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A Long Island Solution to Far East Stress

Published: February 21, 2006

GREAT NECK, N.Y. - In the annals of American newcomers, there must be relatively few immigrants like the Shins. They are an affluent couple in their 40's with two teenage children. They were well established in their careers in Seoul. And then, last July, Maria Shin came to the United States for her first visit, carrying a pocket translator, a laptop and a map on which she had marked out the best American schools with sizable Asian populations.

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Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Sherry Fan and her son, Frank, 14. He takes piano, painting, dance, karate and swimming after school.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Maria Shin, center, and her husband, Inho, moved to Great Neck from Seoul, seeking a less pressured academic life for their two teenage children.

She visited Scarsdale. "A little bit too much," she said, meaning it was a little too expensive.

She visited the suburbs of Los Angeles. "Too much fun," she said, referring to what she perceived as California goofiness.

Then she came to this community on the North Shore of Long Island, where houses cost $1 million and the schools are known for producing Ivy League-bound graduates.

"Great Neck is where we chose," she said in halting English, which she works to improve in conversation classes two or three times a week at the Adult Education Center here. "Here are many Asians. And here my children have more ... more ... chance to live normal."

The chance to live normal is a relative value and might mean many different things to different people. But among a growing group of monied Chinese and South Korean newcomers arriving in this community of 40,000 in Nassau County, there is a strong feeling of what it means: the chance to spare their children the grinding competition and unrelieved pressure of scholastic life in their homelands.

Like immigrants in every past wave, Asian newcomers most often cite the desire to improve their children's lot as a reason for uprooting their families. But it's a subtly different desire, too.

There are economic and educational opportunities aplenty in China and South Korea, after all. The rub seems to be in the single-mindedness demanded of children who wish to access those opportunities.

"Too much pressure, the children," said Fu Hong, 34, whose 5-year-old son was born in Shanghai just before she and her husband, a manufacturer's representative with interests in several factories, moved to a house in Great Neck. Their daughter was born here in 2002. "A lot of pressure. Here, he has fun. Skate. Swim. Aikido."

Ike Yuh, a former importer, sold his house, cashed in his business and arrived in Great Neck from Seoul seven months ago with his wife, a pharmacist, and their 15-year-old son, Joshua. They live for now in a two-bedroom apartment near the train station.

"It is very strict, very hard for the children," he said of life in South Korea. "They study 7 a.m. to midnight. Too much. No time. No time for ... human."

Joshua now plays saxophone in the Great Neck South High School band, and is picking up the guitar, his father said.

It is not the first time in recent years that well-off immigrants have settled in Great Neck. Thirty years ago, affluent Jews fleeing the Islamic theocracy of Iran came to Great Neck by the hundreds if not thousands. They came not only for the first-rate schools and because it was one of America's premier suburbs, but because since the 1950's and 60's Great Neck has been predominantly Jewish.

For the past 10 years, though, Chinese and South Koreans from Flushing, Bayside and other Queens neighborhoods have been making the short hop over the Nassau County border to settle in Great Neck. That trend, and the myriad social and cultural connections forged by it, seems to have made possible the newest trend among families like the Shins - those moving here directly from China and South Korea, a move that demographers say is a new pattern of immigrants making the suburbs their first home.

As of last year, the overall Great Neck school population was 20 percent Asian. At Great Neck South High School, one of two high schools in the district, the Asian population was more than 30 percent.

"Could we become a majority Asian district in 10 years?" mused Ronald Friedman, the superintendent of Great Neck schools. "Who knows? It's possible."

Though their numbers are difficult to establish, those who come directly from Asia seem to be the fastest-growing sector among Asians in Great Neck. And though their experience conforms in many ways to that of all immigrants - the struggle to acquire new language skills, to adapt to new cultural norms - it is also in some ways a unique experience.

The economic miracles that have transformed China and South Korea into manufacturing and technology dynamos have been fed in large part by educational systems in which young people are said to face intense, all-or-nothing competition for top honors. Published reports have described six-day school weeks, 8- to-10-hour school days, after-school tutoring in so-called cram schools and a relentless pressure to conform.

To some observers, it is ironic that in fleeing such intensity the newcomers have landed in Great Neck, where there is as competitive a school environment as exists anywhere in the United States. Great Neck is known for its own cram schools. S.A.T. tutoring begins for some in the seventh grade. There is a cottage industry of piano teachers, fencing instructors, writing coaches and tutors who specialize not in remedial foreign language study but in the perfection of accent and idiom.

But if anything, the newcomers moving in are occupying more than just the physical real estate of Great Neck, a place that unself-consciously incorporates within its boundaries a community named Lake Success. They are inhabiting, also, its real estate of aspiration.

"In the last five to seven years, half my business has been tutoring Chinese and Korean students who are getting straight A's in school and who want an even more intensive experience," said Beth Berney, the proprietor and sole staff member of the Beth Berney Language Center in Great Neck, one of dozens of private tutoring businesses in the community. "The parents are extremely motivated; the kids are extremely motivated. It's a pleasure. I'm having a wonderful time."

If there is tension between the old and the new ethnic communities in this suburb, it is subdued and for the most part invisible. In 2001, a letter published in the Great Neck South High School newspaper contained derogatory remarks about Asian immigrants, and prompted several meetings between school officials and members of the well-organized Great Neck Chinese Association, a group representing about 400 families, its president, Pat Lo, said.

"It was an unpleasant incident, but it is long ago, and I think everyone learned from it," she said. "Our goal is to remain here and to contribute to this community. It is a great community."

There are other places attracting affluent Asian immigrants. Northern New Jersey and the suburbs of Boston and Chicago also have well-established Asian communities that newcomers consider suitable. But Great Neck's appeal, according to many of those interviewed, is rooted not only in its proximity to New York but its particular closeness to the cultural infrastructure of Flushing, which is the largest of New York City's three Chinatowns and one of the largest Asian hubs in America. The oldest Chinatown in New York, of course, is the one in Manhattan; the third-largest is in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

As for the enclave in Flushing, "It has the restaurants, grocery stores and shopping that people need," said Rachel Sha, who immigrated from Shanghai as a student in 1985 and now lives in Great Neck. And there is the bus line, the N21, which connects Great Neck and Flushing and has become the link for those seeking Chinese or Korean-speaking domestic or child-care help, she said.

But overwhelmingly, the single most-often-cited appeal of Great Neck for Asian newcomers is the schools, and in particular one school. "Great Neck South High School," said Mr. Yuh, the South Korean importer who arrived seven months ago after an exhaustive online search for the right schools for his son. "After that, then M.I.T."

Scholars and demographers describe three major waves of Asian settlers in the United States in the last 40 years: those who arrived from Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 70's and 80's, Koreans and Chinese who came as students in the 1990's and, most recently, the new entrepreneurs from China and Korea.

Among the first two groups, the most common route to Great Neck was through progressively more affluent neighborhoods in Queens: Flushing, Elmhurst and, mainly, Bayside.

And like the previous groups, the newest arrivals are coming as families. For some, however, there is a catch. In parts of Great Neck there are enclaves of women whose husbands have moved them and their children from China but are often absent, traveling between China and the United States, some as garment buyers for American retailers and others employed in various professions.

"The women left at home have what I call the 'married single life,' " said Lena Huang, a guidance counselor at the Adult Learning Center in Great Neck, which is operated by the school district. "Their husbands are here one month, gone one month," she said, "and the women for the most part are quite isolated. There is a lot of sadness."

Four years ago, Sherry Fan came to Great Neck from Beijing with her 10-year-old son, Frank.

His asthma was constantly aggravated by the infamously polluted air of Beijing. Here, he has had few respiratory problems. But she and Frank's father, a television director and actor, see each other only intermittently. For her, "sometimes life is a little boring."

Her life revolves around a small community of friends, her English conversation classes, which she takes four times a week, and driving her son to lessons after school. He takes piano, painting, dance, karate and swimming.

"He has friends," she said of her son, upstairs in his bedroom in their Great Neck town house. "They call him. I hear him speaking on phone, speak English. I am very happy. He have opportunities here. My husband wants him here."

Will she return to China when her son is finished with school?

"Seven more years before he finish college. Then? I don't know," she said. "Whatever he will do, where he will go, I will go. To give the boy good life. That is all."