Will Booming Asian Population Equate to Greater Civic Responsibility?

Community leaders embrace the demographic changes in Palo Alto while attempting to lure Asian families into civic life.

When the March census data came out showing that Palo Alto has experienced a 16.6 percent increase in the number of Asian residents over the last decade, it came as no surprise to me. Asians now make up 27 percent of the total population in Palo Alto.

In my own neighborhood, Charleston Gardens in south Palo Alto, more than a handful of Asian families with young children purchased homes just in the last few years. Some bought newly built homes while others replaced white homeowners. On my block alone, I would say Asians occupy half of the homes.

Whites are still the majority in Palo Alto, comprising about two-thirds of the total population. However, it is clear from census reports that the white population has been slowly shrinking over the years, dropping 10 percent in the last decade alone.

Where else can you find two private-Chinese-language schools, one Korean-language preschool, two Korean-language churches, a Korean restaurant and two Japanese restaurants all within a five-mile radius in south Palo Alto?

No one wants to go on record saying it, but more than a few people expressed concern to me that demographic changes in Palo Alto, and south Palo Alto in particular, may spur the same “white flight” that Cupertino experienced in the last decade.

In 2005, The Wall Street Journal published an article detailing how Caucasians have all but disappeared from Cupertino, because of an increasing feeling of unease in a predominantly Asian neighborhood and school district.

It is very common in Palo Alto for neighbors to exchange holiday cards, help watch over a vacant home if a neighbor is away on vacation or borrow newspapers. But with greater ethnic diversity, some people worry that Palo Alto will become more “balkanized” and lose its neighborly intimacy that residents have traditionally enjoyed.

There may be some justification for this concern. While Asian families move to Palo Alto primarily for the good schools, Asians are noticeably absent in civic affairs, city leaders have said.

I had the opportunity to speak with several Asian community leaders this past week.

“Anything that involves race or ethnicity is sensitive,” said Barbara Klausner, a Palo Alto Unified School District board member. “It’s a tough conversation to have about what does it mean to be Asian. There are certainly stereotypes.” 

There could be more civic engagement from Asians in the community, she said, but she understands the difficulty. “There is not the cultural expectation that you would be involved beyond your child’s needs. There’s not that tradition. I have family in China. The communist government—they don’t look for civic engagement.” 

But Palo Alto is different from the communities around it, she said. “We will always be somewhat different. Part of the influence is Stanford,” she said.

Dana Tom, a Palo Alto school board member, said he sees the increasing number of Asians in the yearly enrollment report, but there is not much anyone can do about it.

, in particular, has an Asian population of 78 percent, according to Palo Alto Unified School District’s 2010-2011 enrollment report. Hoover Elementary School has the kind of “direct-instruction model” that many Asian families prefer, Tom said.

“Any vital community is going to undergo change over time, and this just happens to be the change that we are experiencing in Palo Alto,” Tom added. “A school is not static, and its culture will need to change and adapt over time. What can’t change is our vision for our students as a whole academically, socially and emotionally. We have to ensure that we maintain our vision at a high level.”

There are challenges, however, he said.

“To me, the biggest challenge that some of our Asian students face is straddling two different cultures, particularly if their parents are immigrants or second generation,” Tom said about getting Asians students engaged publicly. “In their home life, they [students] may feel traditional-Asian-cultural pressure. Yet in their school life, it’s different than that. If the parents are solely focused on academics over anything else, yet at school they have an interest in athletics or the arts, it creates an internal conflict for them.”

Yiaway Yeh, a city councilman for Palo Alto, said he received a significant amount of monetary support from Asians in Palo Alto during his 2007 campaign.

During the 2008 Measure N library bond campaign, which needed a two-thirds majority vote to pass, Yeh saw a lot of Asians willing to hold house parties in support. “We want to make sure our Asian neighbors are aware of this library bond, that there is an opportunity to have this resource and improve on it,” he said of the goal at that time. But he agrees there could be more visible participation from Asians in the community beyond monetary contributions and education-related causes.

He said he knows of some Asian families who come to Palo Alto solely to send their kids to school. They plan to stay only for the duration of their children’s education, he said.

Now that the bond campaign is over, he wants to see more sustained and on-going levels of engagement. “For me, the engagement needs to change from discreet items and discreet activities,” he said.

He has been asked by a number of community organizations to recommend Asians to serve on boards, he said. “I would love to be a resource for anyone to get involved in council or different aspects of the community,” he said. “For Asians in the community who are contemplating, I would love to be a sounding board, to be a resource.”

“The profile of the typical Palo Altan is highly educated, over committed and very engaged, regardless of ethnicity,” he added. As a result, he understands if most Asians have difficulty getting involved in local politics, because of family or other obligations.

Sheri Furman, who is Anglo-American and chairwoman of Palo Alto Neighborhoods, a self-described nongovernmental group organized to “enhance communication and mutual support for the Palo Alto neighborhoods,” said she has begun to make efforts to reach out to east Asians who live in Palo Alto. “This is more about how do we be more inclusive or be sure that we are being more inclusive,” she said.

“It’s good to know your neighborhood. It’s good to know your neighbors in terms of safety and crime watch—to have people to help you out with things, to participate in civic life,” she said about Asians who should get involved with the community. 

It’s not that everyone needs to participate in civic matters,  she added, saying that people just may not be interested or do not have time—but it would help if representatives from some groups could have conversations.

Reporter's Note: Although I am a reporter whose job it is to cover issues in the community without bias or personal input, this is the first time I have ever published anything written in the first person on a public issue. The latest census data touches me directly, because I am both Asian-American and a Palo Alto resident who moved here five years ago.

My husband graduated from Gunn High School in 1986. I moved here for love, after we both decided it was time to return home from New York City. I am part of the change that is happening right now.

Peter Schroepfer March 21, 2011 at 07:32 PM
Methinks there's a big difference in average community involvement by Korean-Americans according to region and whether they're 1st or 2nd, 3rd generation. In areas where there are a higher concentration of 1st generation immigrants, there is often less involvement, whereas, for example, a 1st generation immigrant couple living where there are few Koreans, or a 2nd generation married couple raising children in Palo Alto, might be more involved. In places like Cupertino and other areas of the Peninsula (I imagine also PA), there are a lot of families that came to the US just for the edu, many with half the mind to return at some point in time, and thus have less a sense of ownership about the locales in which they're living. The 1st-gen Koreans I know who are the most involved locally live in places like Mill Valley, Berkeley, and Walnut Creek. (This ends this first-person ramble by a reporter at a Korean-language daily.)


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