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Opinion: Asian diversity, contributions in U.S.

In light of the recent violence against Asian Americans, it seems important to point out that there is great diversity among this huge classification of people. Targeting any specific category of people for vengeance, retribution, or discrimination is wrong, and it seems that all categories of Asians are currently at risk of encountering violence in some form. It also seems apparent that some non-Asian Americans don’t understand that “Asian” covers a great variety of people.

One of the factors that may come into play is that, until about 50 years ago, there were relatively few Asians in the United States because of severely restrictive immigration laws before 1966. In 1882, although Chinese immigrants made up only .002 percent of the population, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that halted Chinese immigration for 10 years. However, it was renewed every 10 years. Although there were far fewer, but more successful, Japanese immigrants to the U.S., in 1907 the President of the United States and the Emperor of Japan entered into a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” that would prohibit the immigration of Japanese, except for certain categories of professional men.

Then, in 1924, Congress passed a quota system on immigration based on the National Origins Act, meaning that immigration of any foreigners was limited to a percentage of people in the U.S. who were of the same national origin. That policy remained in effect until it was overturned in Congress in 1966 and, of course, it favored people of Western European countries, especially Great Britain, Holland, and Germany.

We know from many years and hundreds of studies in political science, sociology, and psychology that a relative handful of “foreigners” is usually seen as exotic, interesting, or simply a curiosity. However, as the number of immigrants grows, the foreigners are seen as an economic, social, and/or cultural threat.

Current diversity

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Asian Americans from various countries were the fastest-growing identifiable group in the U.S. During the 1980’s, the number of school-age Asian American students doubled, and then redoubled by 2020. Today, there are about 23 million Asian Americans in the U.S., about 5 million from China, 3.5 million from the Philippines, and more than 3 million from India. There are between one million and two million from each of these countries: Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Other nationalities with significant numbers of immigrants to the U.S. include Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Myanmar (formerly Burma).

It’s also important to understand that there are ethnic differences among people from many of these groups. For example, there are more than 500,000 people from Laos; only half is Hmong (well known in and around Fresno).

Within nationality groups, there may be significant differences in the regions from which the people come, the dialects they speak, their religions, and so forth. If we were to look at the Philippines, alone, we could find that there may be a hundred or more languages spoken among the many islands that comprise the country. Although Tagalog is the official language, there are significant numbers of people who speak Bisaya, Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynhon Ilonggo, Bicol, Waray, Maguindanao, Kapampangan, and Pangashinan.

Religion also varies. The Center for Global Education points out: “Among three South Asian Indians, one may be a granddaughter of early Sikh immigrant farmworkers in California, another may be a university-educated Hindu who came to the United States originally as a foreign-exchange student, and the third may be a Guyanese-born store owner in Mississippi who attends a Baptist church.”

Asian contributions

Finally, it is important to understand the contributions that Asian Americans have made to our society. America has benefited from Asian immigrants and their descendants in everything from art and architecture to literature and cultural arts to science and technology.

Many, if not most, Americans are familiar with the work of George Takei (“Star Trek”), Margaret Cho (stand-up comedian), and Bruce Lee. At one time, very few Asian American got leading acting roles on Broadway, in film, or on TV, but now I could list dozens and there are probably hundreds more.

Asian American writers are now making a dent in the field of literature with novels by Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”), Jhumpa Lahiri (“The Namesake”), and Kevin Kwan (“Crazy Rich Asians”) having their work made into major movies. Joe Ide (Japanese American) is currently one of my favorite authors. Fashions by Vera Wang, Doo-Ri Chung, and Derek Lam have all appeared in Vogue magazine.

Dozens of Asian Americans have made inroads in popular music, and Yo-Yo Ma (cellist) and Zubin Mehta (conductor) are well known to aficianados of classical music. One of the most popular U.S. movies ever made is “The Magnificent Seven.” The 1960 movie starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen (among others) was based on an earlier movie by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, “The Seven Samurai.”

I.M. Pei was widely recognized as one of the world’s great architects, and his contributions included the Louvre Pyramid in Paris. Minoru Yamasaki designed the World Trade Center and, as I pointed out in a previous column, Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In the fields of science and technology, Chien-Shiung Wu is known as the “First Lady of Physics” for her contributions to the field of particle physics. Likewise, Fazuir Rahman Khan has been called the “Father of Tubular Design” for his innovative structural engineering for high-rise buildings.

Several Asian Americans have won the Nobel Prize in physics, including Tsung-Dao and Chen Ning Yang (1957), Samuel Chao Chung Ting (1976), Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1983), Steven Chu (1997), Daniel Tsui (1998), Yoichiro Nambu (2008), Charles K. Kao (2009), and Shuji Nakamura (2014). Har Gobind Khorana received the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine in 1968, and Andrew Yao got the Turing Award (computers) in 2000.

Many other Asian American contributors to our society could be added to this list if space allowed.

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Jim Glynn is Emeritus Professor of Sociology. He may be contacted at


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