Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Understanding Chain (Network) Migration

While economic forces pushed people out of Pittsburgh, relationships often informed which locations pulled in these domestic migrants. Job opportunities in the Sun Belt or other booming regions didn't necessarily prove to be the draw card. To illustrate this point, I offer the story of an expert noodle maker who currently resides in the Denver area:

[Noodle maker Billy Lam] has been doing it his way since he was a kid growing up in Can Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta of the then-South Vietnam.

"My dad had a restaurant in Can Tho called Hoi Ky. We served dim sum, coffee, and rice-and-noodle dishes. That's where I learn," Lam said.

The aftermath of the Vietnam War abruptly ended his apprenticeship in 1978.

"First, I took a boat to Malaysia and stayed in a refugee camp for four months," he said. "That was one of the most difficult times in my life."

Through a friend, he made his way to Pittsburgh where he cooked for two years and learned English before moving on to Boston and New York. The American West called his name in 1981.

"I knew one friend here. We lived in the refugee camp together. He said, 'Come to Denver.' "

Lam's network first landed him in Pittsburgh and then ultimately Denver. A good economy wasn't the issue, though a regional recession may have pushed him out of Pittsburgh along with everyone else who left in the 70s and 80s. The location of trusted friends informed his place choices, particularly the big leap from a refugee camp in Malaysia to Pittsburgh.

What is so worrying about Pittsburgh's low rate of international immigration is the shrinking number of friends who could pull other people to the region. That goes for domestic immigration as well. Non-native new arrivals can bring family, friends and colleagues in tow. Until that critical mass of chain migrants develops, Pittsburgh will rely on the hoped for boomerang set returning home.

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