LONG BEACH — The conference ended with a group rendition of "America the Beautiful."
"If you don't know the words," the emcee said, "they're written in your program."
Many looked. A few didn't bother because they knew the words were in English, a language they could neither read nor understand.
It was billed as the first major gathering of its kind, an attempt to deal with a demographic development rivaled in its dramatic and far-reaching effect by only a few events in Long Beach history.
The one-day conference was called "The Changing Face of Long Beach: The Southeast Asians," and held Sunday at St. Mary Medical Center. It was sponsored by the Long Beach chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Among other things, conference organizers announced the establishment of a permanent task force and presented a dozen recommendations--ranging from making a documentary to building a "Cambodia town" commercial area in Long Beach--to deal with what many participants characterized as the most important local issue of the decade.
"They've been here 10 years," said Ding-Jo Currie, coordinator of the Refugee Assistance Program at Long Beach City College and a conference participant, speaking of the Long Beach refugee population. "To me this is the first official welcome from the city."
According to Than Pok, executive director of United Cambodian Community Inc., Southeast Asian immigrants began trickling in as early as 1960 when a handful were given visas to study at Cal State Long Beach. With the fall of Saigon to the communists in 1975, he said, the trickle became a flood. And in 1980, the Vietnamese refugees were joined in great numbers by Cambodians who had survived five years of the murderous Pol Pot regime to finally flee for their lives.
Today, said Pok, of the estimated 30,000 Southeast Asians living in the city, some 25,000--more than anywhere else except the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh--are Cambodians, and they continue to arrive at the rate of about 1,000 per year. The newcomers face a variety of challenges, he said, beginning with the acquisition of such simple survival skills as speaking English and landing adequate jobs and progressing to the more complex problems of adjusting to a culture with which they have little experience.
The city, for its part, is also struggling to adjust. While the Long Beach Unified School District staggers under the burden of increased enrollments and a mushrooming population of non-English speaking students, social service agencies scramble to keep up with the increased demand.
Sunday's conference followed by just three days a United Way conference at California State University Long Beach to discuss ways of enhancing the delivery of social services to all minority groups--including Southeast Asians--and to "build bridges" of understanding between the more established groups, like blacks and Hispanics, and the new Asian arrivals.
"Our goal was to appreciate differences rather than have them become barriers," said Ralph Laudenslayer, director of the Long Beach Senior Center and chairman of United Way's local intercultural committee, which planned the campus gathering. Most of those attending the United Way conference, he said, were representatives of various social service agencies serving the area.
At Sunday's gathering participants--numbering about 250 including an estimated 75 Southeast Asians--were more broadly based, representing a wide spectrum, including government, law enforcement, justice, education, private industry, public utilities, social service and religion.
"What we tried to do was get the opinion leaders from both (the refugee and the established) communities together to talk," said Nancy Wellard, director of the Long Beach chapter of National Conference of Christians and Jews, which she described as an organization dedicated to furthering human relations.
The function of the permanent task force, said Wellard, will be to meet monthly to "address issues and concerns" of interest to both the Asian and non-Asian communities of Long Beach. Consisting of representatives of various governmental and non-governmental entities paired with leaders of the Southeast Asian community, she said, the group will also act as an intervener if any intercultural crisis ever arises.
"We want to understand each other," she said. "We want to keep open the lines of communication."
In addition, Wellard said, her organization's interfaith committee--consisting of representatives from both communities--had come up with a specific set of recommendations for community action.
- Preparation of a presentation depicting the history of the Southeast Asian refugees in Long Beach and the resettlement problems they face.
- Preparing a guide listing services available to refugees.
- Lobbying against government cuts in funding for trained translators and English as a Second Language classes.
- Approaching local developers with the idea of creating a "Cambodia town" in Long Beach similar to Little Tokyo or Chinatown in Los Angeles.
- Adding Southeast Asian speakers to the existing National Conference of Christians and Jews speakers bureau.
- Involving the Southeast Asian community in the city's upcoming bicentennial International City Celebration through cultural displays in libraries, museums and schools.
- Planning smaller conferences in the future to address specific needs of the refugee community in such areas as education, health, religion, etc.
"There's only one problem," complained Currie as the conference approached its musical finale. "There are just too many topics."
But she said she was pleased to see it happening, adding, "This is exciting," Currie said. "It will set the mood (for people) to be aware that something is changing here."