South and Southeast Asians of the United States - History and Cultural Relations



Most of the nineteenthand early-twentieth-century Immigrants were South Asians who saw themselves as temporary laborers who would return home after working hard in the United States to make as much money as possible. Most, however, remained. The number of South and Southeast Asian immigrants began increasing in the early 1900s. Asian Indians formed the majority, usually taking low-paying farming and laboring jobs in the western states. Strict immigration laws after the First World War closed off immigration from these areas, and until the 1960s most immigrants were wives or family members of men already in the United States. After the immigration law amendments of 1965, which essentially eliminated the restrictive annual quotas of the earlier laws, immigration increased greatly, especially of Asian Indians and Indochinese.

The more recent migrants from South Asia have included many well-educated middle-class professionals (often doctors, engineers, and nurses). The ethnic, national, and class backgrounds of South Asian immigrants have widened greatly in this recent period. Their resettlement in the United States has mostly been smooth, although there have been instances of prejudice and intolerance. Social and cultural links with the parent countries are usually strong. Relations Between the various ethnic and national groups are not strongly developed, however, except where religious and other needs require them. The sharing of common or closely related Languages also tends to strengthen relations among groups, particularly when the groups are small.

In contrast to the South Asians, most Southeast Asians have come to the United States since 1965, particularly since the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975. The earlier Immigrants in this period were usually well-educated skilled workers. A large proportion of the immigrants since 1975, However, have been poorly educated and unskilled farm workers and laborers escaping from their parent areas. After their Initial spread across the United States, most have relocated to major cities and other core areas, particularly on the West Coast, in order to be near relatives and to have better access to jobs and public welfare assistance. Adjustment to life in the United States has been difficult for most of these later Immigrants since they had neither desired nor planned to emigrate. In general, there is a greater likelihood of quicker and easier adjustment among voluntary Southeast Asian-Americans than among those forced to flee their homeland. Nevertheless, many have since become U.S. citizens.

Today, South and Southeast Asian-American groups form a heterogeneous population of different cultural groups displaying a wide variety of life-styles and adaptations to life in the United States. Fifteen of these groups are described below.


Allen, James Paul, and Eugene James Turner (1988). We the People: An Atlas of America's Ethnic Diversity. New York: Macmillan.

Baizerman, M., and G. Hendricks (1989). A Study of Southeast Asian Refugee Youth in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Southeast Asian Refugee Project.

Fawcett, James T., and Benjamin V. Carino, eds. (1987). Pacific Bridges: The New Immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands. Staten Island, N.Y.: Center for Migration Studies.

Haseltine, P., comp. (1989). East and Southeast Asian Material Culture in North America: Collections, Historical Sites and Festivals. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. (1980). Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press.

Asian Indians. In 1980, about 375,000 Americans claimed Asian Indian ethnic ancestry. This, however, is likely a gross undercount, with the actual population closer to 700,000. There were only about 700 Asian Indians in the United States before 1900 and fewer than 17,000 before 1965. Between 1917 and 1946 almost all Asian Indian Immigration was barred. Most immigrants have arrived since 1965, though there have been Asian Indian-American Communities in California since the early part of the twentieth century. Asian Indians have come mostly from the Indo-Gangetic plain of northern India, from Gujarat in western India, and from Dravidian southern India. Asian Indian-Americans are concentrated in metropolitan areas with a wide dispersal in the warmer areas. The bulk of the immigrants before 1920, generally Punjabi Sikhs, worked on farms in the Central Valley of California, which enabled some to eventually own their own farms and orchards. The more recent immigrants have tended to settle in urban areas across the country, particularly around New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but also with a large number scattered across the Country. Many new immigrants entered the Central Valley of California in the 1970s, with the younger people often moving to the cities in search of commercial or professional jobs. Many of the Sikhs became prosperous farmers and sponsored Immigrants, and the Sikhs in California as a whole form a large and separate social community.

The majority of the post-1965 immigrants are Hindus. Caste distinctions are less important than in India, but social bonds are strongest within each of the many language and Religious groups. Hindus tend to categorize Asian Indians in terms of region of origin within India, whereas non-Hindus categorize fellow immigrants in terms of religion. Many male post-1965 immigrants have returned to India to marry and bring their wives back to the United States. A large number of the recent immigrants have completed college and graduate education and have found positions as engineers, doctors, professors, and so on. Many have become small businessmen, travel and insurance agents, restaurant owners, and operators of motels and hotels, particularly in the wanner parts of the United States and in rural areas.

Dasgupta, Sathi (1988). On the Trail of an Uncertain Dream: Indian Immigrant Experience in America. New York: AMS Press.

Fenton, John Y. (1988). Translating Religious Traditions: Asian Indians in America. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Jain, Usha R. (1988). The Gujaratis of San Francisco. New York: AMS Press.

Jensen, Joan M. (1988). Passage from India: Asian Immigrants in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Saran, Parmatma (1985). The Asian Indian Experience in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Co.

Saran, Parmatma, and Edwin Eames, eds. (1980). The New Ethnics: Asian Indians in the United States. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Xenos, P., H. Barringer, and M. J. Levin (1989). Asian Indians in the United States. 1980 Census Profiles, no. 111. Honolulu: East-West Center, East-West Population Institute.

Bangladeshis. There are probably about 8,000 Americans of Bangladeshi origin, with 6,859 immigrants having arrived between 1960 and 1984. The People's Republic of Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan before becoming independent from Pakistan after a civil war in 1971. Eighty-three percent of the population of Bangladesh are Sunni Muslim, with the remaining non-Muslim 17 percent consisting of Hindus, Buddhists, or Christians. The same general distribution holds for the immigrants to the United States. Most Immigrants speak Bengali, although English is the official Language of Bangladesh. Many of the earlier immigrants were refugees from the civil war of 1971. The more recent immigrants arrive seeking escape from the continuing sociopolitical and economic stresses in the homeland, one of the world's poorest nations. There are Bangladeshi settlers in nearly every state, with the largest concentrations in California, Illinois, Texas, and the New York Metropolitan area. A large proportion of the immigrants are professionals and white-collar urban dwellers. As a result, most of them have had an easier time in finding employment than immigrants and refugees from other Asian countries. The bulk of the immigrants have been under forty years of age. There have been fewer opportunities for women to gain an education or to work in the homeland; thus the women are not well prepared for the competitive way of life in America. Most men and women marry other Bangladeshis in this country or are married when they arrive. As a result of chain migration, there are many extended families among the settled immigrants. Groups living in the same area have tended to form civic associations that form a focus for various activities and mutual support for adapting to life in the United States.

Hossain, M. (1982). "South Asians in California: A Sociological Study of Immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh." South Asia Bulletin 2:74-83.


Bhutanese, Maldivians, and Nepalese. These groups are discussed together, as so few in each have immigrated to the United States. From 1960 through 1984, 90 immigrants arrived from the Kingdom of Bhutan, 12 from the Republic of Maldives, and 977 from the Kingdom of Nepal. Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, Sunni Islam in the Maldives, and Hinduism in Nepal. The basic languages are different as well, with Dzongkha being official in Bhutan, a dialect of Sinhalese in the Maldives, and Nepali in Nepal. All three countries maintain close contacts with India, and many immigrants arrived speaking some English. Little is known about the adaptation of these peoples to life in the United States.

Cambodians. In 1980, 16,052 Americans claimed Cambodian (Kampuchean) ethnic ancestry and another 2,050 claimed Cambodian and other ethnic ancestry. Most people of Cambodian ancestry belong to the Khmer ethnic group, although some Chinese and members of other ethnic groups may have reported themselves as Cambodian. This reporting is a serious undercount, since by September 1986, 138,900 refugees and immigrants had come to the U.S. and certainly a significant number arrived before 1980. Most Cambodian-Americans immigrated after 1970 to escape war, starvation, the Pol Pot-Khmer Rouge reign of terror, and the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. In the United States, Long Beach, California, has been the main Khmer center since 1975. It has a commercial district, with Cambodian markets, tailors, and jewelry stores, but homes, churches, a Buddhist temple, and various organizations are scattered throughout the city. Ethnic Chinese from Cambodia have more often settled in rious Chinatowns. There are large Cambodian-ancestry Populations in other parts of the Los Angeles area, in San Diego and in or near Seattle, Houston, and Providence. Additional concentrations are found in Texas, Washington State, and Arlington, Virginia. In the early 1980s the U.S. government established a program to settle Cambodian refugees in twelve cities outside California, including Rochester, New York, Richmond, Virginia, Phoenix, Arizona, and a large number of metropolitan centers that did not have a significant number of Cambodians already living there.

The Khmer are overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhists and were peasant farmers in Cambodia. Adjustment to American life has been difficult, and there is a marked tendency to maintain close ties to the extended family and the ethnic communities in order to cope. When problems become overwhelming, they tend to relocate, usually to other low-rent areas or to California to be with friends and relatives.

Ebihara, May M. (1985). "Khmer." In Refugees in the United States: A Reference Handbook, edited by D. W. Haines, 127—147. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Gordon, Linda W. (1987). "Southeast Asian Refugee Migration to the United States." In Pacific Bridges: The New Immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands, edited by James T. Fawcett and Benjamin V. Carino, 153-174. Staten Island, N.Y.: Center for Migration Studies.

Burmese. There are about 20,000 Americans of Burmese ethnic ancestry, of whom 13,197 arrived between 1970 and 1984. Immigrants from Myanmar (the official name of Burma since 1989) began to arrive in the United States in the early 1960s, with significant numbers coming in the 1970s. Most of the immigrants have been fairly young professional, technical, and white-collar workers. Since Myanmar has been a politically isolated nation, the number of immigrants has been small. There do not seem to be any sizable Burmese Ethnic communities in the United States, with the largest numbers of Burmese-Americans living in California, New York, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Because of their small numbers and occupational skills, assimilation into mainstream society has been relatively easy.

Bruneians. Only 164 immigrants arrived in the United States from Brunei between 1975 and 1984, with none identified as having arrived before then. Earlier immigrants may have been attributed to other countries since Brunei became a sovereign and independent state only in 1984. Malay is the official language of the country, with English and Chinese also spoken. Two-thirds of the inhabitants are Muslim, with the remainder being divided among Buddhist, Christian, and other religions. Since so few Bruneians have arrived in this country, there are no data available on their adaptation to life in the United States.

Indonesians. There are probably a little over 30,000 Americans of Indonesian descent in the United States today, a small portion of them being former Dutch colonials who left Indonesia when the country gained its independence from the Netherlands. Almost all the remainder are native Indonesians who spoke Malay, Bahasa Indonesian (a variety of Malay), Javanese, or one of a number of Austronesian Languages in their homeland. Most of the population are Sunni Muslims, although there are small groups of other denominations. The immigrants, except for students, tend to arrive in family groups and are usually professional, technical, or white-collar workers.

There are also about 60,000 "Indos," people of mixed European and Indonesian ethnic ancestry in the United States. Most Indos came prior to 1962 after having fled Indonesia during the domestic crises in 1947 and 1951. For many, the trip to the United States was a secondary migration, as most had initally fled to the Netherlands.


Kwik, Greta (1989). The Indos in Southern California. New York: AMS Press.

Laotians. In the 1980 census, 53,320 Americans claimed Laotian ancestry and another 2,278 claimed Laotian and other ethnic ancestry. This is a serious underreporting, However, since immigration records show that 110,840 Laotians came into the United States during the 1960 to 1984 period, principally as refugees from the wars in Southeast Asia. As of September 1986 about 162,000 refugees, about one-third of whom were of the Hmong ethnic group, had arrived in the United States. Most Laotian-Americans now live on the West Coast and are mainly composed of two distinct ethnic groups, the Lao of the Laotian lowlands and the Highland Hmong, with minor numbers of other ethnic groups also represented.

The distribution of Laotians in the United States in the early 1980s was mainly determined by various voluntary resettlement agencies and the location of sponsoring groups and families. Many found work in low-paying jobs, such as in meat packing and clothing manufacturing. There was much secondary migration after first settlement in the United States, with members of extended families rejoining one another and with the formation of new communities. Linguistic and cultural barriers are the main reasons that Laotian-Americans have generally achieved only slow occupational advancement, have resorted to public welfare, and have remained socially isolated. In addition, many have sought a return to a farming way of life and have moved to smaller towns and rural areas where they garden or work as farm laborers. The major resettlement area has been California, because of the location of relatives and economic opportunities. Many of the Hmong have settled in California's Central Valley, with particular concentrations in the cities of Fresno and Merced. The Hmong in Merced have formed neighborhood, extended family, and church organizations, as well as an official mutual assistance agency. Many Hmong have settled in the Missoula, Montana, area, which is similar to their Laotian homeland. Other centers of settlement have been in or near Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Dunnigan, Timothy, and D. P. Olney (1985). "Hmong." In Refugees in the United States: A Reference Handbook, edited by D. W. Haines, 111-126. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Gordon, Linda W. (1987). "Southeast Asian Refugee Migration to the United States." In Pacific Bridges: The New Immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands, edited by James T. Fawcett and Benjamin V. Carino, 153-174. Staten Island, N.Y.: Center for Migration Studies.

Hendricks, G. L., B. T. Downing, and A. S. Deinard, eds. (1986). The Hmong in Transition. Staten Island, N.Y.: Center for Migration Studies.

Schein, Louisa (1987). "Control of Contrast: Lao Hmong Refugees in American Contexts." In People in Upheaval, edited by Scott M. Morgan and Elizabeth Colson, 88-107. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

Van Esterik, John L. (1985). "Lao." In Refugees in the United States: A Reference Handbook , edited by D. W. Haines, 149-165. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Yang, D., and D. North (1988). Profiles of the Highland Yao Communities in the United States: Final Report . Washington, D.C.: CZA.

Malaysians. There are probably fewer than 10,000 Americans of Malaysian ethnic ancestry in the United States today. Between 1960 and 1984 about 8,400 came. Malays make up about 60 percent of the host country's population, Chinese about a third, and East Indians the remainder. They are predominantly Muslim, with many Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, and Taoists. Most of the immigrants have been professionals, white-collar workers, and students who have settled in urban areas. Little is known about the life of Malaysians in the United States, however.

Pakistanis. In the 1980 census, 22,615 Americans claimed Pakistani ethnic ancestry and another 3,348 claimed Pakistani and other ethnic ancestry. Most Pakistanis in the United States have entered since 1965. The immigration rate remains high, as evidenced by the more than 56,000 arriving between 1960 and 1984. The distribution of these Immigrants in the United States generally follows that of Asian Indians in recent years. Areas with large Pakistani populations include New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Fairfax, Virginia. The new settlers have generally had high educational and occupational levels and a preference for living in large metropolitan areas. They have usually assimilated easily into the American economic system. Some have not, however, and are working in various unskilled jobs. About three-fourths of Pakistani-Americans are Sunni Muslims, with small percentages following other religions. Most are Punjabi- or Urdu-speaking and have some background in English as well. More than two hundred Pakistani civic and cultural organizations have been established, largely in urban areas, and several Pakistani periodicals are published.


Ghayur, M. Arif (1981). "Muslims in the United States: settlers and Visitors. " Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 454:157-177.

Malik, Iftikhar H. (1988). Pakistanis in Michigan: A Study of Third Culture and Acculturation. New York: AMS Press.

Sri Lankans. There are probably about 6,000 Americans who claim Sri Lankan ethnic descent. They are almost all from Tamilor Sinhalese-speaking ethnic groups. Most have some knowledge of English as well and are Hindu or Buddhist depending on their ethnic affiliation. Many are well educated and have secured professional and white-collar employment. Very little has been published about their life in the United States and their adaptation to American culture. They are identified by many Americans as Asian Indians.

Thais. In the 1980 census, 52,214 Americans claimed Thai ethnic ancestry and another 11,700 claimed Thai and other ethnic ancestry. The total of 64,000 is probably an undercount since 70,459 immigrants came into the United States between 1960 and 1984. Few Thais immigrated to the United States before the 1960s. The majority of the people of Thailand are ethnic Thai, with Chinese accounting for about 12 percent of the population and tribal peoples making up 11 percent. Most Thais came to the United States not as refugees but as students, temporary visitors, or spouses of U.S. military personnel (mainly the air force). Generally, the Thais in the United States are ethnic Thai, but others are Thai Dam (usually not from Thailand but from the upland valleys of northern Vietnam and Laos). Some ethnic Chinese from Thailand may also have listed themsleves as Thai. The Los Angeles area has by far the largest concentration of Thais. Other concentrations can be found in Chicago, New York City, and around military bases, such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Huachuca, Arizona. In Los Angeles, Thai businesses and houses have been clustered in the Hollywood area. Thais own banks, gas stations, beauty parlors, and other small businesses, especially Thai restaurants. Most Thai immigrants have been between the ages of twenty and forty upon arrival. In addition to the family members of the servicemen, there have been many students, professional and white-collar workers and most have found employment in America. The major settlement of the Thai Dam has been in the vicinity of Des Moines, Iowa, where most have found work in low-paying jobs with little hope of advancement. Most Thais are Hinayana Buddhists, although some are Muslims.


Desbarats, J. (1979). "Thai Migration to Los Angeles." geographical Review 69: 302-318.

Vietnamese. The U.S. Bureau of the Census reported that in 1980 about 260,000 Vietnamese were living in the United States. At that time many were located in southern California (Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties) with concentrations also around Brockport, Texas, Arlington, Virginia, Amarillo, Texas, and Fort Smith, Arkansas. It is reported, however, that in the period 1960-1984 over 387,000 Immigrants had arrived from Vietnam, thus making them by far the largest population group in the United States of Southeast Asian origin. A fairly large proportion (as high as 15 percent in California) were Vietnamese Chinese—members of the Chinese minority community in Vietnam. Most of these have settled in various Chinatowns around the country.

The Vietnamese are one of the newest ethnic Communities in the United States, most of them having immigrated Because of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. As of September 1986, over 500,000 Vietnamese had entered the United States as refugees. They usually have found sponsoring Families and communities (many churches were active in sponsoring immigrants) and were originally widely scattered around the country, usually in nuclear family households. This was less than satisfactory, as most had lived their lives as members of extended families. Soon after settlement, they began to reunite their original extended families, with a very large percentage of them resettling in California, with another focus in Texas.

Few refugees were prepared for life in the United States, and they faced serious language and cultural barriers. Many have had difficulties because most of the jobs available to them were low-paying ones like janitor, laborer, busboy, or dishwasher. Some have found work in factories (electronics assembly) or in restaurants and other small businesses. Many of the recent arrivals are supported at least in part by government programs. The unemployment rate of earlier arrivals, who were usually better educated, is quite low, however. Fishermen have concentrated on the Gulf Coast from Texas through northwestern Florida and have done well through a combination of working hard and taking on the less attractive jobs. In the Monterey area of California, fishermen have also done well by not competing for the same species with local fishermen. Vietnamese Catholics made up a large percentage of the early refugees, and many have settled in the New Orleans area. The largest Vietnamese communities in the eastern states are around Washington, D.C., with many working for the government or for international agencies.

Gold, Steven J. (1987). "Dealing with Frustration: A Study of the Interactions between Resettlement Staff and Refugees." In People in Upheaval, edited by Scott M. Morgan and Elizabeth Colson, 108-128. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

Gordon, Linda W. (1987). "Southeast Asian Refugee Migration in the United States." In Pacific Bridges: The New Immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands, edited by James T. Fawcett and Benjamin V. Cariño, 153-174. Staten Island, N.Y.: Center for Migration Studies.

Kelly, Gail P. (1977). From Vietnam to America: A Chronicle of the Vietnamese Immigration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Montero, Darrel (1979). Vietnamese Americans: Patterns of Resettlement and Socioeconomic Organization in the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.


Orbach, M. K., and J. Beckwith (1982). "Indochinese Adaptation and Local Government Policy: An Example from Monterey." Anthropological Quarterly 35:135-145.



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