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Lake Wobegon's New Asian Accent


Think of St. Paul, Minn., and images of Lake Wobegon and frigid winter temperatures come to mind. Less likely to leap into focus are images of Vietnamese restaurants, Chinese herb shops - and the world's first bookstore for the Hmong, a Southeast Asian mountain people.

But walk down Snelling Avenue, a main drag in St. Paul, and that's what you'll find.

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Minnesota, long known for its influx of Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th century, is developing an unlikely reputation as a haven for newly arrived Asians. Lured by everything from a solid economy to government benefits to a large expatriate community, immigrants from Laos to Lhasa are changing the face of this state.

From 1980 to 1990, the city of Minneapolis alone saw a 283 percent leap in its Asian population. Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul are home to about 45,000 Asians. Today, up to 65,000 Asians live in Minnesota, which has a population of about 4.5 million people.

Many, though not all, are refugees from southeast Asia. The Hmong - best known for having been recruited by the CIA to fight a "secret war" against communists in Laos in the 1960s and '70s - are Minnesota's largest ethnic minority, numbering some 30,000.

"There has never been before, at least in this state, a rapid migration of people who are so different from the majority population," says Daniel Detzner, director of the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Minnesota. From large cities to small towns, long-term residents are slowly adapting to the unfamiliar culture, cuisine, and religious beliefs that the immigrants bring with them.

Making the change

Minnesota is not the only state struggling with such change. Homogeneous states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, for example, have seen their Asian populations burgeon.

Here in Minnesota, some of the capital's main thoroughfares host block after block of Asian businesses, restaurants, and community centers:

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*The Asian-American Press, headquartered in St. Paul, has a circulation of 15,000 and publishes an annual 200-page Asian business directory.

*The Minneapolis/St. Paul Area boasts 200 Chinese restaurants, nearly 70 Vietnamese restaurants, and at least 40 other Asian restaurants.

*Nearly 200 nonprofit community groups in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area cater to the needs of ethnic groups from Cambodians to Burmese to Tibetans.

Asians have gotten a strong helping hand as they've moved into a state that is still largely white and Christian. Lutheran and Roman Catholic relief agencies, with government help, supported an initial wave of Asian refugees in the mid-1970s. Soon a host of other nonprofits started to sprout.

Funding by Minnesotans "has been disproportionate to the size of the population," says Michael O'Keefe, executive vice president of the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, one of the state's largest charitable groups. McKnight has given $1.5 million to $2 million to help Asians in Minnesota over the past four years, largely through community programs and organizations.

Mr. McKnight and others chalk up the generosity to such factors as a benevolent liberal tradition that Minnesotans are known for. "Word got out that this was a pretty good state," says Professor Detzner.

Many Asian immigrants say the state has indeed developed a decent track record in welcoming them. Whites "treat us almost like all the others," says Tyty Nguyen, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota who is originally from Vietnam. "There are a lot of us, so they are used to us," she adds.

But the reception for the newcomers has not been a consistently warm one. Asians have had to deal with negative stereotypes, suspicion, and sometimes harassment.

No one denies that racism runs under the surface here, though few like to discuss the subject. "Half the white community doesn't realize there are racial minorities here, and the other half denies there is a problem," says Mr. O'Keefe.

But that could change as Minnesota's record of generosity toward its immigrant population is tested by cuts in federal funding - which makes up a significant chunk of aid for Asians here.

The St. Paul-based Hmong-American Partnership, for example, a nonprofit group that helps Hmong become self-sufficient, receives 30 percent of its $2 million budget courtesy of the federal government, according to director William Yang. He and other Minnesotans active in the nonprofit sector predict that state cutbacks will follow federal trimming - with charitable groups unable to pick up the slack.

"Folks who are enjoying state and local benefits are going to find those programs cut," says O'Keefe. "We, in our funding, will have to be more selective."

A home of one's own

This could spell trouble for a community that is making enormous cultural adjustments. Young people in particular often find it difficult to negotiate the divide between a traditional upbringing and their need to find a niche in the US.

This struggle can manifest itself in Asian youth gangs, loose versions of which are cropping up in Minneapolis. Gang members "are usually the ones who got picked on all the time in school and on the playground," says Mr. Yang.

Some Hmong teenagers, for example, used gangs as a means of protection. "Usually the ones who got involved are shy and quiet - the 'nerds,' " Yang explains.

Faced with the growing demands of dealing with such problems, some Minnesota officials express concern that the state, known for its generous benefits, may grow even more attractive for needy immigrants living elsewhere.

To keep the states' social responsibilities equitable, Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton urges that federal block grants have nationwide standards. This would keep people from "jumping from one state to another, saying 'I'm leaving Illinois and coming to Minnesota,' " she says. "That is what people are arguing about, that we are going to be penalized" for providing more benefits than some other states.

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