2001
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