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TAWN PARENT Commentary: Have you noticed Indiana's new face?

December 18, 2006

When I stop and think about my own life, it doesn't seem so far-fetched.

I went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant near my office last week, and most of the people in line were Indian. Driving through my formerly whitebread neighborhood, I see buildings painted in bold yellows and reds with signs saying, "Tienda Morelos," "Supermercado" and "Estetica Latina."

My son's elementary school celebrates Chinese New Year with a big parade and lessons about eating with chopsticks and keeping crickets as pets. Then I take a look at the bigger picture. Indianapolis has the fifth-fastest-growing Hispanic population in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city is home to more than 50,000 Hispanics. Although Hispanics might be the largest and most quickly growing group of immigrants, the trend is much broader. Consider this: At a naturalization ceremony here this month, Mexicans represented just four of the 47 new Americans. The majority hailed from India or from Russia and other former Soviet republics.

The metro area's Asian population exceeds 26,000.

By 2050, non-Hispanic whites will make up barely half of the U.S. population, according to Census Bureau projections. So those of us who have spent our lives in the majority are becoming a minority.

All this fresh blood is making Indianapolis a far different and more exciting place than it was when I was growing up. I'm delighted that my 6-year-old is becoming comfortable at such a young age with people who look and speak differently than he does.

The influx of immigrants is invigorating our schools, offices, places of worship, sports teams and cultural scene. Indyethnicfood.comnow lists 749 restaurants and 134 markets. This month alone, there are 19 local events with an international theme, ranging from Polish to Filipino. That's 19 opportunities to gain insights into our new neighbors.

Immigration is generating some serious attention around here. The International Center of Indianapolis is developing a book, scheduled for fall publication, chronicling the experiences of local immigrants and their impact on the community. Photos from the book are slated to be exhibited in the airport's new midfield terminal.

Some other areas of the country have dealt with mass immigration for decades or more, but we're pretty new at this. Our advantage is that we still have a chance to get this hospitality thing right, said Diane G. Thomas, CEO of the International Center.

"I'm very optimistic about our future, particularly in Indianapolis," Thomas said. "As a nation, we have enormous issues to deal with. People here are kind and genuinely hospitable. I think that will win in the end. ... I've come from other communities that are so much more fractured."

The Sagamore Institute, a local think tank, expressed similar sentiments in two reports it issued this year on Mexico-Indiana relations. The July report praised efforts to "smooth the integration of newcomers, sufficiently confident of our Hoosier civic values not to feel threatened by foreigners ... ."

Transnational adoption is nudging things in the right direction. Americans adopted more than 20,000 children from abroad in fiscal 2006. Unlike other immigrants, who may stick together, most of these children are plunked into born-and-bred American families, who suddenly have a compelling reason to learn about another country's history and customs. Adam Pertman discussed this phenomenon in his 2000 book, "Adoption Nation."

"There are innumerable white grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, for example, who have surprised themselves with the unconditional love they feel for their new black or Asian or Hispanic relatives, and who have learned critical lessons as a result," he wrote. "Adoption is helping to crack the walls of prejudice and intolerance ... ."

Those walls need all the cracks they can get. The future of our economy and, indeed, our whole community depends on our ability to work and play together.

So, in case you're getting an early start on your new year's resolutions, try one of these on for size: Sample some new ethnic cuisines; invite a co-worker from another country out to lunch (or, if you're brave, invite his whole family over for dinner); visit one of the state's 59 annual ethnic festivals (go to nationalitiescouncil.org for details).

Because, ready or not, the world is coming to Indiana, and it's going to keep on coming. And that is something to celebrate.

Feliz Navidad and Bonne Année!



Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.
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