Latest Pew Research Center Survey on Asian Americans a Welcome Start

In case you missed the headlines, Asian immigrants are now the largest immigrant group in the U.S. , surpassing Hispanics. Not only that, we are “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States,” according to the Pew Research Center’s recent study released on June 19, “The Rise of Asian Americans.”

My first reaction was pride—enormous pride for our community’s progress and accomplishments, and for our country that allows people of all backgrounds to flourish. I was also pleased to see a major research institution like Pew chose to focus on Asian Americans, a community that has long been disappointed with the lack of attention from policymakers, the media, and political campaigns, and the mainstream research institutions that yield credible data. So studies by well-established institutions like Pew are badly needed to add to the body of knowledge about modern-day Asian Americans.

Frankly, none of the key findings are really surprising. The local Asian American ethnicities in the capital region largely reinforce the study’s findings—approximately three-quarters of our community are foreign-born, three out of four Indian immigrants over the age of 25 have at least a Bachelor’s degree, and Asian Americans as a group are among the best educated of all communities, etc.

What was surprising, however, was the silence and even criticism by some Asian American organizations of the Pew study. In fact, several well-established Asian American organizations issued statements expressing both disappointments that the study reinforces the stereotypes of Asian Americans as model minorities with no struggles and issues, and concerns that such perception may have negative implications on public policies. What’s missing, according to these statements, is a more complete picture of Asian Americans who, in spite of some groups’ success and progress, still faces systemic barriers on many fronts.

I see the point. But while I applaud the established Asian American advocacy organizations for calling attention to our community’s socio-economic disparity and the need for additional studies, I wish they had also taken advantage of such findings to broaden their advocacy roles to speak on issues more relevant to our communities at large, and not just focusing on those most in need among us. Here are some examples of what could also have been said:

*The Pew study reinforces the fact that Asian Americans are an increasingly important part of America’s global competitiveness in the 21st century, contributing to the intellectual capital, cultural vitality and economic opportunities of our country. With a windfall of talents from some of the most important global markets and strategic partners, it is in our best interest as a receiving country to reexamine our immigration policies, employment practices and social integration models to optimize new immigrants’ contributions to our society.

*Local communities with large numbers of Asian immigrant populations have a historical opportunity to adapt their policies and practices to the changing communities’ needs and dynamics— especially as these relate to community engagement strategies, land use and development policies, and institutional cultural competency, particularly language access for people with limited English proficiency, access to healthcare and transit for senior services.

*While we resent the over-generalization and the model minority label, we believe our communities’ deep convictions about family cohesiveness, marriage, and hard work are tremendous assets that explained much of our community’s degree of assimilation. Systemic barriers and persistent problems that slow down our advancement does not take away the fact that this is the most open country in the world to immigrants, a place where anyone can have a shot at life’s opportunities.

Though imperfect, I found the Pew report a credible study that sheds important light on Asian Americans. Rather than focusing on “glass half empty,” we should embrace the social progress made and celebrate this great American success story. The dramatic demographic changes of our communities in the U.S. and the global dynamic demand that our communities’ leaders and advocates keep an open mind and update their agenda so the organizations that are predominantly run by native-born Asian Americans can truly represent the broad spectrum of interests and concerns of our mostly foreign-born Asian communities.

It may not be our cultural habit to do so, but let’s learn to say “thank you” when receiving a compliment rather than insisting we are still not good enough.