Helping Asian Immigrants Proves to Be the American Way : Monterey Park: a City of Bridges

Times Staff Writer

Few of the women who entered had ever been into a typical U.S. restaurant before. Even though some of them had lived in this country for as long as two years, they were bewildered. They found a menu they could not understand, a staff unable to speak their language and a baffling food-service system.

The restaurant was a Sizzler, and the 35 women were Asian immigrants seeking to adapt to life in America.

"The women had been afraid to enter an American restaurant because they didn't know how to order," said Treasa Hu, who organized the luncheon outing as part of a Salvation Army class for Asian immigrants.

Translated Menu

Hu and her husband, Robin, translated the Sizzler menu into Chinese, explained the self-service salad bar and outlined the ordering procedures.

Salad Bar a Novelty

Most of the women opted for the luncheon special, which included a visit to the salad bar, a novel experience that seemed to be the hit of the day. Robin Hu said the women enjoyed the food and several indicated they planned to return.

By the end of the afternoon, another cultural gap had been spanned.

Building bridges across cultural gaps has become a preoccupation in Monterey Park, where the city, churches, service organizations and volunteer groups are helping the burgeoning Asian population, mostly Chinese immigrants, cope with the American way of life.

The assimilation effort is going so well that the Citizens Forum on Self-Government, a nonprofit group that runs an annual contest to choose All-America cities, has bestowed that honor on Monterey Park.

Washington Banquet

All five City Council members and four city employees will be in Washington on Monday for a banquet hosted by the newspaper USA Today to honor this year's All-America award winners. Monterey Park, a city of 54,000, is the only California recipient among the eight cities chosen nationwide.

The award went to Monterey Park for the way its residents have dealt with the Asian immigration. A host of programs have been created to help Asians, including:

- English-language instruction in classes held in schools and churches and through a tutoring program at the city library. Sixty-five library volunteers are teaching immigrants and others to speak and read English. In addition, the library has developed a large foreign-language collection, including 4,000 books in Chinese.

- An interpreter-translator program at the Police Department. Volunteers skilled in 28 languages and dialects are on call to assist police by radio and telephone. In addition, the city newsletter is printed in both English and Chinese and the city has hired multilingual staff members to deal with the public at City Hall.

- Referral and counseling programs. The Westside Chinese Service Center, funded by the county, helps immigrants find jobs and refers them to appropriate social service agencies for assistance from an office on Garvey Avenue. The Diho Market chain has opened a free service center for immigrants at its offices on Monterey Pass Road. The Salvation Army, operating from a storefront office on Garfield Avenue, offers counseling to youngsters, social and regligious programs for adults and other services.

- Job training. Though not geared to any racial or ethnic group, the Los Angeles Unified School District's East Los Angeles Skill Center in Monterey Park is serving a growing number of Asians. One particularly successful program has been training tellers for Monterey Park's numerous Asian banks.

Spirits Lifted

Mayor David Almada said the All-America award has lifted spirits of residents, offset "negative publicity" about Asian gangs and should help attract new businesses.

The mayor has appointed a committee to raise money to capitalize on the award. The committee is trying to raise $30,000 for promotional activities and the council has appropriated $10,000. The private and public funds will pay for posting All-America signs at city entrances, adding the All-America logo to city stationery, maps and brochures, sponsoring poster and essay contests in schools and staging a celebratory picnic on July 4 at Barnes Park.

The council also has appropriated $4,000 to help pay for the trip to Washington to pick up the award.

John Crowley, a member of the Pasadena Board of City Directors and one of two California regional vice presidents of the Citizens Forum on Self-Government, said the All-America award "represents solid achievement." A committee of public affairs specialists chose 17 finalists from 500 cities that nominated themselves for the honor. An awards jury then heard oral presentations from each city in San Antonio last fall to help pick the eight winners.

Unannounced Visits

Crowley said the awards jury did more than just take the word of the cities about their achievements. Jury representatives made unannounced visits to verify the claims.

Winners besides Monterey Park were Tempe, Ariz., and Anchorage, Alaska, which were cited for coping with population growth; Harrisburg, Pa., and Albany, Ore., which overcame economic reverses; Fayetteville, N.C., and Alexandria, Va., which undertook major revitalization programs, and Quincy, Ill., which has 492 volunteer organizations to deal with community problems.

In Monterey Park, the arrival of Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China and Southeast Asia has drastically changed the face of the city. Monterey Park is called "Little Taipei" in the Orient, and Asian immigrants migrate to the city today in the same way previous generations headed for Chinatown.

In the 1960s, Monterey Park's population was 85% Anglo, although the Japanese and Latino populations were growing. Within the past seven years, most of the newcomers have been immigrant Asians. The city's population today is estimated at 75% Asian and Latino.

'More Visible' Now

Louise Davis, former mayor who pushed city efforts to deal with the changing population by appointing a Human Services Task Force in 1980, said the newest wave of immigration is "more visible" than the influx of Japanese or Latinos because so many Asian immigrants are shopkeepers who have bought stores and posted signs in Chinese.

There is occasional evidence of bigotry--one sign posted on a closed business suggested that the last Anglo to leave Monterey Park should take down the American flag--but more problems grow out of unintended misunderstandings, said Robin Hu, who runs the Salvation Army's immigrant programs in Monterey Park.

Hu said resentments arise from subtle differences in language and culture. Hu, who arrived here from Taiwan in 1983, said "many Chinese are kind of shy. They do not say hello to strangers and when strangers say hello to them, they do not know how to respond." As a result, he said, neighbors may regard the newcomers as unfriendly.

City officials say they organize programs in ways that minimize racial and ethnic differences.

Committees Balanced

Mayor Almada said the city always tries to get a cross section of people on committees so that Asians and Anglos, for example, join Latinos in planning Cinco de Mayo activities. And there is a similar mix in the committee that plans Chinese New Year's celebrations. The City Council itself represents a cross section of the community, with two Latinos and members of Filipino, Chinese and Italian ancestry.

Almada said that although some people see Monterey Park as a city in transition toward a predominantly Asian community, he hopes the ethnic mix will remain. "I want to live in a multicultural community," he said.

Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen, who became the first Chinese-born woman to serve as mayor of a U.S. city when she held that office last year, said she believes the Asian immigration has peaked in Monterey Park, with newcomers increasingly settling in other San Gabriel Valley cities that offer, in many cases, cheaper housing, or, in the case of San Marino, more luxurious housing.

It was Chen who originated the application for the All-America city award, motivated, she said, by the conviction that Monterey Park's "diverse populations are working and living together in harmony."

Good Relationships Built

Chen said Monterey Park's experience is that good relationships develop when people work together on community projects.

"You cannot get people to come to a meeting if you say the purpose is to get them to know each other," she said. But bring people together in a Neighborhood Watch meeting to talk about reducing crime and looking out for each other, she said, and "good feelings" emerge.

The All-America award should provide an incentive to continue the work already begun, she said, so that Monterey Park can "generate more community harmony and live up to expectations."

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