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Chinese Culture Flourishes in Cupertino

In Cupertino, the number of residents with ancestral ties to China has exploded. Some longtime locals view this wave of immigration as a threat, while others see it as an opportunity

WENDY WONG, who emigrated to Cupertino from Taiwan in the early 1970s, returned in 1995 after a three-year absence. She says she noticed that a dramatic change had taken place while she was gone. "Even I'm overwhelmed," Wong says. "Everyone understands Mandarin now." In recent years, the landscape of the city of Cupertino has shifted on its axis. Mailboxes, Etc. sits next to Andrew Wu's Acupuncture and Herbs, and California Surfer is flanked by a floral shop and a hairstylist that announce their names in Chinese characters. Duke of Edinburgh shares a shopping center with Ranch 99 Market. Even the investment firm of Charles Schwab, on Stevens Creek Boulevard, acknowledged the city's transforming population by installing a Chinese sign to attract more customers.

Back when it was incorporated in 1955, Cupertino was a boomtown where orchards fell as contractors built ranch-style homes for a flood of eager buyers--almost all of whom were white. Over the past 15 years, the city has become a boomtown once again--but this time the influx of home-buyers is made up of mostly Asian immigrants.

This quickly shifting population has deeply affected the city's neighborhoods, schools, businesses and politics. Though many have embraced the changes, Cupertino's newfound multiculturalism has not been easy for everyone to understand and accept.

"On my whole block, 90 percent are Asian. I can't talk to them," one Caucasian man said at a public forum last year. He decried the use of Chinese languages in schools and other public places by immigrants and wanted to know why "they" were not making more of an effort to learn English.

Barry Chang, vice president of the Cupertino Union School District board, received hate mail and threatening phone calls after trustees considered implementing a Mandarin-immersion kindergarten class six months ago. "I was at the point of thinking of buying a gun and carrying a gun," Chang said.

Paul Fong, a Cupertino resident and a member of the Foothill/De Anza College District board of trustees, concurred: "As the [Asian] population is increasing, I hear more bigoted remarks, and the backlash increases."

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Cal State-Hayward, isn't surprised by the tensions in Cupertino. Sue has studied multicultural psychology for 25 years and worked on President Clinton's initiative on race relations. He attributes the area's tensions to sheer numbers.

"Communities that reach a critical mass--and that critical mass is 20 to 25 percent racial ethnic minorities--when you reach that critical mass, the community and the schools are likely to have an increase of extreme tension, conflict and hostility," he says.

Sue believes that American society is still a "monoculture" at heart. "To be ethnic is to be deviant," he says. Minorities feel pressured to assimilate rather than maintain their own culture and customs, and that can lead to a sense of shame, or to a shift away from the predominant culture.

"People will cling onto their cultural values more when they feel a sense of invalidation," Sue says. "When you remove those invalidations, people will reach out more."

Duane Kubo, dean of the intercultural/international studies department at De Anza College, says it is not unusual for communities to feel threatened by immigrants. "The history of the United States is one of resentment and racism toward newcomers," Kubo says. "It's not just Asian groups, but every group--anti-Irish, anti-Italian, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish. We have a low tolerance for newcomers."

Sue says stereotyping and bias are born not from national values, but from human nature. "We're all in the same boat," he says.

--Michelle Ku and Pam Marino, Metro, October 8, 2008

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