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Naperville, Meet Asia: A booming Chicago suburb makes room for dim sum and ornamental swords

A couple of decades ago, Naperville’s teachers were unlikely to encounter a child carrying an ornamental sword to school, or a parent who doesn’t 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.

But these days such cultural collisions are regular occurrences in the far western suburb of Chicago.

“The 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.”

Once 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.

That population boom includes a significant migration of Asian people, many of them highly educated professionals lured by the area’s technology jobs. Naperville’s 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.

At a time when the state and national Asian populations climbed, more Asians moved to Naperville than to any other Chicago suburb.

Now, alongside one of the many McDonald’s 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 town’s old Nichols Library and put up a sign on the lawn in Chinese characters. At Naperville’s City Hall, residents will find a list of translators who speak, among other languages, Cantonese, Mandarin, Gujarati and Urdu.

“The whole community has become more diverse in many, many ways,” says Gary Karafiat, Naperville’s community relations manager, who points to the city’s jobs, schools, low crime rate and housing as reasons for the influx. “People of all different ethnic groups think, ‘Hey, that’s such an attractive community to live in.’”

Mayor George Pradel, a resident since 1939, says the 8,000-plus Asians who have arrived in the last decade are fitting right in.

“When 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. 

The scene on Maple Avenue is being played out increasingly across Chicago 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 other minority groups.

Mary Liaw, chairwoman of the physics department at North Central College in Naperville, still visits Chicago’s 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. There’s a Korean video store, an Asian beauty parlor and the Tokyo Restaurant, which serves sushi and Korean food. There’s also Susan’s 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.

“I 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.

It’s also the acceptance she enjoys as a Napervillian. Her children babysat for the littler kids in their neighborhood. Now grown up, those kids mow Liaw’s lawn. “All our neighbors are good friends.”

The scene on Maple Avenue is being played out increasingly across Chicago’s 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.

Though still small compared to the area’s 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. It’s easy to plot their distribution on a map: Just follow the jobs-rich I-88 and I-294 corridors.

Some 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.

Of the area’s 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.

Statewide, 423,603 Asians were counted in the last U.S. Census. While that’s just 3.4 percent of the state’s 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.

Outside 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 descent.

“The 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 school’s 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. “It’s an extremely supportive environment,” says Frini Sundararajan, a native of India and director of software development at Lucent.

Sundararajan 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.

Because they’re all well-educated, interested in technology and — perhaps most important — new to the area, “there’s 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.”

Ajay 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. It’s a very tight group.”

While 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.

Linda Gao, chairwoman of the math department at North Central College in Naperville and an eight-year resident, says her son’s 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. It’s wonderful,” Gao says. The white parents in her neighborhood “all value their children’s education very much, like we do. We have lots to talk about.”

Yeung, 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.

Many new arrivals have done extensive research on each school’s test scores before they go house hunting.

Even 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 school’s no weapons policy. Or when the parents of the Chinese boy named Fuk had to be gently nudged into choosing a nickname.

One 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 

minutes 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.

Those stories, while perhaps embarrassing for the people involved, show the lighter side of what happens when cultures don’t as much melt as collide.

And while there haven’t been any reported incidences of violence between white and Asian residents, not everyone’s experience has been smooth.

Michael 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.”

His 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 wouldn’t get that at all anymore,” he says.

Gupta, the Lucent marketing manager, remembers being called “camel jockey” when he was new to this country in the 1970s. But that sort of thing doesn’t happen these days, at least not in Naperville, he says. “I’ve lived 27, 28 years in this country, more time than I’ve spent in India. I feel that I’m a true American. If something is wrong, I stand up for my rights,” he says.

Interestingly, Sue says some of the longtime Asian residents like himself feel little kinship with the new arrivals. Sue’s 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.”

He 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, they’re all Republicans, conservatives,” Sue says.

Yet, while many Asians share white Napervillians’ political attitudes, Asians haven’t 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. “I’m not sure that that’s their goal. They take part in the community, but they also take part in their families.”

Jimmy Lee, assistant to Gov. George Ryan for Asian-American Affairs, says that’s 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 don’t know it’s out there.”

Still, 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. “They’ll pay their taxes, they’ll keep up their lawns. They just want a better life.” 


Stephanie Zimmermann is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.


Illinois Issues, October 2001

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