Immigrants are putting new face on the South Ethnic groups diversify the evolving region by living, working there

March 08, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ATLANTA -- Soon Pac Kim's Southern accent is as pleasant as the mild weather and winding roads of Montgomery, Ala., where she was born. So much so, in fact, that it belies her diverse heritage as both a Korean and American from the South.

"In a lot of ways I'm just kind of down the middle," said Kim, a typesetter for a printing company in Roswell, Ga., a suburban community north of Atlanta. "I'm a part of both cultures."

Kim is among a growing number of bicultural Southerners who are putting a new face on the South. They are the offspring of first-generation immigrants who sought to make their mark in big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles but eventually left those places for the warmer climate, slower pace and image of tradition and family that the South offers.

Their presence here suggests a major shift in the role the South will play in the next millennium as it evolves from a region of black and white to one increasingly international.

Some immigrants say they find themselves most at home in the South because it is so similar to their homeland or the homeland of their parents. As Kim sees it, "The Korean and Southern work well together. I think some of the conservative values are the same."

It is difficult to measure how many immigrant families have left the big cities for the Southeast, but population studies suggest some significant changes in where immigrants are choosing to settle.

Census figures show the largest numbers of immigrants are still concentrated in states such as California, New York, Texas and Illinois. But some of the greatest increases have occurred in Southeastern states such as Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina. For example, the immigrant population in Illinois, now at 952,272, increased 150 percent between 1970 and 1990. But it jumped 525 percent in Georgia during the same period, from 32,988 to 173,126.

A 1997 study by the Center for Applied Research in Anthropology at Georgia State University showed the number of Georgians who identified themselves as part of an ethnic group with roots outside the United States has quadrupled in only 10 years, from 125,000 to 550,000.

Youths assimilate

The increasing number of Southerners born to immigrant parents is evident throughout many major Southern cities. In the Atlanta area, many of these young people have assimilated into the larger community. But some, particularly the children of families who have recently arrived, often shop and socialize along Buford Highway, a virtual strip mall-metropolis of immigrant-owned businesses in suburban Chamblee, Ga.

On this strip it is not unusual to encounter a Jamaican Southerner from the outskirts of Atlanta with a penchant for "y'alls," a Chinese Southerner who prefers rhythm and blues to traditional Eastern music, or a Mexican Southerner who drives a pickup sporting a rebel flag in the rear window.

Once a two-lane back road that linked the tiny hamlet of Buford to the bright lights of Atlanta, Buford Road has become the hub of the Atlanta area's multi-ethnic community. It is not a contained district like Chicago's Chinatown or New York's Little Italy but a gathering place where immigrants can anchor themselves. Immigrant families from across the Southeast make a pilgrimage on weekends to shop, eat ethnic foods and mingle with people like themselves.

For first-generation immigrants, Buford is a port of entry. For the second, it is the gathering spot or, simply, "the strip," where they can retain some sense of their roots as they assimilate into Southern culture.

Peter Yu, a staff member of the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce, was born in Taiwan and raised in California before his family settled in Gwinnett County outside Atlanta when he was 10. He said he has had some unusual experiences as the son of immigrants in the South. Yu said he believes he understands relations between white and black Americans better than his Northern or West Coast counterparts because he has had so many white and black friends and learned much about the history of slavery.

Yu, however, has experienced some personal unpleasantness. One problem, he says, is the view of a small number of chauvinistic Southerners, those for whom Asians and other ethnic groups do not fit into a romanticized view of the South.

"You can tell there are people who don't want you here. They like the Old South, the traditional, antebellum ways," Yu said. "But most of the experiences I have had have been positive. I do feel comfortable in the South."

Yu, whose parents changed his name from Yung-Ren to Peter because it is easier for English-speakers to pronounce, said he finds it difficult to relate to the distinct ethnic communities of the North. "To be honest, if I were to pick up and leave and move to New York, I would probably be more uncomfortable than I am here," Yu said.

Life in bigger cities

Not all immigrants here prefer Southern ways to larger and more diverse communities.

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