As debates over weighted grades, middle school renaming and a cluster of other concerns rippled through the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) in recent years, an increasingly influential group — Chinese parents — coalesced outside the spotlight.
Palo Altans with roots in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have turned to a private, primarily Mandarin-language online messaging space on WeChat, a popular multipurpose Chinese app. There, for the past six years, hundreds of parents have hashed out — and formed opinions on — a range of District topics, from Gunn High School’s zero period to weighted GPAs to renaming Jordan Middle School. Most recently, support was gathered last fall for PAUSD board candidate Kathy Jordan.
This modern technology has lent a new dimension to the age-old challenge of assimilation. Palo Alto has long been a melting pot, and proud of it. Immigrants from all parts of the world have settled here, enriching the community with their ideas, perspectives and involvement and enrolling their children in public schools. Like all other immigrants throughout American history, newcomers to Palo Alto try to find a balance between participating in the community and keeping their home countries’ cultures and customs alive.
More and more, the balance is shifting toward involvement.
Chinese parents increasingly have been reaching out to the Palo Alto community by joining District forums and hosting their own inclusive events. Their children also are becoming ever-more integrated into mainstream American practices, following in the footsteps of other second-generation Americans.
According to Monica Arima, an active WeChat user who immigrated from Hong Kong more than 40 years ago, the transition to a more assimilated community will require the efforts from both the Chinese and non-Chinese residents.
“The challenge that we face,” Arima said, “is how we’re going to give ourselves the opportunity to understand others more and have others understand us more.”
At the same time, the Chinese community’s growth is slowing. Fewer immigrants are moving to Palo Alto. Buses of potential Chinese home buyers no longer tour Palo Alto’s neighborhoods, a result of tighter U.S. immigration, a Chinese crackdown on exporting funds and a general real estate slowdown.
The first wave of Chinese immigrants to California arrived in the mid-1800s and were mainly males who worked in railroad construction, agriculture, mining and other types of manual labor; many faced discrimination while they helped build the state. But the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and other restrictions on non-European migrants nearly eliminated Chinese immigration altogether until the 1960s. With policy changes in the 1960s and 1970s and stronger U.S.-China relations, Chinese immigration boomed again. By 2017, Chinese immigrants represented the second largest foreign-born group in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.
Palo Alto, with its top public education, nearly perfect weather and proximity to Stanford University and the tech influence of Silicon Valley, was a popular destination for Taiwanese and later mainland Chinese immigrants, many of whom landed in the area for graduate school or for jobs in high tech using employer-sponsored visas.
In 1990, five percent of Palo Alto’s population had Chinese ethnicity, according to the U.S. Census. By 2010, the city’s Asian population had grown to 27 percent, and although the Census no longer specifies ethnicity, Chinese is the second-most spoken language in the city today. PAUSD also does not break down enrollment by ethnicity, but Asian students make up 37 percent of District enrollment and 34 percent of Palo Alto High School’s student body, according to PAUSD.
Save for a contentious debate in 2007 over instituting Mandarin immersion in PAUSD, it wasn’t until earlier this decade that the impact of the steady Chinese immigration made headlines in Palo Alto. That’s when mainland Chinese home buyers came to the Bay Area. About five years ago, according to published reports, Chinese nationals accounted for 15 percent of home purchases in the city, many of them with all-cash offers.
During the real estate rush around 2012-2016, “There could be six offers on a home in Palo Alto with four cash offers by Chinese buyers,” said Kim Heng, who co-founded the Heng-Seroff Group at Keller Williams Realty after leaving DeLeon Realty.
A realtor for almost 15 years, Heng had led DeLeon’s outreach to Asians, including its infamous tour bus for prospective Chinese buyers; the buses were DeLeon’s most popular form of Bay Area real estate advertisement. The limo bus would drive through Palo Alto neighborhoods and highlight the “high-quality education, clean air, prestigious universities, direct-flight access, abundant venture capital and entrepreneur-friendly environment,” Heng wrote in a research document sent to The Campanile.
The inflated prices brought about by the generous all-cash offers “created some resentment, because local people compete with cash buyers from China,” Heng said. “People have saved hard-earned money and still find themselves losing in the bidding war.”
When first arriving, new immigrants blanketed long-time residents with a slew of unorganized emails requesting advice and assistance. Among the recipients was Debra Cen, who had migrated from mainland China in 1987.
Recognizing the inefficiency of this decentralized hodgepodge, Cen decided roughly six years ago to use the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat to create a more streamlined form of communication, specifically for the Chinese community in Palo Alto.
“We use it as a kind of community bulletin board,” Cen said. “We share information, and everyone found it really useful and convenient.”
What began as a 100-person chat grew and grew until it reached the app’s maximum of 500 participants. Beyond the initial forum are separate chat groups on specific topics — there are groups for different classifications, such as each school in PAUSD and high school graduation years. Today, these WeChat groups are the central hubs for all inquiries and announcements in the Chinese community, from tutor recommendations to advice for after-school care, with much of their appeal coming from the use of Mandarin rather than English in the casual online conversations.
“It brings a lot of practical use to many Chinese parents because they feel like they have a community to help guide them — and it’s free. We’ve become very organized because we can instantly reach 1,000 to 2,000 people within minutes.”
Around the same time WeChat arrived as the private focal point for sharing news and input in Palo Alto’s Chinese community, Cen also co-founded the Palo Alto Chinese Parents’ Club (PACPC), a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening connections among the Chinese community. What was at first simply another WeChat group quickly became a system where two parent representatives from each school would be part of a chat, allowing news to spread even faster.
These groups also provide a significant resource for newer immigrants in the area who need assistance settling in. Qiping Cai, whose son is a junior at Gunn, immigrated from China five years ago and noted the support he and his family received from WeChat groups.
“When we first came to this place, to assimilate as fast as possible, we needed to learn how people’s lifestyle are like at this new location, and we needed to learn it from community members who have lived here for a longer time,” Cai said through a translator. “A lot of members from the Chinese community gave us some tips.”
All this organization paid off beyond finding plumbers and tutors, evolving into a significant, though low-profile, force within the PAUSD community. In recent years, the influence of the Chinese community has become more noticeable, as WeChat groups offer a convenient place for discussion and debate over various District issues.
“We had discussions about weighted GPAs and the PAUSD School Board in the Paly parent WeChat group,” Paly parent Hanping Hou said through a translator.
As a result, Chinese parents have gradually become more vocal, and the 2018 PAUSD board elections was something of a turning point.
“Various campaign support groups were formed on WeChat,” PACPC member and WeChat user Catherine Xu said. “Active debates and fact findings took place in those groups, and people were mobilized to support their desired candidates. As a result, the candidates with strong Chinese community support got strong financial backing and wide public attention.”
Candidate Jordan, who ultimately lost the race, received significant support from the Chinese community; the majority of Jordan’s endorsers listed on her website had Chinese surnames.
“I believe our campaign message resonated with the Chinese community, as well as with other community members, because we stood for academic excellence for students of all levels, complying with the law, and for providing needed oversight and accountability for the school district, to make sure that our students would come first,” Jordan said in an email.
According to Xu, these online groups have begun to evolve from simply a means to offer advice and information for parents to a platform to advocate and spread awareness for certain issues; the groups link the Chinese community to school board members and other community leaders.
Xu said, “I believe more local advocacy groups or political candidates will try to reach the Chinese community via WeChat in the future, and this will further expand the Chinese community’s impact to the local community.”
Some Chinese community members say they are aware they have been viewed as a bloc and as “separate” from the rest of Palo Alto. According to Arima, an active PACPC member, it might prove beneficial for both parties to close the gap that she said is largely caused by the Chinese culture’s tendency to be more reserved.
“(WeChat users are) not really connected to the outside world,” Arima said. “They’re more like an inside bubble, within themselves, and there are the good things and there are the bad things. The good thing is that they’re very happy, very comfortable, because it’s like home. The bad thing is, I think that as a (Chinese) community member … we should reach out more so they can learn more about how other cultures are.”
The effects of a disconnect between cultures can be observed through the misunderstandings that often occur in minor interactions, but also in more widely debated issues such as changing Jordan Middle School’s name.
When a committee suggested Yamamoto Middle School as a possible name, this sparked protest among Chinese residents because of the historical sensitivity of the name Yamamoto. According to a petition created by several Chinese residents, although the renaming was proposed to honor Fred Yamamoto, a World War II veteran from Palo Alto, there was strong opposition due to its resemblance to the surname of Isoroku Yamamoto, a Japanese Marshal Admiral of the Navy who was responsible for wartime tragedies in China.
“There was a lot of inappropriate behavior,” Cen said. “Some even labeled Chinese people as racist against Japanese.”
Cen said some in the Chinese community wanted to make amends and were active in donating money for setting up a memorial for Fred Yamamoto.
The root of many misunderstandings can be traced to discrepancies between Chinese and American values.
“The main difference (between Chinese and American cultures) is that Chinese culture is more individual — you work hard and achieve. While (in) American culture you also have to work hard, another component is … teamwork.”
According to Arima, the Chinese are making efforts to bring the two communities closer. Five years ago, Arima created the annual Palo Alto Emergency Awareness Fair, which is now the Palo Alto Emergency Awareness & Crime Prevention Seminar. Though the seminar was aimed at the Chinese community, several non-Chinese residents also participated.
About two years ago, the first annual Chinese New Year Fair, although predominantly attended by Asians, welcomed other residents to learn about Chinese culture.
“It’s celebration for our own culture, but we welcomed anyone who wants to come,” Amira said. “So I thought that was a good way … to involve everyone together.”
The PACPC invited non-Chinese, including city council members, to volunteer at the Chinese New Year Fair and make dumplings. The PACPC has continued to add more events, including potlucks and seminars both for exclusively Chinese parents and the community as a whole.
“When I get to a new place, as a minority, we will bring the best of our culture here,” Cai said. “I think we should be not only a consumer, but also a contributor in this community.”
The evolution of the Palo Alto Chinese community appears to be at an inflection point, not just because of efforts to fit in, but also because fewer newcomers are arriving.
“The market frenzy is somewhat over,” real estate broker Heng said.
The six-offers-with-four-cash-offers scenario has diminished to a scant three offers on a home, with one cash offer, Heng said. Furthermore, while a house might have been on the market for six to seven days during the boom years of 2012-2016, this length has increased to about 30 days.
“We definitely see a trend in terms of … less overseas mainland China buyers coming here to purchase properties,” said Alex Wang, a realtor with Sereno GWWroup.
According to Heng, the majority of recent Chinese buyers are clients already in the area who want to invest in a second home or those who have amassed savings outside of China, including in Hong Kong and the United States.
This shift reflects current national policies on both sides of the Pacific. Nationwide, Chinese direct investment into America fell by 83 percent from 2017-2018, according to the international law firm Baker McKenzie — the result of Chinese government restrictions on moving money out of the country, higher American real estate prices and growing uncertainty about American immigration policies.
“A lot of my friends want to immigrate to other countries, but in the past two to three years, it’s difficult … a lot of people want to immigrate but they can’t move money from China.”
President Donald Trump’s tighter immigration policies and increasingly tense U.S.-Chinese relations could also be making some Chinese more hesitant to come to America.
“Tensions from the current trade war have impacted a lot of Chinese activity in Silicon Valley, and China’s own capital controls in 2017 have also had a major impact on Chinese people moving money abroad,’’ said Matt Sheehan, a former editor for The Campanile and researcher of Chinese real estate investment trends.
One of the pathways used by Chinese to invest in American real estate and business was the EB-5 visa, which enables immigrants to receive a green card for American permanent residency if they invest $500,000 to $1 million in projects that create at least 10 jobs. The EB-5 was a particularly popular avenue for Chinese families arriving in Palo Alto.
The United States issues 10,000 of these visas per year. China became the only country where the number of applicants significantly surpassed America’s annual quota and accounted for the vast majority of EB-5’s issued. As China becomes wealthier, more people can afford the visa. The waitlist in China for the EB-5 visa has become almost 15 years long, discouraging more Chinese families from applying. Additionally, the EB-5 is undergoing scrutiny by the U.S. government for misuse.
“Last time I sold a home due to an EB-5 visa was a year and half ago,” Heng said.
Although the first-generation buyers have decreased, Heng said she now focuses on selling to the children of her original buyers — 30-year-olds who are “productive” members of the community.
Heng’s experience with newer buyers is emblematic of the larger evolution of the Chinese community in Palo Alto and beyond. It’s not just that “resentment has faded,” Heng said, as immigrant buyers dwindle. It’s also that Chinese parents are using WeChat and other support groups first as a tool to become informed and then also to reach out into the broader community.
Members of the PACPC have become more involved with PAUSD and other boards and commissions, such as Leadership Palo Alto. They have also become more engaged in city projects, including raising funds for the planned Palo Alto History Museum so one of the rooms will recognize the Chinese community’s influence.
The increased level of activity in the community reflects the hope among some Chinese immigrants that they not be viewed by others as a bloc but as contributors to the entire community, something that had been made more difficult as more Chinese settled in Palo Alto, according to Xu.
Arima applauds the shift from separation to assimilation.
“Gradually you become part of the community,’’ she said, “and that’s why participating in the mainstream community is so important — other people can see your face, other people can see your involvement and other people can see your contribution.”
Some members of the Chinese community in Palo Alto are concerned about being misunderstood. They also worry that they may be viewed as a bloc and that the diversity within their own community isn’t recognized by others.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions from small things — for example, our culture is to be modest, and you don’t look at the people directly,” PACPC cofounder and community member Debra Cen said. “In American culture, you always make eye contact when people are talking to be polite … so people might wonder why is someone behaving like that.”
Often times, barriers such as these can cause even short interactions to be misinterpreted as rude or awkward, as people are unfamiliar with what is considered normal in different cultures.
“In my opinion, I think that the Chinese first generation, the immigrants from the mainland especially, … do not have the necessary sensitivity to the multicultural environment in the United States because here, to some degree, is a country of immigrants,” Chinese parent and community member Lu Tian said.
Another overlooked aspect of the community is that it’s hardly as homogenous as some people might assume.
“You have first generation, second generation, third generation. You have mixed marriages. You have Chinese from Cambodia, Chinese from Vietnam, Chinese Taiwan … everywhere including born in the USA,” WeChat user and parent Monica Arima said. “The Chinese are composed of so many different backgrounds, so you cannot label them all under the same thing.”
According to Arima, the diversity within the Chinese community mirrors the diversity within Palo Alto itself.
“Within the Palo Alto community there are different sides, same as in the Chinese one,” Amira said. “They can think very different from me, and I can think very different from them.”
This is especially apparent between first and second generations of immigrants. The second generation, according to several parents, is more integrated into American culture, although often still speaking Chinese or retaining some customs.