They arrived in our city as refugees from Bhutan, Somalia, Vietnam, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo. When they gathered one morning to study English at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, some still wore the colorful dress of their native countries.
They spoke a symphony of languages and dialects, but shared one goal: a longing to speak English.
I am Vietnam, Ploi Kpuih told me, and she stood as straight as a soldier, hands folded in front of her, as she enunciated each syllable: I like the freedom here good. I need to speak good. I need to do everything American good.
Much has been written about Latino immigrants moving into this part of the country, but Charlotte is also a magnet for immigrants from many other nations.
For outsiders coming into the region for the DNC, I think thats something they will encounter that will surprise them, said Heather Smith, a UNC Charlotte professor and co-author of the book Charlotte NC: The Global Evolution of a New South City.
People dont think of Charlotte as a globalizing city and we are, Smith said. I hear languages from across the globe in almost every part of my daily life: at the university, in my neighborhood, in stores.
Drive down Central Avenue mid-morning and you cant help but notice. Many of the dozens of men and women studying at the church dont own cars, so they walk to and from nearby homes and apartments to class. Some women wear long, flowing skirts from their native lands. The day we talked, Ploi was dressed in a two-piece navy-blue outfit made from cloth her mother wove in Vietnam.
Even those who have adopted our American style of jeans and T-shirts often retain distinctive features: nose studs in the left nostrils of women from Bhutan and brightly colored head wraps worn by women from the Congo.
Smith, who grew up in Toronto, says Charlotte could be on its way to becoming a global city like her hometown. Were at a crossroads, she said, deciding how receptive we wish to be. Compared to other places, we are certainly more receptive.
You need look no farther than the 8-foot bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the lawn of the old county courthouse, donated to the county in 2008 by The Asian Heritage Association.
Historically, immigrants settled in inner-city neighborhoods. But over the last 20 years, immigrants to many cities in America have settled in what historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South calls salad bowl suburbs. In Charlotte, those neighborhoods are mostly on the eastside and along South Boulevard. He describes them as older, post-World War II communities where rents are affordable.
Charlotte is an immigrant magnet, Hanchett said. Different cultures exist side by side like veggies in a salad.
In 1990, fewer than 4 percent of 396,003 residents were foreign born. Now, 15 percent of our residents were born out of the country, according to the American Community Survey.
No longer are we a black and white city of the old South.
Fleeing to America
The immigrants I met at St. Andrews Episcopal are refugees, brought here with the help of Catholic Social Services. Teachers from Central Piedmont Community College tutor them.
We offer free classes funded through the federal government, said Marianne Lyall-Knusel of CPCC. We serve 4,000 to 5,000 students a year, and 68 countries are represented.
Ploi Kpuih, the refugee from Vietnam, arrived in 2005 with her husband and four children after fleeing Vietnam. The Vietnamese take my husband to jail, she told me. I leave Vietnam, through Cambodia, to here.
She described her children as Daughter No. 1 (17 years old), Daughter No. 2 (13 years old), Daughter No. 3 (10 years old) and a 6-year-old son who was born in a Cambodian refugee camp.
I am work, she said. My husband shampoo. In bits and pieces, and with help from teacher Amanda Ingrassia, I came to understand that she packs doughnuts at a food processing plant from 1:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. and he works as a custodian.
My husband no speak English, she said. My children, good English.
A mini U.N.
Cira Ponce, a Cuban native who grew up in Charlotte and works with Catholic Social Services, helps refugees toward self-reliance. Central Avenue is a desirable area, she said, because there are so many food markets, coffee shops, tailor shops and doctors from the immigrant and refugee community. Its more distinct than other areas because its so visible.
If you go to the intersection of Central Avenue and Eastcrest Drive, youll see.
Two Asian women squatted in the shade of a small tree by the side of the street one recent afternoon. Nearby businesses had signs in English, Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish: The Dim Sum Chinese Restaurant. Tienda Y Novedades Lupitas (a Spanish shop and news store). ABC Chuyen Tien (a Vietnamese money transfer business.)
As I explored the area and watched people of different nationalities walking about, I realized that as a white Southern woman I looked more out of place in that part of Charlotte than they did.