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Desis are changing California

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    Desis are changing California

    The Kaur family rode from Toronto to the Bay Area on the high-tech job wave in the mid-1990s. They looked for housing they could afford, good schools,

    decent commutes and, as devout Sikhs, religious tolerance.

    They found it in Fremont, once a network of townships linked by two-lane roads through cherry orchards, then a blue-collar suburb that built Chevies and now an ethnically diverse and affluent Silicon Valley technopolis of 200, 000 people.

    Starting this week, results of the 2000 U.S. Census will begin revealing the impact of two of the most powerful forces of demographic change in the Bay Area -- technology and Asian immigration -- on southern Alameda and northern Santa Clara counties.

    The change is visible in things from Hindu temples to elderly Chinese practicing tai chi to some of the best public schools in the state, filled with children whose well-educated parents frequently have arrived from India, Taiwan and mainland China.

    Asian students make up 40 percent of Fremont's school enrollment, and they are a majority in Milpitas.

    Jagmeet Kaur, whose ancestry is Indian, grew up in Kenya and has lived in London as well as Toronto. She prefers Fremont, the Bay Area's fourth largest city.

    "I find this is the best place to be," she said. "People appreciate other cultures. There's a lot more work to be done, but this is OK."

    Eager to have their presence confirmed in federal data that influence political and economic power, Fremont's newer ethnic communities worked to make sure that last year's count was as complete as possible. They flew street banners in Spanish, English, Farsi, Hindi and Chinese.

    The effort succeeded: At 77 percent, Fremont households' response rate to the census questionnaire was the highest among California's most populous cities and tied for second in the nation.

    Neighboring Milpitas, population 65,000, boasts the largest Asian shopping center in Northern California -- Milpitas Square near Interstates 237 and 880 - - that attracts customers from as far away as Sacramento.

    "The result of diversity has been a very vibrant community," said Mayor Henry Manayan. "That's beneficial to us economically. A lot of the people who moved to Milpitas, the Asian Americans, are extremely educated."

    Three decades ago, Fremont was a string of exits on the road to San Jose, with average schools, no downtown and sprawl surrounding historic townships such as Niles. Milpitas was known for its dump.

    Now the area is a center of Silicon Valley jobs and riches. In Fremont, new ethnic and religious communities overlay an aging suburb where the Rotary and the Portuguese American Pastoral Cultural Center are still a part of the scene.

    Newcomers arrive with their skills and aspirations, and still higher hopes for their children. Often they bring their parents.

    "The engineers are coming because of the computers," said Bimla Bhatia, a 64-year-old former high school teacher who came from New Delhi 10 years ago to be with her computer engineer son. "Many parents are coming because they have to take care of their grandchildren."

    Birth and school enrollment records show the increase in newcomers of foreign ancestry and point to the rising income and education levels of the tech boom.

    While the rate of births to foreign-born mothers (compared with non-foreign- born mothers) in California has leveled off in recent years, it jumped more than 60 percent in the last decade in parts of Fremont. Chinese, Filipino and Indian were the most numerous ancestries.

    Change is measured not only in monster homes but in a bounty of high school valedictorians and young musical virtuosos -- the products of an intensely competitive learning environment. It is not unusual for parents to urge their 14-year-olds to take college-level courses.

    Mission San Jose High School in Fremont has climbed into the top 10 percent of California schools in its peer group. The academic rise has gone hand-in- hand with the school's increasing Asian enrollment, which has doubled since 1993.

    Last year, Mission San Jose High graduated a record 20 valedictorians out of a senior class of 508.

    At Mission San Jose Elementary, the Kaur family's school, the student body is 61 percent Asian and 30 percent non-Hispanic white. And almost nine in 10 parents have at least a college education.

    Some of the newcomers are well-off and determined to make their mark. Enormous hillside homes, many equipped with indoor pools, wine cellars and five- to eight-car garages, climb the hillsides above Mission San Jose. Fremont's largest home, on the flanks of Mission Peak, covers 26,000 square feet of floor space, or half an acre.

    Steven Wang, a senior director at, an Internet site that is like a Chinese version of Yahoo, underscores the newly acquired affluence of many new immigrants. He switched his family's residence from an old house in San Jose to a new, five-bedroom home in Fremont.

    "One thing you need to understand about the Chinese is we prefer to live in newer houses," Wang said. "When we were able to afford it, we chose to live in a new community."

    Still other newcomers are temporary residents of Silicon Valley. Indians received some 43 percent, and Chinese 10 percent, of all H1-B worker visas granted by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service between October 1999 and February 2000.

    Some immigrants, like Lata Krishnan, formed their own companies after working for someone else. Three years after she came to Silicon Valley from India in 1986, she joined two other Indian expatriates and cashed in part of their retirement money to form Smart Modular Technologies in Fremont.

    But whether one has the biggest house in the valley or none at all, devotion to religion and family are commonplace. Change has produced not only monuments to wealth and education but also, like the marble-tiled Jain Center of Northern California in Milpitas, temples of worship.

    The Kaurs came for the work -- Jagmeet Kaur's husband grabs coffee at the new Starbucks on Mission Boulevard to start his day as a computer programmer --

    but are organized around religion and education.

    Building on a local Sikh tradition that goes back generations to farmers who came from Punjab state and that grew in the 1960s with students who arrived to attend Bay Area universities, they join hands with 500 other Sikhs at weekend services at Gurdwara Sahib Fremont.

    Kaur teaches Punjabi history and religion at the Sikh temple in Hayward. Aware that Sikh boys risk being teased because of their ritual dress, she also serves on a committee to promote awareness of Sikh customs in the non-Sikh community.

    Downhill from Fremont's trophy homes, the Kaurs rent a small apartment across the street from Mission San Jose Elementary. Jagmeet Kaur urges the school's staff to maintain high performance standards and plays a strong role in educating her sons.

    "Parents put a lot of time into extra education outside," she said. "I tutor them myself in math, English and social studies. I buy them extra books, mainly math and English, to prepare for tests."

    Many Chinese and Indian parents in the Mission San Jose district were disappointed last year when their bid to create their own school district was rejected by county school officials who said the move would create "an enclave of privilege."

    Steven Wang took the rejection hard.

    "I talk to my neighbors and I feel very welcome," he said. "But then I go to the school board meetings and I don't feel welcome. We feel they still think of us as outsiders."

    But the culture of achievement is not everyone's ideal.

    "America has purchased the brains of India," said Prabhakar Shridhar Mairal,

    who left home in India to join his engineer son in Fremont.

    Shridhar, who has two sons in India, is taking a much-anticipated trip back after an eight-month stay in Fremont.

    "It's boring now," the 66-year-old community college educator said. "People living here feel elated that they are here. They have every reason to be happy from the monetary point of view. But their roots are there. You cannot forget India. . . . All that glitters is not gold."