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By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor | 09/07/2012
The modern immigration wave from Asia is nearly a half century old and has pushed the total population of Asian Americans – foreign born and U.S born, adults and children – to a record 18.2 million in 2011, or 5.8 percent of the total U.S. population. That's up from less than 1 percent in 1965. By comparison, non-Hispanic whites are 197.5 million (63.3 percent), Hispanics are 52.0 million (16.7 percent) and non-Hispanic Blacks are 38.3 million (12.3 percent).
Asian Americans trace their roots to dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values and pathways into America.
Despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian Americans are distinctive as a whole, especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49 percent vs. 28 percent), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).
They are more likely than the general public to live in multi-generational family households. Some 28 percent live with at least two adult generations under the same roof, twice the share of whites and slightly more than Blacks and Hispanics who live in such households. U.S. Asians also have a strong sense of filial respect; about two-thirds say parents should have a lot or some influence in choosing one's profession (66 percent) and spouse (61 percent).
Asian Americans have a pervasive belief in the rewards of hard work. 69 percent say people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard, a view shared by a somewhat smaller share of the American public as a whole (58 percent). And 93 percent of Asian Americans describe members of their country of origin group as "very hardworking"; just 57 percent say the same about Americans as a whole.
Asian Americans admit they sometimes go overboard in stressing hard work. 39 percent believe Asian-American parents put too much pressure on their children to do well in school. Just 9 percent say the same about all American parents. On the flip-side, about six in 10 Asian Americans say American parents put too little pressure on their children to succeed in school, while just 9 percent say the same about Asian-American parents. (The publication last year of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," a comic memoir about strict parenting by Yale law professor Amy Chua, the daughter of immigrants, triggered a spirited debate about cultural differences in parenting norms.)
Large-scale immigration from Asia did not take off until the passage of the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Over the decades, this modern wave of immigrants from Asia has increasingly become more skilled and educated. Today, recent arrivals are nearly twice as likely as those who came three decades ago to have a college degree, and many go into high-paying fields such as science, engineering, medicine and finance. This evolution has been spurred by changes in U.S. immigration policies and labor markets; by political liberalization and economic growth in the sending countries; and by the forces of globalization in an ever-more digitally interconnected world.
On the basis of the evidence so far, this immigrant generation has set a bar of success that will be a challenge for the next generation to surpass. Not surprisingly, when it comes to language fluency, there are significant differences between the native- and foreign-born adults. Only about half (53 percent) of the foreign born say they speak English very well, compared with 95 percent of the U.S. born.
The Asian-American label itself doesn't hold much sway with Asian Americans. Only 19 percent say they most often describe themselves as Asian American or Asian. A majority (62 percent) says they most often describe themselves by their country of origin (Chinese or Chinese American; Vietnamese or Vietnamese American), while just 14 percent say they most often simply call themselves American. Among U.S.-born Asians, 28 percent most often call themselves American.
In these identity preferences, Asian Americans are similar to Hispanics, who also are more likely to identify themselves using their country of origin than to identify as a Hispanic or as an American.
Some 43 percent say Asian Americans are more successful than other racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S., 45 percent say they are about as successful, and just 5 percent say they are less successful. Native-born and foreign-born Asian Americans have similar views about their group's success relative to other minorities. Members of the nation's other large immigrant group – Hispanics – are less than half as likely as Asian Americans to say their group is more successful than other minorities.
With new generations of U.S. born Latinos and Asians, assimilation continues to be challenging, but respecting and incorporating the best of new cultures and cuisines is at the heart of the American experience.