MORRISVILLE — When Margaret Monteleone moved to Raleigh from New Zealand with her family four years ago, she hoped her 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, could keep playing cricket, a sport wildly popular in most other countries once colonized by the British.
She found a youth cricket team in an unlikely place: the suburban town of Morrisville. The sport is so popular in Morrisville that on Sunday she can always catch a game at Shiloh Park.
"We were surprised to find it at all," said Monteleone.
The thwack of cricket bats is only one of the ways that a growing South Asian population has changed Morrisville and the rest of western Wake County. An influx of Indian immigrants has helped fill new subdivisions, bringing Hindu temples and Indian grocery stores and restaurants to a fast-growing area south of Research Triangle Park.
In a state where Asians make up about 2 percent of the population, Asian-Americans, most from India, account for about 27 percent of Morrisville's residents, according to the 2010 census. Nearly all of them arrived in the past decade, helping make the town one of the fastest-growing in the Triangle.
The influx of South Asians to this part of Wake County is yet another way RTP has helped change the face of this corner of the South. Many of the newcomers are attracted by high-tech jobs in the park and by Wake's schools nearby.
They've created an ethnic enclave that is both educated and relatively well-off. Morrisville's median household income tops the county's, and the poverty rate is about 1 percent.
"They are well-educated and professional, which is exactly what your community wants to attract," said Carlotta Ungaro, head of Morrisville's chamber of commerce.
Indians, whose native country won this year's cricket World Cup, have brought their fervent adherence to the sport with them.
Morrisville offers a youth cricket league and plans to build a full-size cricket field. Its youth cricket program grows every year, said Jason Simpson, an athletic supervisor with the town. This fall, it will field eight teams in three age groups.
Morrisville got its start as a railroad stop in the 1850s and remained a rural crossroads community for a century. Even after RTP took off in the 1960s, the town was a place workers passed by on their way home to Cary or Raleigh. In 1990, the town's population was 1,022.
But as Cary and the rest of western Wake County have grown closer to RTP, Morrisville has come into its own.
The proximity to the park, combined with good schools, has made the town a place of choice for Indians, said Mary Opatha, who opened a pre-school on Chapel Hill Road last year. Close to 80 percent of her students are of South Asian decent, many the children of Indian professionals working at RTP.
"The parents are young, and they like to educate their children," said Opatha, owner of Global Montessori Academy. "Education is very important. It's just our culture."
At Cedar Fork Elementary School, which opened in town in 2005, nearly half the students are of Asian descent.
The demand for technology in RTP draws many Indian engineers to the Triangle, something that has also happened in California's Silicon Valley, said Ross Bassett, an N.C. State University history professor who is writing a book about how Indian engineers have changed the academic landscape of U.S. universities.
"In India, much more than in the U.S., there's a passion for kids to go into engineering," Bassett said.
The prestige of an American college education also attracts some of the brightest Indians to the Triangle, he said, adding that nearly half of the graduates of N.C. State's master's program in electrical engineering last year were of South Asian decent.
A draw for business, too
Not all of Morrisville's Indian residents are engineers, however. As the community grows, so does the business community that supports it.
Lakshmi Challa opened Morrisville's first immigration law firm in April, specializing in helping immigrants launch local companies. About one in four Morrisville residents is an immigrant, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
Challa came to Morrisville from Richmond, Va., because a steady stream of Indian immigrants had been driving to her office there from North Carolina, asking for advice on U.S. business law.
"They found this area ripe for entrepreneurship," she said.
Starting and running businesses is common among the community. Like many of his peers, Sakthivel Palanivelu wears two hats: He works as an engineer at Cisco Systems by day and operates a grocery store, Kadhambam Spices on Davis Drive, by night.
The 12-hour workday is tiring, he said, but it gives him a chance to do what he is good at and to connect with the growing Indian community in Morrisville.
The store's aisles are crowded with fresh produce, snack food, Indian seasonings and Bollywood DVDs. By the cash register sits an aluminum tray filled with samosas - fried pastries stuffed with potato and green peas. Most of the store's customers are South Asians, Palanivelu says.
Businesses like Kadhambam Spices are perhaps the most obvious sign of Morrisville's growing Indian population, aside from the people themselves. Women wearing saris are now a common sight in the town's quintessentially suburban subdivisions and strip shopping centers.
A McDonald's, an AutoZone and a Smithfields Chicken N Bar-BQ front the shopping center where Kadhambam Spices is located.
Diversity and unity
The Indian-American community in Morrisville is far from mono-ethnic. The two largest groups hail from western and southern India, including Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
India, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, has more than 20 officially recognized languages. Regional differences are manifested in cooking, religion and ways of life. When Indians from various regions meet in America, they often talk about those differences.
But in Morrisville, the differences are overlooked as people seek to form a community in their new home, said Suvas Shah, trustee of the Hindu Society of North Carolina, which has 1,250 members.
For example, to unify the Indians who believe in Hinduism - the largest religion in India - the temple asked worshippers collectively to choose 18 gods out of hundreds, so they can all worship under the same roof.
"Radha Krishna had the most number of votes, so it is in the center," Shah said.
Shah says dialect and caste differences are not emphasized at the temple. Instead they find commonality in their strong focus on keeping their families together and educating their children.
While membership at the temples grows, not all Indians are Hindu. A Catholic church in Morrisville, a Pentecostal one in Cary and an Orthodox one in Raleigh are all ethnically Indian. Many other Indians are Muslim.
One of the more striking expressions of community takes place on the cricket field, said Srinivasa Vadlamundi, captain of a local cricket team. Indians and Pakistanis - people from neighboring nations with a long history of animosity - play on the same cricket teams, he said.
Involved in politics
Challa, the lawyer, said that when her father studied at UNC-Chapel Hill as a doctoral student in the 1960s, a bar off campus refused to serve the man.
Now things are much different, she said. She hasn't heard about such discrimination from her clients.
What preoccupies the Indian community instead is the education of their children and the challenge of maintaining their cultural identity while integrating with mainstream American society, said Vinod "Vinnie" Goel, who owns an engineering consulting company and heads Morrisville's planning and zoning board.
Goel said divorce and cohabitation are frowned upon in the Indian community and that many Indians think Americans are too individualistic, choosing self over family.
"We don't believe in nursing homes," Goel said. "Families should stay together in their joys and sorrows."
Indians in the Triangle are also just beginning to test their political influence. Indian-Americans are one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing ethnic groups, and have produced successful politicians elsewhere, including governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina.
Morrisville resident Steve Rao became the first Indian-American to run for Wake County commissioner last year. Born in West Virginia, Rao, a Democrat, lost to incumbent chairman Tony Gurley by 5 percentage points. This year Rao is running for Morrisville's Town Council.
Still, Rao and Goel said the state's larger Asian-American community lacks a political voice. Even with its economic prowess, the community is still considered new and unknown to the rest of the state.
When you say Indian, people ask what tribe?
"They are loyal and God-fearing people," Rao said. "And they work really hard."
The two plan to launch a bipartisan Asian caucus in September. They say they hope to mobilize Wake County's Asian-American community - nearly 50,000 strong - and increase its political participation.
"Where will we be 20 years from now?" Goel said. "Will we be considered part of the mainstream?"