Stark Contrasts Found Among Asian Americans

Times Staff Writers

Indian Americans have surged forward as the most successful Asian minority in the United States, reporting top levels of income, education, professional job status and English-language ability, even though three-fourths were foreign-born, according to U.S. census data released Wednesday.

The striking success of Asian Americans who trace their heritage to India contrasted with data showing struggles among Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong immigrants. Those three groups reported continued significant poverty rates, low job skills and limited English-language ability since their flight from war and political turmoil.

The report, “We the People: Asians in the United States,” was based on 2000 census data and underscored the enormous socioeconomic diversity among the nation’s 10 million Asian Americans, more than one third of whom live in California, the state with their largest population.

Asian Americans increased from 6.9 million, or 2.8% of the U.S. population, in 1990 to 10.2 million, or 3.6%, in 2000. Including mixed-race Asian Americans, counted by the census for the first time in 2000, the population was 11.9 million, or 4.2%.


“It is a community of contrasts,” said Kimiko Kelly, research analyst with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. “Asian Americans are seen as a model minority who are not suffering from barriers to education or progress. But if you look closely, you see a community that covers the whole spectrum, from wealthy to very poor.”

She said the growing diversity of the community, which was mainly Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos until 1965 immigration reforms were instituted, has multiplied the challenges facing service organizations such as hers. Translators for health clinics and courts are among the pressing needs, she said.

The contrasts are detailed in the report, which provides data on such items as age, marital status, citizenship, language, education, earnings, poverty rates, occupation and home ownership among 11 Asian American groups.

Median family income, for instance, ranged from $70,849 for Japanese and $70,708 for Asian Indians to about half that for Cambodians and Hmong. Indian men showed the highest full-time earnings, $51,900, about double the figure for Hmong men.

About 64% of Asian Indians held a bachelor’s degree or more, the highest rate, compared with 7.7% for Laotians and 7.5% for Hmong, the lowest. More than three-fourths of Indians and Filipinos spoke fluent English, twice the rate for Vietnamese.

Max Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C., said the differences stemmed in part from different histories. Many Southeast Asian Americans came here as refugees with less formal education and with memories of traumatic experiences stemming from the Vietnam War and the murderous Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia, he said.

In contrast, many Asians Indians emigrated voluntarily from a relatively peaceful homeland and were equipped with strong English skills to pursue higher academic degrees or business opportunities. Between 1990 and 2000, they doubled their population to 1.6 million and now rank as the third-largest Asian American group after Chinese and Filipinos.

Take, for instance, Venkatesh Koka, a 36-year-old real estate investor in Artesia. The son of a civil engineer, Koka left a comfortable life with servants in southern India to earn a master’s degree in business administration at Ohio University. As in other upper-middle-class families, he had attended schools with instruction in English since his childhood, rendering him fluent even though he has always spoken Telugu, an Indian language, at home.


He says he came to the United States in 1986 after a friend studying here lured him with wide-eyed stories of freeways, an easy life and good money.

Koka worked at a bank and initially lost $1.5 million in real estate deals, filing for bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. Since then, he said, he has bounced back as manager of his family investments and has increased their value from $3 million to $15 million. This year, his family created the Little India Village shopping plaza on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia.

“You never learn life unless you come to America,” Koka said. “In India, you have servants and money from your parents. Here, you learn independence and how to lose, how to gain.”

Vinay Lal, an associate professor of history at UCLA who specializes in the Indian diaspora, said Indian Americans had made their strongest contributions in the medical and high-technology industries. He said more than half of all graduates from India’s prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology come to the United States, and currently number at least 25,000. He estimated that Indian Americans constituted 20% or more of Silicon Valley employees.


He believes, however, that the Census Bureau significantly undercounted lower-income Indian Americans. Other scholarly studies have found both high rates of wealth and high rates of poverty in the community.

The new report found that Southeast Asian communities continued to struggle the most, which Niedzwiecki attributed in part to lingering traumas of strife in that region.

The nation’s Hmongs originally hailed from Laos but largely migrated here from refugee camps in Thailand. Many of them have settled in California’s Central Valley.

Pang Houa Moua, a program manager for the Hmong National Development advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said traditional Hmong society was agrarian and isolated, with no running water or electricity. A written language was not developed until 1950, and formal education was limited: Her own parents, she said, did not learn that the world was round until they were teenagers.


“When you throw a population like that into the middle of the most technologically advanced society in the world, people are going to be confused,” she said. “They’re going to struggle.”

Still, experts say they find a striking divide among Southeast Asians between adult refugees and their children, who are more assimilated and successful here.

For instance, 17-year-old Prumsodun Ok of Long Beach is a promising filmmaker who just won an award and recognition from the YMCA’s Youth Institute, where he works after school. Prum, as he is known among friends, also is a late-blooming accomplished classical Cambodian dancer at the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach.

He is the third-youngest of 10 children whose parents speak no English and have never gotten off welfare here. They have their hearts in the homeland and are “stuck in place,” the teenager said Wednesday.


He said his parents’ financial dependence on public assistance stemmed from their failure to learn English, from advancing age and from isolation.

“I think they’ve just been so unable to adapt to life here,” he said of his parents. “It’s always, ‘Cambodia! Cambodia!’ They always look inward and are scared and isolated.”

Prum was born in Long Beach, the first of the siblings to be a U.S. citizen. His older siblings were born in prewar Cambodia, postwar Thai refugee camps or elsewhere before the family settled in Long Beach, home to the largest population of Cambodian refugees outside Cambodia.

His eldest siblings, now approaching middle age, have been schooled and employed, and some have their own businesses. One owns a florist shop in Eagle Rock. Another works in the after-school program at Whittier Elementary School in Long Beach. All are off welfare, which is Prum’s aspiration.


A senior in Long Beach Polytechnic High School’s magnet program, Prum dreams of becoming a filmmaker and is applying to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

“I want to be independent,” he insisted, “and I don’t want anything to hold me back.”




Asians in America

The median annual income of Asian families exceeded that of all U.S. families, and the percentage of Asians with at least a bachelor’s degree was almost double that of the total population, according to the 2000 census.

*--* Median family Bachelor’s income in 1999 degree or more* All U.S. families $50,046 24.40% Asian Americans $59,324 44.10% (Percent distribution below) Chinese (23.8%) $60,058 48.10% Filipino (18.3%) $65,189 43.80% Asian Indian (16.2%) $70,708 63.90% Vietnamese (10.9%) $47,103 19.40% Korean (10.5%) $47,624 43.80% Japanese (7.8%) $70,849 41.90% Cambodian (1.8%) $35,621 9.20% Hmong (1.7%) $32,384 7.50% Laotian (1.6%) $43,542 7.70% Pakistani (1.5%) $50,189 54.30% Thai (1.1%) $49,635 38.60% Other Asian (4.7%) $50,733 41.40%



*Age 25 and older

Source: U.S. Census Bureau