Karena Li's voice was tinged with loneliness as she recalled her experience as a new immigrant living in Palo Alto. Standing before the city's Human Relations Commission on Jan. 14, she expressed what many of the city's newer Chinese immigrants apparently feel: alienated in her adopted country.
Not long after moving to Palo Alto last summer, she hosted a housewarming party and invited her neighbors. But that friendly overture only got her so far, due in part to cultural differences and a lack of common history.
"I don't know what to talk about with them. We don't share the same topics of common interest. Many of my neighbors are more than 70 years old," she told the commission. "I don't know how to start how to make friends with local people let alone to understand the culture and the habits. It's really hard."
Li said she volunteers at her children's school and has been involved in earthquake-preparedness activities, but deeper friendships with Americans have remained elusive.
"You don't just want to live here. You need to be connected socially, emotionally," she said.
Spurred by reports of these kinds of experiences, Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission members and long-established immigrants are seeking to make Palo Alto a more welcoming place. It's not just a nice thing to do: People of Asian heritage, whether U.S. or foreign born, are Palo Alto's second-most populous group of residents. Asians now make up 29.6 percent of the city's population, with 15.2 percent being Chinese or of Chinese descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2014 American Community Survey.
The stakes, say commissioners and concerned residents, are high: As one minority population grows, there's a risk that people will group along ethnic lines, essentially creating separate societies within the same community.
Longtime immigrants' efforts to forestall the divide have included launching online Chinese-language groups, parents' clubs, citizenship and language classes, and acculturation education so that new immigrants can understand how the Palo Alto and American systems work.
The Human Relations Commission has started a series, "An Immigrant Experience in Palo Alto," through which immigrants are telling their stories to the commissioners. The commission plans to recommend to the City Council actions that Palo Alto can take to help newcomers integrate more easily.
Commissioner Theresa Chen is spearheading the speaker series. She said the need to acculturate is more acute today than when she arrived 50 years ago. People are coming at an older age than did previous generations, such as hers.
As a college student in the Midwest, Chen became familiar with American culture quickly. With so few immigrants such as herself to associate with, there was no Chinese community to which she could turn.
Schooling also provided a crucial transition period, she said. But today's Chinese immigrants are arriving for their children's education, not their own.
"From the last (commission) meeting, both speakers came as business owners who were working in China. They bring in work skills without a transition period," Chen said.
Li moved to Palo Alto from Hong Kong to escape air pollution. Her children were having health issues, and she sought a community that "is friendly to Asian people," she said.
A business woman and investor in China, Li is unfamiliar with Silicon Valley companies, but she would like to start a firm and invest here. She doesn't have any connections, however, and said she doesn't know where to find out about companies. Many new immigrants were well-established in China and invested there as venture capitalists. It would help if the city offered a seminar on local culture and business investment, she said.
Qi Ping Cai, who also spoke to the commission in January, has had similar experiences. A futures trader from Shanghai, he can work anywhere there is the Internet. But he chose Palo Alto 2 1/2 years ago to further his son's education, escape the pollution, and challenge himself.
"I think the earth is becoming a village. The next generation should be world citizens first, and the American education is the most advanced in the world, so I want that my son has a better education," he said.
Cai reads English-language newspapers, watches American television and listens to the radio to improve his English. He considers himself lucky to call the Bay Area his second home.
"I chose a good place. There is nice weather and the community is inclusive. More than 50 percent come from different countries. Although I'm a foreigner, I don't look at myself as a foreigner," he said.
He has volunteered at Jordan Middle School, which his son attends, but he wants to be more active, he said.
"We have no relatives and old friends here. I want to be involved in Palo Alto community life, but I don't know what the channels (are).
"I think we can contribute our strengths," he said, adding his hope that the city can host events to help immigrants become more integrated.
Li and Cai said they know recent immigrants who talk with each other about Chinese culture, events and news. Cai said he is acquainted with several businessmen who haven't found work here, so they gather on the golf course and stay within their own social circles.
Established immigrants view the trend of isolation with alarm. Without integration of the new immigrants, Palo Alto is likely to separate into two societies, with one that is largely Chinese, they said.
"We don't want to see people separated," said Debra Cen, a longtime resident who emigrated from China 30 years ago. "We appreciate a lot of good American culture, and we'd like to have the good culture to stay."
She said she fears that non-Asians could start moving out of the city, as happened in Cupertino. There, 65 percent of the population is Asian, with Chinese immigrants making up nearly 28 percent, according to the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. That population has shifted dramatically since 1980, when whites represented 91 percent and Asians accounted for 7 percent, according to Bay Area Census.
Cen came to Palo Alto as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and has established herself professionally. But she remembers that connections with American-born residents were hard to make, no matter how outgoing she was.
Language was her biggest barrier, Cen said, followed by culture. She became friends with the mothers of her son's friends, but she didn't start making inroads with Americans until she met a third-generation Japanese-American woman through her son's school. That woman took Cen under her wing and invited her to gatherings with her American friends. Cen also remarried 10 years ago and through her U.S.-born husband made more American friends, she said.
Cen's Lowell Avenue neighbor, Amy Yang, also came to the U.S. as a University of Texsas graduate student. She said that, even two decades later, language remains her biggest challenge to making friendships with American-born residents, followed by the cultural disconnect of having grown up with different music, movies and books, she said.
Both Cen and Yang have been working to integrate newcomers in the hopes of making their transition easier and stemming the kind of cultural shift that has taken place in Cupertino. They decided to reach out to Chinese immigrants after Yang became the de facto counselor for many people who sought advice on the perplexing customs, laws and school environment of Palo Alto. In 2013, the pair started the Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club. The club initially worked to bring together the various clusters of immigrants who were staying within their own social circles, based largely on where they hailed from in China.
Cen and Yang are hoping to build more shared experiences throughout the Palo Alto community to bridge cultural gaps. The Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club co-sponsored a Chinese New Year celebration on Feb. 21 at Mitchell Park Community Center, which extended the festivities to non-Asians. More than 1,000 people attended, they said.
For Cen, it was the first small step in what she believes is the most significant way to assimilate people: "We ask every American (American-born person) to make one immigrant friend and every immigrant to make one American friend and bring the new friend into his or her social circle. If everyone in our community does it, our community will be totally integrated in no time," she said.
Cen and others are fully aware of the unintended friction that arises when immigrants' and longtime residents' habits clash.
New immigrants need a lot of guidance, Cen said. They don't understand how their behaviors might be perceived. One of Cen's relatives, who is also an immigrant, observed a typical behavior by a new immigrant that might be perceived as rude in America. As people waited in line at Costco, the new immigrant kept jumping from line to line.
"In China, that is acceptable, but here people think you are being sneaky," Cen said her relative told the woman.
Older Chinese people who push and talk loudly at the La Comida senior lunch program in Palo Alto would not understand that Americans think they are being rude, she added.
And then there are local laws. Yang knows four new immigrant families who had issues because they did not know about various municipal requirements, such as obtaining a building permit for a house remodel. One person, a college professor, told Yang that she only learned about her gaffe when a neighbor knocked on her door to inform her she was breaking the law.
These acts are "not intended to offend people. It's because they are not aware that they are offending," Cen said.
New immigrants may also not understand their rights, including in relation to law enforcement, at schools, and when dealing with neighbors.
At the January Human Relations Commission meeting, Cai said his son's bicycle has been stolen three times since they moved to Palo Alto.
"This was a surprise. I don't know whether to report it to the police department," he said.
Immigrant parents often don't understand the American way of teaching, either, Cen said. In China, students learn by rote, which is very different from California's pedagogical approach, which encourages individuality and creativity, she said.
Parents also don't know how to participate in their child's school.
"In China, schools don't want parents involved. It's a totally different system," Cen said.
Michele Lew, a native Palo Alto resident who is president and CEO of the San Jose nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement, agreed. The social-services organization started parent-education classes in Palo Alto last year to help immigrant families understand the school system.
"We see lots of opportunities to help educate parents and Palo Alto Unified School District to make schools more welcoming. Many parents are afraid to talk to the principal and teacher, something that we know happens in Palo Alto all of the time," she said.
The parent classes also address mental health.
"We introduced parent education in Mandarin to help get ahead of the curve to help parents to identify mental illness before it becomes more severe," Lew said.
The Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club has also taken up the mantle. The group offers a handful of annual activities such as parent education, a forum for students to share their experiences, cultural education, socials, mental health and suicide-prevention discussions and an emergency preparation fair.
More significantly, the Parents' Club created a WeChat group a mobile text- and voice-messaging service that is popular in China to bring Palo Alto Chinese parents together. The online network has become the Chinese community's lifeblood, where new immigrants can ask longtime Chinese residents questions and receive answers to their concerns.
The initial group grew to 300 members, then spun out additional groups with a maximum of 500 members each. In all, 13 Palo Alto schools, from elementary to high school, have groups.
A neighborhood-based WeChat was started by resident Jack Sun.
But even as groups such as Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club galvanize the new and old immigrant communities, its founders are looking at other cities for lessons on what to watch out for.
Cen said that in U.S. cities where Asian populations have taken root and grown, a critical threshold appears to be at about 20 percent. If the minority population exceeds 20 percent, and there is no push to integrate, people begin to separate into their own ethnic groups, Cen said.
"Over 50 percent, we know it starts to change the (overall) culture," she said.
In Irvine, California, an estimated 36.7 percent of the city's 185,000 residents are Asian. Among non-Asian residents, discussion on the community website TalkIrvine.com as far back as January 2012 revolved around whether Irvine was becoming "too Asian."
Some Irvine residents blamed the schism on the failure of new immigrants to assimilate.
"I see many Irvine immigrants wanting to forget they are outside of their homelands and not trying to follow the norms of the new culture they are in," a resident wrote. "This doesn't mean that one should completely forget who they are, but things like saying hello to a neighbor, throwing trash in a trash can, caring about communal areas, respecting lines and a general sense of courtesy can be absorbed."
Another non-Asian resident opined about new immigrants not extending their relationships beyond cursory pleasantries.
"You can feel like an outsider living in a foreign land because you ARE an outsider," the resident wrote.
Cen, Yang and others say that without a helping hand from the city and the community to welcome and integrate the newcomers, recent immigrants retreat into their own, comfortable cultural surroundings.
Li, who communicates easily in English, said it's true especially for those whose English is limited.
"(They) just shut the door from the outside and live in the Chinese community. And they eat Chinese food, and they don't read any newspaper or magazines of the local news," she said. "They just care about their own thing. They have no way out, I think. They are ... struggling."
Chen, of the Human Relations Commission, agreed.
"With the increased population of immigrants, it is important to break the barrier between native and new immigrants and to help this community to grow and collaborate," she said.
"If they can't integrate, it will affect the overall growth of society and the collaboration of society, starting from your spirit and your mind."
And that affects other areas, from personal mental and physical health to a city's economic growth, she said.
"When there is less collaboration there is less prosperity. Usually immigrants bring talent and wealth. How we are going to take advantage of it is a question," she said. "It keeps me awake at night."
Despite the chatter on Irvine's social forum, Yang, who used to live in Irvine, said that Palo Alto can take a page from the southern California city.
Irvine established a Multicultural and International Affairs office, which includes its sister city program, an international visitors program and a local multicultural affairs office. The office developed an introductory video on the City of Irvine, which is available in five languages English, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Spanish and it has links to senior-service organizations for Chinese and other cultural groups.
The city also hosts the annual Irvine Global Village Festival Celebration, which offers international cuisine and entertainment, cultural exhibits, and activities for children. It also offers a comprehensive newcomer's guide, a task that Palo Alto city staff have on its to-do list but which has not been produced, according to Palo Alto Human Services Manager Minka van der Zwaag.
Yang said that new immigrants would benefit from workshops on American culture and customs. The Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club is planning to create a video to help new immigrants understand the cultural and regulatory dos and don'ts, and the group has asked the city for funding. Palo Alto could also put up a web page so that people can educate themselves at home about American culture, she said.
"The city really needs to face the change. Even au pairs get three-day cultural training about American culture," she said.
Cen said that she hopes Americans can come to see new immigrants as resources who simply need help in understanding American ideals and practices.
"These are successful people. Look at them as an export of American ideology. They are a highway to influence Chinese society," she said.
She also hopes that longtime Americans can see themselves as helpers to new immigrants, able to tell them in a kind way why something they are doing isn't acceptable.
"Be friendly, instead of saying 'Why do these people come here and ruin this place?'
"Chinese people are very peace-loving people. They may be a little tribal, but they have always been ruled by an authoritarian system. They have never experienced working as a community.
"One of the best traditions of America is community," she said.