Indo-Chinese success stories in a US mill town

''It may take three or four years before they really play a role in community affairs, but that's a lot faster than most nationalities,'' projects Fred Abisi, Lowell's adult education director.

Mr. Abisi is talking about the latest wave of immigrants to Lowell, Mass. - the Indo-Chinese. Hundreds of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians have settled in this blue-collar city in northeast Massachusetts since 1979. They've found the one-time mill town a place where employment and education are available and where racial intolerance is relatively rare.

Lowell's new residents are only a fraction of the 400,000 Indo-Chinese - many of them former ''boat people'' - who've flooded into the US in recent years.

''As soon as they get in the city, they come here - that's unlike other ethnic groups,'' claims Mr. Abisi, referring to his adult education office. Abisi estimates that at least 75 percent of the Asian adult refugees register for high school equivalency programs. ''They're just eager to learn. It's their No. 1 priority.''

He estimates that only 10 percent of adult immigrants in other ethnic groups register.

Math is the favorite subject, but the goal for most of the students is to learn English well enough to find a good job. ''They don't want just the usual job,'' Abisi points out.

Some are college bound. ''I don't want to be dumb,'' laughed electrical engineering freshman Nosadeth Intrirath when interviewed in his spotless Lowell apartment. ''Everyone has to study to make more money. When I finish school, I find a good job.'' The 23-year-old Laotian uses broken English learned quickly in the adult education program. He studies five hours a day and gets average grades in his four courses at the University of Lowell. Mr. Intrirath lives with a working brother and receives state welfare and federal student aid.

In three years, 15 Indo-Chinese refugees have jumped from the Lowell adult education program to the university.

Thirst for education is an obvious ingredient for Intrirath's success so far. More subtle, at least on the surface, is a clean separation from his past. Just 11/2 years ago he fled Laos after being ordered by the Communist regime to leave school for communal farm work. He swam the Mekong River by moonlight to avoid being shot during his escape to Thailand. Now he's ''at home'' in jeans, a ski jacket, and cowboy boots.

Although racial stereotyping has opened a social chasm for some other ethnic groups, it has been a bridge for Asians. ''They seem to be welcomed more than other ethnic groups,'' says Abisi. ''There's a positive feeling that they're disciplined, industrious, and smart.''

If anything, the stereotype may be too positive for the immigrants' own good. Betsy Bedell, the Greater Boston Indo-Chinese coordinator for the International Institute, worries that some whites resent the ambitious immigrants. The institute is one of about a dozen resettlement agencies helping immigrants of all races find housing, schooling, and medical and other services.

Although Bedell has yet to find much resistance in the form of jealousy, she says it could surface more when the Asians begin to move up the economic ladder. Some Boston-area refugee job-placement officials report skilled refugees have difficulty getting skilled jobs such as electrician. They say potential employers sometimes justify this discrimination on grounds customers are reluctant to admit Asians into their homes.

Few of the Indo-Chinese had relatives here to sponsor them - or to provide room and board and social support once they arrived. The result, oddly, is often positive: They appear to mix and make the cultural transition faster. Says Abisi , ''They're really lost in a way, coming in with no structural support like friends or family.''

To this day, most of the Lowell immigrant groups - Irish, Italian, Portuguese , French-Canadian, Greek, and Hispanic - still live in segregated areas of the city. The Indo-Chinese are all over the city, wherever housing can be found.

With the flood of refugees, too, comes new hope that immigrants do not have to be seen as a community burden.

School superintendent Mogan insists the newcomers can be a benefit to the city. ''Instead of seeing immigrants as something to put up with, (we must) see them as a way of understanding our own culture more.''

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