Universities, refugees fuel Indiana's Asian growth

February 16, 2011

Whether they're here on student visas, businesses seeking lower costs or refugees escaping oppression, more Asians are immigrating to Indiana in search of opportunities not within reach in their native lands.

Census figures released on Thursday show the state's Asian population increased by 73 percent since the last census, growing to 102,474 people, or 1.6 percent of the state's overall population.

The growth has been fueled largely by those seeking educational and business opportunities and Burmese refugees who are coming to northeastern Indiana's Allen County to escape poverty and oppression.

Most of the growth has been concentrated in five main counties — Allen, Hamilton, Marion, Monroe and Tippecanoe — that together account for almost 60 percent of the state's Asian community. Hamilton County, in the Indianapolis metro area, experienced the largest increase, nearly tripling its Asian population from 4,451 to 13,175 over the decade.

Tony Nguyen, executive director of the Indiana Asian Chamber Commerce, said many Asians see Indiana and its low business costs as a "nice, green golf course" that has a pleasant landscape for competition. That can draw business owners from the coasts.

"There's not many competitors here, so it's nice doing business," said Nguyen, who formed his organization last February for the state's estimated 400 Asian-owned businesses.

Experts say it's no surprise that four of the five counties with the highest Asian populations are in central Indiana.

"Indianapolis has the most diverse economy in Indiana, so there's a lot of different types of opportunities. That's a draw for the Asian population as it is for the general population," said demographer Matt Kinghorn of the Indiana Business Research Center.

Though Asians still make up a relatively small part of the state's total population, they represent a larger slice of the pie in places like Monroe and Tippecanoe counties. In those places, Asians account for at least 5 percent of the overall population, the census figures showed.

Vincent Shang, a Chinese instructor at the Confucius Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said that's largely due to the draw of universities.

"I think America has a long history of establishing universities and colleges, comparatively speaking they have a large pool of resources, faculty and staff who come from different parts of the world," said Shang, whose organization is sponsored by the Chinese government to promote better understanding of Chinese culture and languages. "The business people, the reason why they stay here is in part because the U.S. has a good education — especially universities."

The situation is different in Allen County, where members of the large Burmese community struggle to find employment, let alone establish businesses, according to non-profit relief groups that work closely with the community, which includes thousands of refugees fleeing the Southeast Asian country's junta regime.

Burmese refugees first arrived in Fort Wayne, Allen County's seat, in 1990 to flee Burma's military dictatorship. The steady flow of refugees there over the past 10 years has helped double the number of Asians in the county from 4,652 to 9,721.

Language barriers and an already-congested labor market make it difficult for many of the immigrants to find jobs, and many struggle to acclimate to American culture, relief workers say.

Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center, said her organization works to prepare Burmese for employment by teaching them English and American ways, such as how to drive and how to communicate with a physician. Nan Tin said the center lacks sufficient resources, particularly government and private grants, to fully address the needs of Allen County's Burmese community. The organization relies largely on volunteer contributions and services.

"If you want to make a difference, you have to have a commitment," she said. "Volunteers usually don't have a commitment, and usually don't have any responsibility."

Many in the community rely on a more informal network: their family and friends.

David Sowards of Friends of Burma, a non-profit in Fort Wayne that aids Burmese around the world, said it is common for Burmese to lean on social gatherings and their churches for support and guidance.

"They go to private institutions when they have to, but they usually learn a lot more from their relatives," he said.

Weilin Long, director of the Asian Learning Center at the Indianapolis International Center, said the growth in the Asian community has changed Indiana on both business and cultural fronts by creating jobs and blending Asian and American values.

"We Asians have brought in our Asian values -- education, for instance," she said. "We encourage our children to be very involved in school and then be good students, good models."


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