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Clash of the Enclaves: Asian Americans in Suburbia

New book on globalizing suburbs shows how longtime residents and governments struggle to deal with newcomers.

By Christopher Cheung 26 Mar 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here and follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

The American dream of the suburbs is a white one.

Popular depictions of North American suburbia have persisted over the decades: office parks, car-oriented shopping malls and plazas, houses on postage-stamp lots and the white, middle-class Leave It to Beaver families that dwell in them. California’s tech empires have been added to the inventory of suburban imagination, but there is a diverse reality that has been largely ignored.

Out of the mainstream American eye are communities like Fremont, a “majority-minority” city in Silicon Valley where you can find the Islamic Society of East Bay’s newly renovated mosque and school, the Naz8 Cinema that shows Bollywood films on eight screens daily, a lake (supposedly with good feng shui) where seniors practice tai chi and martial arts and an assortment of supermarkets, banks, tea shops and other mom-and-pop businesses run by immigrants.

Willow S. Lung-Amam — an assistant professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland — brings life in North America’s suburban global gateways front and centre in Trespassers?: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia. It’s a history of how the suburbs became so diverse, but also the conflicts that arose when demographics changed and middle-class whites were forced to share cornerstones of suburban life — from schools to neighbourhoods — with newcomers of other cultures.

Lung-Amam chronicles how white North Americans deal with difference, the demographic shuffle between cities and suburbs and, quite simply, how immigrants and minorities make home day-to-day in suburbia.

The book mostly focuses on American “ethnoburbs” (ethnic suburbs), with a few appearances by Canadian ethnoburbs outside the cores of Vancouver and Toronto. But Canadian readers will greatly benefit from Lung-Amam’s analysis of how natives react to newcomers and the role of the state in these ethnoburban conflicts. Lessons from our neighbours to the south will help us understand what’s going on in our globalizing burbs and our struggle with multiculturalism.

The story of suburbia

Race has always played a big role in suburbia’s history. The post-war urban flight has been called the white flight, as middle-class white Americans departed cities as large numbers of European migrants and blacks were moving in. Dreamy, spacious, homogenous suburbs with good schools were a draw, but also an escape.

Suburbs became, essentially, white enclaves. It’s not only newcomers that self-segregate.

A few decades later, cities started to fall back into favour. Around 1977, scholars began to research the gentrification of inner cities as white suburbanites moved back in.

However, there’s a lot less awareness of what became of the suburbs they left behind.

Lung-Amam gives us the numbers: Asian Americans are the fastest growing of all minority groups in U.S. suburbs today, with 62 per cent of all Asians in America residing in the suburbs of the 100 largest American cities; that makes them almost as suburban as white Americans. (Note: U.S. demographics often count many Asian groups together under the umbrella of “Asian.”)

This boom of immigrants began in the 1980s and is going strong today.

Some of these ethnoburbs receive new immigrants because they are located near longtime gateway cities. Canadian examples are Richmond outside Vancouver and Markham outside Toronto.

But there’s another kind of ethnoburb that we don’t have up north: techno-ethnoburbs. Places like North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and Arizona’s Silicon Desert are not historical immigrant destinations. But the draw of tech employment attracted Pacific newcomers, and the same kinds of immigrant communities blossomed in those suburbs as a result.

Battle for suburbia

So what happens when suburbs are no longer mostly the homes of white, middle-class families?

It’s not easy being someone who’s different in a space that wasn’t created for you, says Lung-Amam: “Rich and poor, white and non-white, single parents, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, teens, multigenerational households and other residents whose preference do not conform to established suburban norms all struggle in various ways with a landscape that was simply not built with them in mind.”

For residents used to living in an ethnically homogenous community, it’s not easy to welcome difference. With increased immigration, there are fears of cultural invasion, and one phenomenon that made longtime locals feel uncomfortable was “Asian malls.”

Asian malls or migrant malls are a key feature of ethnoburbs. They are community and commercial hubs home to supermarkets, medical offices, banks and other specialty shops and services where immigrants can reconnect with their home cultures and speak their mother tongues. They’re similar to the Chinatowns and Little Italys of 20th century inner cities in how they function; vibrant communities that form from the bottom-up. The book describes how visiting one on the weekend was a big event for immigrant families, to eat, shop, introduce their children to their heritage culture and even reward grandparents for babysitting.

851px version of Crystal-Mall.jpg
Crystal Mall in Burnaby, BC, home to a food court with regional East Asian mom-and-pops, tutoring for young immigrants, Chinese-language medical services and more. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

But these hubs made white locals feel that Fremont was being “taken over.” Lung-Amam counters this with an observation that there are only four such malls, and says that fears like this are often overblown by loud locals.

But the City of Fremont eventually stepped in and, in a 2005 report, found these malls had “poor quality of maintenance,” “excessive” signage of “lower quality,” a poor tenant mix and a lack of non-Asian American customers.

In 2009, new restrictions were placed on Asian mall development to ensure that they “promoted a high quality and professional physical appearance and cohesive operation... that avoids deteriorating and inconsistent conditions including but not limited to design, architectural treatments and features, and signage.”

Similar complaints were directed at new houses belonging to Asian Americans. An influx of Asian immigration and the dot-com boom spurred the construction of homes that were larger and with styles different than in previous decades.

White locals called the new houses “tasteless monster homes,” also known as McMansions, and accused the Asian newcomers of building big to show off. These were not old homes that “proudly” displayed “beautifully mature gardens and palm-lined streets,” they said. In a survey, one California resident declared, “Leave It To Beaver Style Forever!”

A Chinese homeowner in the book who wanted to add a second story to his house because his family “needed more space” said his permit was approved by the City of Fremont, but then they were “targeted [by neighbours] and made to feel that [they] were somehow going to hurt the neighbourhood by doing what others had done, which is simply to add to their home.”

Vancouver had a similar battle in the 1980s when many Hong Kongers began settling in the city. As newcomers opted for homes other than ranch-style houses, Vancouverites feared the loss of British-style residential architecture. There is a resurgence of the debate today.

Similar to the restrictions on mall development, public policy was created in Fremont to limit “monster home” construction.

Asian Americans’ culture of education was also called abnormal.

For Asian professionals, one lure of the U.S. was the chance to give their children an American education. Many Asian American parents pushed their kids with the work ethic they were used to in their origin countries. As one Taiwanese immigrant says in the book, you have to work hard because “you take the one test and that decides your life.”

Many families bought houses to be near good schools, and schools changed as demographics changed.

A high school in Fremont — once known as “Little Scandinavia” due to its majority of blue-eyed, blonde students — went from seven to 83 per cent Asian American between 1981 and 2009. School culture changed with it: interest in activities like football and woodwork declined, while the number of Advanced Placement courses went up. One teacher featured in the book said he had to get a PhD to keep up.

A popular student rhyme describes the aggressive academic focus: “Cosine, sine — cosine, sine — 3.14159 — 2400s on SATs — and yes, we all take five APs.”

White parents were not pleased, calling these changes “inappropriate” and “unhealthy.” “This is no longer a traditional regular high school that is amenable to a regular kid,” a teacher recalled them saying.

This resulted in what a 2005 Wall Street Journal article called the “new white flight,” as white parents pulled their children out of Silicon Valley schools for being too competitive and narrowly focused on academics.

851px version of Pacific Mall in Markham, Ontario
Pacific Mall in the ethnoburb of Markham, Ontario, which was recently in the news for being called a ‘notorious market’ of counterfeit goods by US Government. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Dealing with difference

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who should get used to whom?

In these skirmishes against suburban newcomers, local residents argued against change by advocating their ideas of culture, development and taste. They had strong ideas of how things should be, and policy often responded to protest, though it’s mostly a policing of difference.

In Richmond near Vancouver, complaints are often framed by an “invasion narrative,” with anxieties over a diminishing British-heritage Canadian population (French is occasionally given a nod in these complaints), a takeover by wealthy foreigners and how newcomers violate Canadian identity and values. Locals often say how they’re made to feel unwelcome in their own communities.

This raises questions about the role of government when cultures they are unfamiliar with make a home on Canadian soil, especially in communities that are majority-minority. Is a pro-assimilation agenda the way to go? Or to let vocal residents dictate where action is needed? Or simply stick to what’s legal?

Lung-Amam offers this advice in the book: “planners and policy makers must create spaces in which the voices of different communities can be heard and can affect the shape of the landscapes they occupy.”

These diverse North American communities are blossoming outside of the mainstream, despite being socially and spatially segregated. But the mainstream is self-segregating as well. Our policies, politics and media don’t necessarily engage that diversity because of barriers like culture, language and even class.

There are also unfortunate consequences if journalists don’t do their due diligence to understand a community they are unfamiliar with, only featuring go-to sources that are more easily available. There has been important Vancouver reporting on illicit actions by wealthy Chinese newcomers, like money laundering via B.C. casinos, but if the other side is missing — how immigrants make home in our shared country — there will be gaping holes in our understanding of new Canadians. The mainstream spotlight is easily hogged by unrepresentative numbers of locals who exaggerate controversies and tabloid tales of cultural confusions that can stereotype a people group.

It might be statistically incorrect to call non-whites “minorities” in communities where they are the majority, but they are certainly minorities when it comes to representation in decision-making and media. Perhaps our mainstream society is more enclave than multicultural mosaic. More research like Lung-Amam’s is needed to understand what our communities actually look like today.

If there is no understanding, we will be left enforcing old norms that don’t reflect the needs of our communities. We’d be trapped in the imagination of that one Californian: “Leave It To Beaver Style Forever!”  [Tyee]

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