• U.S.

Asians to America with Skills

14 minute read
William R.Doerner

Historian George Stewart once amused himself by imagining the course of U.S. history if America had been discovered not on its Atlantic side by Christopher Columbus but on its Pacific side by a 15th century Chinese explorer named Ko Lum Bo. As hardy immigrants from the Orient began to establish colonies in the sweeping new continent, Stewart wrote in mock retrospect, they naturally ! adhered as closely as possible to the customs of their native land. Accordingly, “vast areas of the country were terraced and irrigated as rice paddies. The colonists continued to use their comfortable flowing garments, and pagodas dotted the landscape.”

In 1985 it sometimes seems that the descendants of Ko Lum Bo, along with many of their neighbors throughout Asia, merely waited 500 years before turning Stewart’s whimsy into something approaching reality. From the Flushing neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens to the Sunset district of San Francisco, from the boatyards of Galveston Bay to the rich Minnesota farmlands, a burgeoning wave of Asian immigrants is pouring into the U.S. Some of the newcomers do indeed continue to wear the comfortable flowing garments of their native lands. And in cities like Westminster, a Los Angeles suburb, an elaborately decorated archway stands prominently among shops that are designed to be reminiscent of Saigon.

Asians have become, just within the past couple of years, the nation’s fastest- expanding ethnic minority, as measured by growth through births and legal immigration. (Hispanics are probably still ahead if undocumented entries are counted.) Though Asians still number only around 3.6 million, or 1.6% of the total U.S. population, their ranks have been swelling at an unprecedented rate since the reform of immigration laws in 1965. Last year alone, more Asian immigrants came to the U.S. — 282,000 — than in the three decades from 1931 to 1960. More than half settled in California, which has the nation’s largest Asian population (64%). The torrent of new arrivals is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future: about 1 million other Asians have already applied and received preliminary clearance to come to America. By the year 2010, the Asian population in the U.S. is expected to more than double.

The newcomers are drastically changing the Asian-American mix. The 1980 census showed that Japanese Americans, the largest Asian subgroup since 1910, have dropped to third place (701,000), after Chinese Americans (806,000) and Filipino Americans (775,000). Japanese Americans play almost no role in the current wave of Asian immigration. Within the next 30 years, demographers expect Filipinos to become the largest group of Asian Americans, followed in order by Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Asian Indians and, in sixth place, Japanese.

While the projections are impressive, what really distinguishes the Asians is that, of all the new immigrants, they are compiling an astonishing record of achievement. Asians are represented far beyond their population share at virtually every top-ranking university: their contingent in Harvard’s freshman class has risen from 3.6% to 10.9% since 1976, and it currently stands at 18.6% at Berkeley, 18.7% at Cal Tech and 8.7% at Princeton. At Columbia, enrollment in the engineering school is more than 20% Asian. In this year’s Westinghouse Science Talent Search, nine of the 40 semifinalists were Asians, as were three of the ten winners.

Partly as a result of their academic accomplishments, Asians are climbing the economic ladder with remarkable speed. The 1980 census showed that median household income for the group as a whole was $22,700, exceeding not only that of American families in general ($19,900) but also the level reported by whites ($20,800). The national median was topped by the Japanese ($27,350), the Asian Indians ($24,990), the Filipinos ($23,680), the Chinese ($22,550) and Koreans ($20,450); among major Asian groups, only the Vietnamese ($12,840) fell below it. The household statistics are somewhat misleading, to be sure, since Asian families are much more likely than whites to rely on the paychecks of two or more family members. Even so, the overall gains in Asian earning power have come far more rapidly than those for any prior surge of immigrants, who had to labor a generation or more before catching up to average living standards.

Asians are well represented in the ranks of managers and professionals. Nearly half of Asian Indians fit into those high-status job categories, almost twice the rate for whites; a survey conducted by the Chicago Reporter, a monthly newsletter about minorities, found that 39% of all Asians in that city were managers or professionals. The Asian hegira has also spawned a new class of small entrepreneurs, many of whom work schedules that make the 40-hour week look like child’s play. Asian-owned fish markets, green groceries and restaurants have breathed fresh life into fading inner-city districts.

No single factor can account for the perseverance of so diverse a group. But a psychological insight is provided by Vachirin Chea, 27, a survivor of the Cambodian death camps who has prospered in banking and real estate in Lowell, Mass. “I have to be an American now,” he says. “But I get my strength from being Cambodian. If I had been raised here in America, I would not have that kind of strength. All that suffering, the anger in me, is what keeps me going.”

Unlike the mass migrations of Europeans to the U.S., the Asian movement is fueled largely by the educated middle class. Except for the Indochinese, with their large refugee contingent, the new Asian arrivals are at least twice as likely as a native-born American to be college graduates. Moreover, since many others are admitted because of a desirable vocational background, the group as a whole has greatly enriched the nation’s talent pool. Says Rand Corp. Demographer Kevin McCarthy: “The Asians are the most highly skilled of any immigrant group our country has ever had.”

Given the rich diversity of Asian immigrants’ backgrounds, it is all but impossible to generalize about their experiences in becoming Americans. For many the closest thing to a common hurdle is the daunting necessity of adjusting to a new culture, an especially difficult challenge to non-English speakers. “English is the great prohibitor,” says Martha Copenhaver, the director of a Southeast Asian education program in Arlington, Va. “Without it, you can’t advance even if you are otherwise qualified.”

Most Asians either have some knowledge of English before coming to the U.S. or quickly acquire the rudiments of an English vocabulary, often by methods bordering on the draconian. Son Nguyen, 18, a Vietnamese-born high school graduate in Houston, recalls that his brother-in-law required him to memorize one page of an English dictionary after school each day. More conventional teaching techniques are available throughout the U.S. in federally sponsored language programs. Those fortunate enough to have studied English at home can often make the transition easily. Cal Tech Senior Hojin Ahn, 24, a native South Korean, arrived in Los Angeles three years ago able to read and write English proficiently. Last year Ahn compiled a better-than-perfect 4.1 grade average, among the highest at Cal Tech, and was awarded a partial scholarship for his senior year.

The other all but universally shared experience is finding a job. That can be a profoundly humbling experience, especially for highly educated Asians. Degrees and credentials that took years to attain suddenly count for little or nothing. Jei Hak Suh, 43, gave up a banking career in South Korea to move with his wife and two young children to Los Angeles in 1981; with his English far from polished, he realized that the banking jobs available to him would not pay enough to support his family. He is now a construction worker.

A few manage to resume careers with relative ease, though often in circumstances that they could never have imagined in their previous lives. Dr. Diem Duc Nguyen, 39, a South Vietnamese army surgeon who left Saigon on a refugee ship in 1975, tried working for a private ambulance service rescue squad in Florida but did not take to it. Then he learned of a medical retraining program in Nebraska and secured an interest-free loan to enter it in return for pledging to practice in rural Bridgeport (pop. 1,668) whose only two physicians were nearing retirement. Says Banker Eldon Evers, who negotiated the deal: “Everything has worked to the letter.” Now married to an American nurse, Nguyen has lived in Bridgeport for eight years and happily calls it home. “I never knew anything about Nebraska until I came here,” he says. “I smelled the manure and got used to it.”

For most the climb is frustrating but ultimately successful. Antonio Cube, 49, a Filipino attorney, immigrated with his wife and two children in 1970. Accustomed to the services of three maids and a driver at home, but unqualified to practice law in the U.S., Cube found work instead as a computer encoder in a bank. “I almost went home,” he says now. “But the bank sent me to technical schools and moved me up little by little. For five years my wife and I worked two full-time jobs.” Today Cube is a supervisor for Seattle’s Rainier Bank and owns not only his own home but three other houses in the metropolitan area. Two of them, now rented, are earmarked for his children, both university students. “We feel that life is about saving for the future,” says Cube. “We live for our children.”

Like previous generations of immigrants, many Asians seek to realize their personal American dream not just by finding a good job but by starting their own business, the ultimate statement of independence. These enterprises also provide a chance to maximize the productive potentials of entire families and a way to absorb newly arrived members, who often become eligible for immigration after the pioneering one attains citizenship. The entrepreneurial impulse runs strongest among Koreans. Nearly one in eight Korean Americans is self-employed, by far the highest rate for any ethnic group. Says John Kim, a Korean-born New York lawyer: “One thing about Koreans is that they don’t like to be dominated by anybody.”

Sang Kook Nam, 37, and his wife Seon Kyung, 35, respectively a mechanical engineer and a nurse, arrived from South Korea in 1974 to live with Nam’s brother in Michigan. Nam pumped gas for the first year, saving enough to open his own filling station, then a body shop, then a used-car dealership. His wife, meanwhile, started a jewelry store. In 1979 the Nams sold their businesses and set out for Los Angeles, where Nam attended dry-cleaning school and within six months made a $20,000 down payment on a store. That has since expanded to a chain of five dry-cleaning outlets, which are managed by the Nams. “We should work harder than other Americans,” he says. “Otherwise we cannot succeed.” Signs of the Nams’ success include an attractive four- bedroom home in the upper-middle-class city of Garden Grove and two late- model U.S.-made cars.

The Asian-American success story, while impressive and increasingly conspicuous, is by no means universal. A sizable minority of immigrants from the Far East cannot, for one reason or another, adjust to their new lives and sink deeper and deeper into despair. Not surprisingly, such feelings are much less common among immigrants who came to the U.S. on their own initiative than among those who fled their homelands for political reasons.

One group that has faced an especially difficult shakeout period is the Hmong hill tribe of Laos, many of whose members were recruited by the CIA to fight Communist forces. An agrarian people with an animist faith and a language that had no written form until 30 years ago, many Hmong were simply overwhelmed by their new circumstances. In Philadelphia, where some 2,000 were unwisely placed in inner-city neighborhoods by resettlement officials, all but about 400 have scattered to other locations after falling frequent victim to street crime. In Minnesota’s Ramsey County, where some 8,000 Hmong took residence in the late 1970s, nearly half are still on welfare. Says Xang Vang, a Hmong who operates a truck farm: “There are tremendous numbers of Hmong who sit in their living room watching TV. These people know how to fire guns in the jungle. Here there is nothing to do.”

A similar sense of disaffection prevails among some other Indochinese. Though social workers calculate that only about 2% of the refugee population turns to drug or alcohol abuse, far less than some other minorities, Vietnamese and Cambodian communities report unusually high rates of depression and marital discord. Says Kim Cook, a Vietnamese-born social worker in Washington: “They find the society to be highly stress producing.” The disintegration of families is a particularly devastating blow to those raised in cultures in which the continuity of the generations was the bedrock of life. Cambodian- born Tino Cheav, whose husband was killed in the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, weeps as she recounts how some of her six children began staying out late, then one dropped out of high school entirely. “I am sick and cannot rely on my children,” she says. “I have no hope.”

Many Asians complain that they are frequently the victims of racial prejudice. Lucie Cheng, head of the Asian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, charges that administrators, intent on curbing the decline in white enrollment, are actually causing an unfair reduction in admissions of Asian students. It is a claim that officials stoutly deny. While Asians seeking to buy or rent homes suffer far less hostility than in the past, the tendency of many ethnic communities to settle in clusters still bothers some whites. During the rapid influx of Chinese into California’s Monterey Park, for example, bumper stickers appeared reading WILL THE LAST AMERICAN TO LEAVE MONTEREY PARK PLEASE BRING THE FLAG.

Any sign of discrimination at the portals of colleges and universities would be particularly alarming to Asian immigrants, because they almost universally see their children’s future in terms of higher education. In part, this blind faith in academic achievement stems from the normal yearning of all immigrants to bootstrap their families into the comforts of middle-class American life. But it also bespeaks a deeper ethic permeating many Asian societies. Says Yong-Il Yi, 55, a New York City real estate broker from Seoul: “In Asia, if you don’t have a higher education, you are a second-class citizen.”

An important source of solace is maintaining ties to the old culture. This is becoming considerably easier to do as more and more Asians arrive in America. Their swelling numbers create a demand for many of the goods and services available at home, from Indian spices to Chinese acupuncture to Laotian bamboo flutes. Murali Narayanan, 32, a design group supervisor at Bell Laboratories in Naperville, Ill., makes a point of driving five times a year to Chicago’s North Devon Avenue, which teems with Indian grocery stores, restaurants and sari shops. Says he: “You feel comfortable just walking down the street.” New technology has added to the links available to the old country: many Asian food shops now rent videocassettes of movies and television programs produced in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Bombay.

Still, however closely new Asian Americans choose to follow their previous ways, the vast majority look to the future as Americans. Filipino Americans or Chinese Americans or Indian Americans, perhaps. But if asked to drop one part of their compound self-description, most would do away with the first. A few commemorate the transition by Anglicizing their surnames and many more by choosing American first names for their children, the real beacons of the future. Wai-wah Cheng, 57, came to Los Angeles from Hong Kong, where he ran a successful garment business. After seven years in the U.S. he still works as a chef in a Chinese restaurant, and his wife, Nyan-ying, 52, is a seamstress. Son Joe, 22, graduated this year from Cal Tech with a degree in physics and begins work this month at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I think about what they sacrificed, and it was a lot,” says Joe. “You have to give up to get.”

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