ATHENS, Tenn. -- I lived in Tennessee for 13 years, long enough to have found plenty of spots that contradict my liberal Northern friends' image of the South as a conservative hotbed where people are suspicious of newcomers and new ideas.
Athens is a small town (13,400) midway between the Tennessee River and the Great Smoky Mountains, and midway, too, between Knoxville and Chattanooga. In many ways it does feel like the stereotypical small Southern town; it's in McMinn County, which is 93 percent white, voted 67 percent Republican in the last presidential election, and is just a few miles from where the prosecution sought to ban the theory of evolution from schools in the 1925 Scopes ''monkey trial."
It bears some likeness to ''Mayberry RFD," with red brick buildings, awnings, and a drugstore with soda fountain and lunch counter where people fight to see who gets the last order of fresh biscuits and gravy. The same woman who took your order hails you again when you run into her later at the camera shop.
''Have you just moved to town?" everyone asks, or, ''Where are you visiting from?" They can spot an outsider, after all; they know everybody here.
Still, the town has a Colombian grocery store, a Mexican auto body shop, family-run Mexican restaurants, and immigrants from Iran, Korea, Laos, Romania, and Russia, to name a few. And though the Asian population measures less than 1 percent, there is a strong Japanese contingent here, thanks in part to the presence of DENSO Manufacturing, a Japanese auto parts supplier that opened a plant here in 1997. Dozens of its managers have brought their families from Japan for stints of up to five years.
The local McMinn County Living Heritage Museum mounts a large exhibition of Japanese quilts each fall. At the Majestic Mansion Bed & Breakfast, you will find a room and bath that might be made for Japan; owners Richard and Elaine Newman lived in Japan for several years and brought some decor home with them.
''There's a guy who works at DENSO and rides his bicycle to and from work," says Richard Newman. ''I don't even know who he is. I see him every morning when I run. One morning, it's 'Good morning,' the next one it's 'Ohayo gozaimasu.' "
Japan and Athens actually have a connection that predates DENSO's arrival by more than 100 years. In 1881, two graduates of Tennessee Wesleyan, a small Methodist college in Athens, went to Japan as missionaries and founded a seminary school in Nagasaki. Destroyed in World War II, the school was rebuilt in nearby Isahaya City.
The two colleges started a student exchange program in 1968, the name was changed to Nagasaki Wesleyan in 1980, and Isahaya and Athens became official sister cities in the '80s. Many credit the interest of Marvin Bolinger, who was Athens' city manager from 1978 to 1993.
''I have always had an interest in traveling and, after spending a year in Vietnam in 1970-71, I loved the Asian people and was fascinated by their cultures," says Bolinger. Athens and Isahaya developed visiting programs for teachers and send student artwork back and forth for exhibitions.
''I think it opened up new horizons, and made us aware of another part of the world," says Bolinger, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla.
''There was some resentment," Bolinger remembers. ''I got telephone calls from people saying, 'Why are you doing this? Remember Pearl Harbor.' My dad fought in World War II. He had a lot of that when we first started. He was a big anti-Japanese person. But when we had Japanese students staying with us, he felt comfortable with them. I think it helped him grow a little bit.
''I think Eisenhower was right when he formed the sister city program. When you sit down with people and eat with them, it's hard to make war with them."
Mark Hori, president of DENSO's Athens plant, arrived here with his family in 1999, and found a quick welcome.
''Everybody here has a hospitality for the Japanese," he says. The community provides English classes and activities for the families of executives to involve them in town life.
''When I was transferred, I did not know anything," Hori says. ''A neighbor came to my house to explain many things. This would not happen in Japan. For example, he taught me how to drive a lawn mower. In Japan, the land is too small to have a lawn."
Athens' official website announces, ''The Friendly City: We're glad you're here."
''It's called 'The Friendly City,' and there's no question that the people here are very, very friendly," says Newman. ''You've got people whose families have been here for generations, and you've got people like us who've been here 10 years. In a lot of towns, the people who've been there a long time become very protective. But Athens doesn't do that. They have a warmth of welcome."
One day I got to the drugstore just after they ran out of biscuits, and the woman who got the last order insisted I have them.
''After all," she said, ''I can come back anytime."
The man in the jewelry store insisted I let him polish my necklace. I went to Taqueria La Chiquita for dinner, and the cook, though he spoke almost no English, invited me into the kitchen to watch him make my dinner.
While I was eating, Javier Mora, son of the owners, showed up. He left Mexico about 15 years ago and since then has lived mostly in Chicago. But part of his family moved to Athens, and last year, he and his wife and young daughter joined them. He now operates an auto body shop and car wash.
''This is a place I want to raise my daughter," Mora says. ''It's quiet, it's friendly, you can know your neighbors. It's a good place."
''I don't know who coined the phrase 'The Friendly City' when it first appeared," says Robert Tennyson, who grew up here, and is a spokesman for DENSO. ''But I do know I have heard it all my life, so it becomes part of your life."
As immigrants have arrived from more countries, Athens has continued to extend its welcome. One of the biggest events is a springtime festival called Fiesta. Tennyson, who heads the town's international relations committee, says Fiesta began as a way to focus on the growing Hispanic population, but it keeps expanding.
''We're bringing more countries in, making it an international festival, because people from so many different cultures have moved in," he says.
While Athens residents often help newcomers make their way here, they seem just as eager to learn about the world those newcomers came from, a world far from this small town in the Sweetwater Valley.
Contact Kathy Shorr, a freelance writer on Cape Cod, at firstname.lastname@example.org.