Asian immigrants who got their start in Atlantic City have been drawn to the mainland in recent years by better jobs, housing and educational opportunities.
While new immigrants continue to feed the city’s large Asian population, 2010 U.S. Census data show that growth — 46 percent since 2000 — has been outpaced by suburban municipalities. They include Egg Harbor and Hamilton townships, which saw their Asian populations triple and double during the same period.
“They don’t want to live in Atlantic City for many reasons — whenever they have the opportunity to leave, they take it,” said Peter Liu, a Linwood resident who emigrated from China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He now serves as principal of the Atlantic Huaxia Chinese School in Egg Harbor Township.
Most immigrants start off working in the businesses of established relatives or eke out a living in casino jobs, Liu said. They live in the city for the convenient public transportation and the presence of fellow immigrants who speak the same language and share the same culture.
But as the newcomers learn English, obtain driver’s licenses and save enough money, they follow a path similar to the one forged by other immigrant groups in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“As a restaurant worker, I may not have much education, but I still want to give my kids the best I can,” Liu said. “So they compare Atlantic City with EHT and say, ‘forget A.C.’”
For the increasingly influential Asian population, Liu said, homeownership and the establishment of small businesses in the suburbs are still the path to prosperity.
Asian-Americans lead other minority groups in homeownership, with 70 percent surveyed in the 2010 Census reporting that they owned homes in Atlantic County. That compares to 42 percent of blacks and 44 percent of Hispanics who own homes.
And most of these homeowners now call mainland Atlantic County home. According to Census figures, 51 percent of Asian households in Atlantic City live in rental units. In Egg Harbor Township, whose Asian population may soon eclipse that of Atlantic City, the figure is less than 12 percent; in Galloway Township, it’s 15 percent.
Two jobs, one dream
Jiyao Liang, or “Jim” as his American colleagues know him, has a strong work ethic.
After breakfast with his family, he leaves his Egg Harbor Township home each morning for a job as a financial advisor, managing his clients’ retirement plans. At 4 o’clock, he leaves for work as a beverage server at Caesars Atlantic City.
He goes home after midnight, and in the morning he starts the day all over again.
In 1982, Liang left China for New York to live with family and worked at restaurants before moving to Atlantic City in 1999. By 2007, he had enough money for a down payment on a house in the Cardiff section of the township.
“We try to stay in Atlantic City, but in that moment the city is not real safe,” he said. “A lot of people heading around doing drugs and that stuff.”
Liang said he didn’t want his wife, Zhe “Jess” Xu, walking home late at night anymore from her casino job. After she was laid off from Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa two years ago, Xu started studying to be a nurse at a technical school near their home.
In another two years, Liang hopes to start his own financial business closer to his home. He has his wife, in-laws and a daughter from another marriage to support.
“It’s been slow, but it’s still going,” says Liang, 46. “We’re going to see how far we can go.”
Such aspirations for self-employment are increasingly common among Asian Americans, whose businesses have expanded at a time when most others are contracting.
According to the U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners, which is conducted every five years, the number of Asian-owned businesses increased from 1,361 in 2002 to 1,551 in 2007. While overall employment in Atlantic County declined by nearly 2,000 jobs during that period, Asian-owned businesses added more than 400 jobs.
Liang’s story is representative of a lot of Asian immigrants to the area. Liu said many are struggling to get ahead, make a better life for their children and fit into a new culture.
In one example, Liang and his wife adopted their American names as casino workers.
“When I say ‘Jiyao’” — pronounced “gee-ow” — “most people get very confused,” Liang said. “It’s easy for people to call me Jim. Most people don’t know my official name; they call me Jim.”
But Liu said the challenges are worthwhile.
“Eventually you can overcome all the obstacles and become successful professionals in this society,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities here, and people in the U.S., they don’t discriminate — much.”
Neurologist Syed Jaffery took a different, more circuitous path to opening his private practice in Egg Harbor Township.
After studying medicine in his native Pakistan, he came to Jersey City in 1989.
“The first time I landed in JFK, I had only $35 in my pocket and no place to go,” he said.
For the first 30 days, Jaffery lived with a friend from medical college who had immigrated to the United States before him. But he couldn’t stay in the house during the day.
“I had to leave the house at 7 a.m. ... and he came back at 7 p.m.,” he said. “I was just walking the streets, going door to door begging for a job, any kind of job, and I was told I was overqualified or I didn’t have a license and can’t do this job.”
“Those 30 days were a big trauma,” he added.
Eventually, Jaffery found a job at a gas station, but after several months of struggling to make a living, he decided to volunteer for the Army. He dragged the gas station owner with him.
“Every business in this country has a respect of its own, and I wanted to achieve the highest,” he said. “The military is the most highest, in my opinion.”
The military provided Jaffery an alternate path to prosperity, with a home in New Orleans and a job at a hospital on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. But seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina returned Jaffery and his family to the status of immigrants.
A full-time job with the Air National Guard brought Jaffery back to New Jersey, where he worked six or seven days a week at hospitals in Atlantic City, Galloway and Vineland. His two children were at college and the rest of his family lived in a FEMA hotel in Baton Rouge. Jaffery, meanwhile, was living with another friend in Atlantic City. The family wasn’t reunited for another six months.
Today, Jaffery runs his own private practice in Egg Harbor Township — with seven employees — and is on the staff of the AtlantiCare Neurosciences Institute with his wife, Kaniz.
“Twenty-five years ago, going door to door begging for a job; now I’m proud I can give a job to other people,” he said.
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