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The Changing Demographics of Asian Americans

People of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese origin make up the largest Asian groups in the U.S., but growing communities of Bhutanese, Nepali, Burmese, Malaysians and Sri Lankans have contributed to the astonishing growth of Asians in America. We talk to them about the struggles and successes of navigating an unfamiliar country.
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The overwhelmingly positive attention that recent films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Parasite” have been receiving is a sign of change: Asian representation is finally gaining a foothold in mainstream media. It’s been a long time coming, seeing as Asians are the fastest-growing major ethnic group in the United States. However, it’s still only breaking the surface.

While Asian Americans are often seen as a monolithic group, the diversity within it is vast. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Asian population rose 72% from 2000 to 2015, a rate that was much higher than the 60% growth of Hispanics in the country. At this rate, Asians are predicted to be the largest immigrant group in the country by 2055. Although people of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese origin make up the largest Asian groups in the U.S., there are newer communities contributing to this growth that don't get nearly as much attention.

Watch "Asian Americans," a five-hour film series that delivers a bold, fresh perspective on the history of the fastest-growing demographic in the country today. Stream now.

The Pew Research Center found that the Bhutanese, Nepali and Burmese were the Asian groups growing the quickest in the U.S. When it came to foreign-born Asians in the country, five groups were the highest: the Bhutanese (92%), Nepalis (88%), Burmese (85%), Malaysians (83%) and Sri Lankans (78%).

Through speaking to various people from these communities throughout the U.S., we wanted to look into the different circumstances that brought these groups here in the modern era; their struggles and successes in navigating a new, unfamiliar country; and how these unique experiences have galvanized some to lead lives of public service to serve their communities.

The Diversity of Malaysians

“Yes, I’m Chinese, but no, I'm not from China,” is something Jocelyn Yow often has to clarify when she’s describing her cultural background to others — and even then, there are times when people are still confused.

Even though the 25-year-old Mayor Pro Tem of Eastvale in Riverside County is the first Malaysian American to be elected to public office in the U.S., being Malaysian is just one facet of Yow’s rich cultural identity.

A woman smiles behind a nameplate on a desk that reads "Jocelyn Yow, City Council Member."
1/6 Jocelyn Yow smiles at her desk during her city council swearing in ceremony. | Courtesy of Jocelyn Yow
A group of young boys and girls in blue uniforms sit together facing the camera
2/6 Jocelyn Yow with her high school classmates in Malaysia. | Courtesy of Jocelyn Yow
Three young women and a little girl stand together smiling at the camera
3/6 Jocelyn Yow with her cousins at Yow's city council swearing in ceremony. | Courtesy of Jocelyn Yow
A woman stands in front of a zoo with two children
4/6 Jocelyn Yow with her family on a trip to Taiping Zoo in Malaysia. | Courtesy of Jocelyn Yow
A family, a mother, father and two children, sit on a couch
5/6 Jocelyn Yow with her family in Malaysia. | Courtesy of Jocelyn Yow
A bride and groom stand together and smile next to a little red car with a pink ribbon on it.
6/6 Jocelyn Yow's parents at their wedding in Malaysia. | Courtesy of Jocelyn Yow

“Whenever people talk about Asians, all they can think of are the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos — and that’s pretty much it,” Yow said. “We’re not all monolithic. We’re so diverse even among like the APPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community …. So, I'm constantly raising awareness about it.”

Yow's parents are both ethnically Chinese, but her father first came to the U.S. from Malaysia as a high school student and her mother from Vietnam as a refugee. The couple got together in San Jose, California, where Yow was born. However, in 1996 when Yow was just a year old, her family moved to Malaysia to take care of her ailing paternal grandfather. It wasn't until 2011 when Yow was 16 that she returned to the U.S. with her brother to attend college, with her parents following a couple of years later.

Malaysia itself is a diverse country, with its largest groups consisting of Malays, Chinese and Indians. Many have come to the United States over the last few decades for educational and occupational opportunities, like Yow's father, who became an engineer after attending the University of Arizona. The Pew Research Center estimated that there were 30,000 Malaysians in the U.S. in 2015, a 63% increase from the year 2000, with the largest Malaysian populations residing in New York and Los Angeles.

A Turbulent and Violent Time in Burma

Kevin Wu, who is Burmese Chinese, left Burma with his family when he was eight years old in 1990, following a tumultuous and violent chapter in the country's history. Just two years earlier in 1988, there was a student-led movement of nationwide pro-democratic protests, dubbed the "8888 Uprising" against Burma's military dictatorship. Things turned bloody when a new military ruler imposed martial law. The military killed an estimated 3,000 protesters and put another 3,000 in prison.

Wu, who’s now a 38-year-old medical doctor in Los Angeles, recalled everything coming to a standstill during that time in Burma. “School closed for one year, so I never got to go to second grade,” he said.

His mother applied for the U.S.’s Diversity Immigrant Visa program and won the green card lottery. The program was established as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 to encourage immigration from underrepresented countries to the U.S. The Wu family resettled in San Francisco in 1990; soon after, they moved to Los Angeles to meet up with the only person they knew in the country, who was just an acquaintance of Wu’s mother.

Wu’s parents had to start from scratch in the U.S. In Burma, his mother was a veterinarian, and his father worked in his family business. When they arrived in their new country, they toiled at assembly-line jobs in factories until they eventually changed jobs, got promotions and worked their way up in their careers. Wu’s mother landed a laboratory job at LAC+USC Medical Center, and his father at a custom glass company. His parents worked multiple jobs and even on weekends to put Wu and his sister, who’s now a nurse, through school.

“I realized that in order for me to be successful in this environment, I needed to focus on my studies and go after my passions,” Wu said. "I was fortunate enough that I didn't have to take an after-school job because my parents did all of that.”

As of 2015, 168,000 Burmese were living in the U.S., compared to 17,000 in the year 2000. Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco are the major metropolitan cities with the largest Burmese populations. In the late 1980s and early 1990s — after the 8888 Uprising — many like Wu immigrated to the U.S. through the Diversity Immigration Visa program and family sponsorships; others secured asylum as political refugees. There was another wave of immigration starting in 2006 when the U.S. government allowed for Burmese refugees, who had been living in camps along the Thai Burmese border for years, to resettle in the U.S.

A Long History of the Bhutanese Not Having a Place They Could Call Home

Khara Timsina, a Bhutanese refugee who spent 17 years in a camp in Nepal, resettled in the U.S. in 2009 at the age of 39. He was among the more than 100,000 ethnic Lhotshampas who were living in Bhutan — many of whom had been there for generations — and were forced by their government to leave their home in the early 1990s due to ethnic cleansing.

Many had languished in the refugee camps for decades. Parmila Kafley, who resettled in the U.S. in 2008, was born in a Nepal camp and spent the first 11 years of her life there. Today, Kafley is a 23-year-old student who will be attending Temple University in Philadelphia for its Ph.D. program in chemistry. She recalled the tough living conditions in the refugee camp, which was situated on forestry land. Kafley remembered living in huts with no electricity or running water.

"Our life in Nepal was that of a second-class citizen, though we were not citizens," Kafley said. "Our refugee/asylum-seeker status limited us from different opportunities, such as seeking employment outside the camps. Some were able to get teaching jobs due to high demand, but they had to hide their refugee status and were often paid less."

Three women, one holding a small child, in saris stand next to a man.
Parmila Kafley with her sister-in-law, mother, brother and nephew during the Dashain festival. | Courtesy of Parmila Kafley

When Timsina was in Nepal, he worked as a high school administrator, but prepared himself to start all over again in the U.S. “I was willing to take any job, and that [mentally] got me through [the hardships],” he said. “For some [of my fellow refugees], they were not happy with the kinds of the jobs they had to do despite the degrees they got.”

When Timsina moved to Pittsburgh, he recognized the struggles that many of his fellow refugees were facing in this new country after one community member killed himself after being in the U.S. for less than a month. Timsina got together with a group of Bhutanese people to help this person's family through their crisis and later founded the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh in 2010 to provide community services and activities.

"We saw that most of our older adults and seniors, who had never been to school, were struggling — and we knew many more would be coming who also would have to struggle," Timsina said.

The organization has since helped Bhutanese refugees apply and test for citizenship, vote and become civically engaged. They've also launched women's leadership and youth mentorship programs.

While Timsina believes there is still a lot of work to do to help his people, he’s proud that folks in the community have led fruitful lives as small business owners, doctors and nurses. Many, including Timsina, have fulfilled their lifelong dream of buying a home, which is especially poignant for them because they hadn’t had a place to call their own for so long.

A man in a blue suit and red and gold tie stands in front of a tree.
Khara Timsina | Courtesy of Khara Timsina

There are an estimated 24,000 Bhutanese who lived in the U.S. in 2015, a massive increase from 200 people in the year 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. Akron, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and Columbus are among the major cities with the largest Bhutanese populations.

A 26-year Sri Lankan Civil War

Kengathevy Morgan, a 77-year-old Tamil American, has been living in the U.S. since 1979. She left her home country of Sri Lanka after seeing escalating political conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the disenfranchised minority Tamil ethnic groups.

A woman sits hugging a little boy and girl.
1/2 Kengathevy Morgan with children in 1985. | Courtesy of Kengathevy Morgan
A woman in a sari with a bearded man, both smiling
2/2 Kengathevy Morgan with her husband, 1980. | Courtesy of Kengathevy Morgan

“When I was in Sri Lanka, I was not content,” Morgan said. “I saw what was happening to the minority. It made me scared.”

Just a few years later, in 1983, the bloody Sri Lankan Civil War between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam would begin, and rage on until 2009. The 26-year war left at least 100,000 dead.

Morgan, who was a professor teaching medical students biochemistry in Sri Lanka, saw an opportunity to leave for England for a research fellowship in 1978. There, she met her husband, an American, and they moved to Los Angeles the following year. She didn’t plan on returning to Sri Lanka.

Many of Morgan’s family members fled Sri Lanka after she left and resettled in countries like Canada and England. One of her brothers left as a refugee, and her sister had to flee to India due to “dire circumstances” back home, Morgan said. “There have been some unpleasant events all around us.”

The Pew Research Center estimated that the Sri Lankan population in the U.S. was 60,000 in 2015; in 2000, it was just 25,000. Los Angeles and New York have the largest Sri Lankan communities.

The Different Waves of Nepali Arriving in the U.S.

Anil Shahi, who works at Adhikaar, a nonprofit advocacy group and community center for Nepalis in Woodside, New York, has seen the Nepali demographics in the city change dramatically since he arrived in 1989.

A man reaches for something on a stove next to him.
1/4 Anil Shahi learns to cook during his college days. "I have become a prolific cook now - I love learning and making ethnic recipes from all over the world," Shahi shared. | Courtesy of Anil Shahi
A man smiles while posing in front of a railing.
2/4 Anil Shahi stops for a picture on a ferry to the Statue of Liberty on his second or third day in the U.S. during the end of May, 1989. | Courtesy of Anil Shahi
14 men and women sit together facing the camera
3/4 Anil Shahi with fellow camp counsellors at YMCA Camp Grady Spruce, Grafford, Texas, 1990. | Courtesy of Anil Shahi
Three young women and a young man sit together on some rocks.
4/4 Anil Shahi and some friends pose on a rock climbing trip during his college days College days in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, 1990. | Courtesy of Anil Shahi

"Thirty years ago, when I came to the U.S., the vast majority of those who made it here from Nepal belonged to the privileged class there," Shahi said. "They went to elite high schools, spoke English well and were well-connected to information and resources that the vast majority of Nepalis were deprived of. I have no grudges against them; they have a place in the society too. In fact, I was one of them myself."

Shahi, now 50, recently completed his master's degree in liberal studies at the City University of New York. It's been a long journey for Shahi, who first came to the U.S. on a student visa. After completing undergraduate school stateside, he was in a Ph.D. program. But he got sick and was no longer able to attend school. He lost his visa status and became undocumented.

“That’s when most of my troubles started,” Shahi said.

He said he ended up driving a cab for work and “drifted along” over the next 12 years. Then, in 2015, after the Nepal earthquake hit and devastated the country, the U.S. granted eligible Nepali nationals Temporary Protected Status, which allowed applicants like Shahi to live and work in the United States. Shahi was finally able to go back to school.

From 2000 to 2015, the Nepali population in the U.S. increased from 9,000 to 140,000, according to the Pew Research Center. During this time, the demographics of Nepalis who immigrated to the U.S. changed. It wasn't just the elites who were able to come over anymore; Nepalis from all classes began arriving in droves. This was due in part to the Diversity Immigration Visa Program, and the fact that the U.S. took in asylum seekers after Nepal's civil war ravaged the country from 1996 to 2006.

Bijay Bokhim, a 49-year-old corporate environmental engineer in Houston who first came to the U.S. in 2000 on a student visa for his master's degree at Texas A&M University, has also noticed the Nepali demographic change. As an active member of his community, he's the general secretary of the Nepalese Association of Houston. The organization supports the Nepali community and celebrates its cultural festivals; it also helps newer Nepali immigrants assimilate with American culture.

A man and a woman smile at the camera at the top of a hill
1/2 Bijay Bokhim and his wife smile at the camera at the top of a hill during a trip to Alaska. | Courtesy of Bijay Bokhim
A woman and man in festive clothes sit together holding a small white dog.
2/2 Bijay Bokhim, his wife and a small white dog pose during the Dashain festival, a Nepali festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil. | Courtesy of Bijay Bokhim

"A lot of Nepalese came as winners of the [green card] lottery and those guys have a lot of struggles coping with the American lifestyle, the language and work," Bokhim said. "Because for us, we came here for college, and we got to experience the American [lifestyle], food and culture, so by the time [we began] working, we [were familiar with] the American lifestyle."

What Shahi has found most touching is that many of these newer Nepali immigrants are thriving. He's been seeing students from remote villages in Nepal working on their master's and Ph.D.s, and small business owners running their own restaurants, barbershops and pawn shops.

"This is also the best thing I love about the U.S. after having lived here for 30 years: In spite of what is happening here in terms of rise in hatred towards immigrants in recent years — which is really, really unfortunate, by the way — this country still offers relatively more equal opportunity to all," Shahi said. "And the poor, uneducated, and generally underprivileged not only know how to take full advantage of it, rather, they rise to become very appreciative of what America does to them, and are damn proud of this country."
Stream all episodes of "Asian Americans." Click to watch part one, part two and the finale.

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