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Jayna Omaye/MEDILL

Experts say Chicago’s Chinatown is one of the city’s most densely populated Asian-American neighborhoods. Of the nearly 7,300 people who live in Chinatown, about 6,500, or 89 percent, are Asian, according to the Investigative Reporters and Editors census site.

Most Asian-Americans live in mixed neighborhoods, but exceptions abound, experts say

by Jayna Omaye
May 7, 2013

Asian-Americans are not only the best educated and fastest growing racial group in this country, they are also more likely than any other race or ethnicity to live in racially diverse neighborhoods, according to a recent Pew study.

Language skills and education levels are factors that affect Asian-American’s ability and desire to live in racially mixed neighborhoods, local experts say.

Of the nearly 17 million Asian-Americans living in this country, according to U.S. census data, the study found that only 11 percent live in an area that is predominantly Asian-American.

“If you look at Chicago, I think that’s generally true because Asian-American communities tend to be more dispersed throughout the city,” said Mark Chiang, associate professor of English and Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Asians make up nearly 6 percent of Chicago’s population, census data shows.

Still, some local experts point to Chicago’s Chinatown with its homogeneous Asian community, and the high concentration of Asian-Americans in suburbs like Skokie as exceptions to the study’s findings. Although some Asian-Americans live in racially mixed neighborhoods in Chicago, some experts say that living with those of the same race serves practical needs.

Theresa Mah, the director of Asian-American outreach for Gov. Pat Quinn, said Asian immigrants who don’t speak English live in areas like Chinatown where the majority speak their native language.

“So it’s not entirely a completely free choice to live wherever they want to live,” said Mah, who previously served as a policy consultant for an advocacy coalition in Chinatown. “If they decided to live in the suburbs away from families or resources, then they would have a really tough time.”

In Chinatown, for example, Asians make up nearly 89 percent of the total population, according to the Investigative Reporters and Editors census data site.

Kai Leung, a second-generation Chinese-American, said the main reason his parents moved to the Chinatown area was to be closer to other Chinese people. Leung said his parents have found jobs through their Chinese friends.

“Whereas my parents moving to this area where they can always get services from a Chinese business or network with other Chinese people, they basically didn’t have to learn English at all,” Leung said. “When you’re surrounded by others that are similar, I guess there’s less motivation and pressure to conform to the Anglo-American tradition.”

Although he said he wouldn’t mind moving to a racially mixed neighborhood, one of the benefits of living among other Chinese-Americans is being surrounded by his heritage.

“As much as it is different being a Chinese-American or any immigrant population in a country, there’s something that still carries over from older generations,” he said. “You retain more of your ethnic identity.”

Chiang said many of his students who grew up in Asian-American communities, as Leung did, are more versed in their heritage than those in racially mixed neighborhoods.

“The issue for them is that, especially growing up and living in the Midwest, unless you grow up in Chinatown or these other ethnic communities, you’re not exposed to other Asian-Americans,” he said.

Although Chiang said Asian-Americans tend to be more dispersed throughout Chicago and the suburbs, there are also benefits, as he has seen with his students, in living in mixed neighborhoods.

“You have a lot of interesting cultural interactions,” he said. “There’s sometimes tension with different groups, but those are also opportunities for increased understanding.”

Many Asian-Americans with higher language skills and education levels tend to adjust to the American culture and move out of Asian communities to racially mixed suburbs, Chiang said.

In Evanston, for example, Asians represent about 9 percent of the total population.

For Sam Sung, a second-generation Korean-American who grew up in Koreatown in Los Angeles, living in Evanston wasn’t a major change from growing up in a Korean community. He said most people don’t stare or gawk at him as they might in other areas.

Although he said living with and befriending other Asian-Americans is helpful in relating to each other’s struggles with cultural identities, he said he likes living in diverse neighborhoods and learning about other cultures.

“It only felt weird when I was in certain neighborhoods and when people would look at me,” he said. “Personally, I like a balance of those that can easily understand as well as having those who are different enough to stretch myself and keep growing.”

For Mah, the study’s findings are problematic because they generalize Asian-Americans as one group with similar needs and desires.

“I think that the findings really indicate to the extent to which Asian-Americans are such a diverse population, especially in terms of class and education,” she said. “Those characteristics are reflected in where people choose to live.”