Cambodians migrate from city to suburbs

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There is an apartment on Portland Avenue in Minneapolis that used to house mostly Cambodian families during the 1990s. It was so well known, Cambodians just called it “the Portland Apartment.”

But most Cambodians have left the building and the city.

Andy Horng, 23, is Cambodian and used to live in “the Portland Apartment” with his family, and he remembers it well. His family came to America in 1980.

“[In the 1990s], the whole apartment was all Cambodian families,” Horng said.

Now, Horng doesn’t know the families who live in the apartment, most of whom are Somali.

“The last person that I know moved out in 2003,” Horng said.

Currently, Horng lives in a Minneapolis duplex with 10 family members. They moved into the 70-year-old, seven-roomed duplex in 2003, after living in the “Portland Apartment” for 16 years.

His family moved out of the apartment because “everybody was moving out,” Horng said. “Cambodian families go by reputation. If you stayed in the apartment, you looked broke.”

Most of the Cambodian families who left moved to the suburbs, reflecting a growing trend among Minnesota’s Asian population.

Census data shows that between 2000 and 2009, suburbs surrounding the Twin Cities have seen a major increase in their Asian populations. Shakopee is one of these suburbs, where the percentage of Asian residents jumped from 2 percent to 10 percent in the 9-year period.

Vichet Chhuon, 33, a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota (pictured, right), who is Cambodian, said, “[Cambodians] want the American dream … that includes home ownership.”

Most Cambodian families immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s, during and after a civil war that ravaged their homeland and killed half the population, Chhuon said.

The immigrants lost everything they had in Cambodia, so they came to America to start over again.

Now, suburbs present new attractions to Cambodians in search of a good home and community for their families. In a suburb like Shakopee, a 4-bedroom home has a median sales price of about $187,000. Shakopee and other suburbs also offer good schools and jobs.

Cambodian families are not the only ones involved with the migration from the city to the suburbs. Asian businesses are moving too.

Lynn Teso (pictured, left) owns the Florida Oriental Market in Burnsville, a market specializing in Asian foods. Teso has followed her customers all the way from Rhode Island.

She opened her store on the East Coast in 1982 after she moved from Laos in 1980. Once she heard that there were more Asians in Minnesota, she moved into Minneapolis, where her store was located for more than 10 years. Then, in 2006, the store moved again, this time to Burnsville.

“Before there were a lot [of Asians], but now they’ve all moved out of Minneapolis,” Teso said.

Horng said Cambodians move to the suburbs to seek the American dream – prosperity and wealth, as well as home ownership.

“People move to the suburbs to have a better life,” Horng said.

Horng said the Cambodians in the suburbs look wealthy and have good reputations, but they are not necessarily better off financially than they were in the city. Suburban Cambodians have a good social status in the Cambodian community.

The suburbs are also attractive to Cambodians, Horng said, because they have fewer people and crowds, and none of the smokers and drug dealers that frequently hung out around his neighborhood in Minneapolis.

One of the main reasons the Horng family did not move out to the suburbs after moving out of “the Portland Apartment” was because of financial issues, something that many low-income families fight to overcome.

Horng works two jobs, one as a staff coordinator, where he helps other people find jobs and stands on his feet for eight hours a day. His other job is delivering flowers for different florists. He earns $14 an hour for the first job, and $6.50 per delivery for the second.

Also Horng’s father doesn’t want to move out to the suburbs. His father believes it’s better to stay in Minneapolis and have more money than to live out in suburbs and look wealthy but be broke.

Horng said people he knows who live in the suburbs who have changed: they have different personalities and dress differently than Cambodians in the city. He said they have different lifestyles, and that “they act like they’re better.”

But Horng said that view doesn’t deter him from wishing for a home there.

He already has his own dream house planned out.

“My choice to live somewhere would be Minnetonka,” he said. “My dream is to get a big house with a horseshoe driveway and my cars all parked out front.”

Kaia Findlay, 15, St. Paul Academy (Photo by Dymanh Chhou)