Immigration and the Asian-American Experience

By Yin, Xiao-huang | The World and I, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Immigration and the Asian-American Experience


Yin, Xiao-huang, The World and I


The recent media coverage of the alleged Asian connection in political fund-raising has put Asian Americans into the unwitting limelight of national politics, but it also highlights an issue that so far has not received adequate attention--the impact of post-1965 Asian immigration on the Asian-American experience.

Over the past thirty years, the influx of Asian immigrants, which cuts across all levels of cultural, ethnic, and class identifications, has transformed the Asian-American community, making it predominantly first-generation and highly diverse. While the Asian-Pacific population in the United States grew from one million in 1965 to over nine million in 1995, the proportion of the native-born dropped from 60 percent to around 30 percent. The demographic transformation has also caused profound changes in the relative numerical strength of various Asian-American groups. Until the late 1950s, the Japanese were the largest group in the Asian communities, but immigration since the 1960s has moved the Chinese and the Filipinos far ahead of the Japanese and dramatically increased the populations of formerly marginal groups such as Koreans, Vietnamese, and East Indians. AS a result, Asian Americans today include virtually every ethnic group from Asia and the Pacific Rim.

`UPTOWN' AND `DOWNTOWN'

Immigration during the past three decades has also greatly changed the human profile of individual Asian-American groups. For example, until the 1960s, the vast majority of Chinese Americans were Cantonese (from Guangdong Province in southern China) and their U.S.-born descendants, and the Filipinos were mainly migrant farm workers from the island of Luzon. In comparison, Chinese Americans today include immigrants from all over China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia. The Chinese Student/Scholar Act of 1992 alone led over sixty thousand Chinese students and scholars to settle in the United States. Well-educated and highly professional, they have an impact on the socioeconomic structure of the Chinese-American community. In the case of Filipinos, internationalization of the nurse profession has brought thousands of Filipino nurses, mostly women, to the United States. Their arrival has changed the demographic characteristics and class dynamics of the Filipino-American community.

The effect of such massive and extremely diversified immigration on Asian Americans is manifold. The rapid growth of the population has boosted the political and economic power of Asian Americans and provided a critical mass for the development of Asian-American studies. Since Asian Americans are either the largest or fastest-growing minority group on campuses across the nation, their strong interest in Asian-American studies helps build up the discipline at a time when financial difficulty constrains curriculum development in institutions of higher education.

However, the vast differences in their emigration origins, political affiliations, cultural orientations, and socioeconomic status have also transformed Asian Americans into groups with separate or even conflicting interests. In a sense, Asian Americans today are a polarized community, consisting of two distinct groups--the "Uptown" and "Downtown." While the "Uptown," mostly U.S.-born or -educated Asian professionals living in the suburbs, have integrated into the larger society, the "Downtown," mainly working-class immigrants or refugees displaced by war and poverty, are struggling for survival in urban ghettos.

Divided by an enormous gap in almost every aspect of life, the two groups seem to share little in common in their dichotomous American experience. In reality, the daily life of a Hmong refugee in America is quite different from that of a medical doctor from Punjab. Furthermore, as newcomers, many recent immigrants have maintained close relations with their homelands in Asia. Their concerns about events in the old countries have complicated the focus of the domestic-centered Asian-American movement and damaged community unity. …

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