Southeast Asian Americans

views updated


SOUTHEAST ASIAN AMERICANS. Geographically, Southeast Asia encompasses a vast region that includes the nations of Cambodia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, as well as the island nations of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The term Southeast Asian Americans refers to former citizens of these nations and their children who now live in the United States. More specifically, however, "Southeast Asian Americans" frequently designates refugees and immigrants from the nations of mainland Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Southeast Asian Americans are an ethnically diverse group comprised of Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Khmer (Cambodian), Laotians, Hmong, Mien, and other ethnic minority tribes. Each group has different social backgrounds, cultural practices, languages, and some even have histories of conflict with each other. Nevertheless, the majority of Southeast Asian Americans shares a common immigration history, which is the legacy of U.S. involvement in the Indochina Conflict (1954–1975), also known as the Vietnam War. This catastrophic conflict devastated Vietnam, and destroyed neighboring Laos and Cambodia in the process. The U.S. government's military and political attempts to contain the spread of communism in the region not only divided America, but also produced a massive refugee population for which it had to assume social and historical responsibility. Unlike other Asian immigrants who preceded them, the majority of Southeast Asian Americans entered the United States as refugees. Between 1975 and 1994, the United States received over 1,250,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, of which 66 percent were from Vietnam, 21 percent from Laos, and 13 percent from Cambodia.

Prior to the first wave of refugees in the mid-1970s, the first documented Southeast Asian immigrants arrived in the 1950s and early 1960s. This population of mainly Vietnamese immigrants was small in number—only a little over 18,000—and mostly consisted of university students, diplomats, and wives of American servicemen who entered the country as the war escalated. Dramatic changes in U.S. immigration policy occurred after U.S. forces withdrew from Southeast Asia and communist forces took over Saigon in April 1975. Between 1975 and 1992, the United States admitted over 650,000 persons arriving from Southeast Asia. Though not all Americans welcomed the refugees, Congress strongly supported their plight, granting them "parole" status to enter the United States, and allocations to aid in their resettlement. About 95 percent of these first wave refugees came from Vietnam, with the remaining 5 percent from Cambodia. The majority were

academics, high-ranking military officials, middle class professionals, politicians, and people who worked for the U.S. government or American corporations.

The second wave of refugees (1978–1982) involved two groups: the "land people" from Cambodia and Laos, and the "boat people" from Vietnam. Coming from more diverse backgrounds and social circumstances, refugees in the second wave risked their lives to escape the harsh conditions they confronted under newly installed communist governments. Persecuted and considered traitors by the Laotian communist government for aiding Americans during the war, the Hmong were forced to leave their homeland, and an estimated 300,000 people escaped by crossing the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand. Between 1975 and 1979, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot, who ordered the mass execution of "unwanted" bourgeois elements in Cambodian society, instigated a mass exodus. By the end of 1979, conditions were so atrocious that approximately 600,000 Cambodians were living in Thailand's refugee camps. In Vietnam, severe conditions under the communist regime also compelled people to imperil their lives by escaping in small, overcrowded boats to nearby Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. These "boat people" risked death by drowning or the danger of piracy rather than endure discrimination under communist rule.

By the early 1980s, global pressure for better humanitarian treatment of refugees forced the Vietnamese government to find solutions for the refugee crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established the Orderly Departure Program to resettle some 200,000 people who awaited their fate in refugee camps, and to reunite family members who had been separated. In addition, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1987 to allow the persecuted children of American servicemen and Vietnamese women to immigrate to the United States.

The resettlement policy adopted by the U.S. government required the refugees to disperse across the country to ensure their financial self-sufficiency and to prevent overwhelming concentration in any one community. The refugees' desire to build concentrated ethnic communities, however, counteracted this policy. In reconstituting their respective communities, more than 40 percent of the Southeast Asian population resettled in California for its warm climate, employment opportunities, and generous public assistance programs. Southern California's Orange County has become the home of more than 200,000 Vietnamese Americans, the largest number of Vietnamese outside the nation of Vietnam. Sizable populations of Vietnamese Americans have also resettled in Texas, Washington, Louisiana, and Illinois. Hmong Americans reestablished their largest community in Fresno, California, while a surprising number have also concentrated in the "frost belt" states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they are the largest Asian American group. And while an over-whelming number of Cambodian Americans live in Long Beach, California, they have also resettled bi-coastally in Massachusetts, Washington, Rhode Island, and Illinois. Of Southeast Asian Americans, Laotians are the most dispersed group, with their largest community in San Diego, California. The 2000 Census enumerates 1,122,528 Vietnamese; 169,428 Hmong; 168,707 Lao; 171,937 Cambodian; and 112,989 Thai Americans living in the United States.

Well-educated and proficient in English, first wave refugees had less difficulty adjusting to life in the United States than their compatriots who arrived later. Linguistic and professional skills enabled many to integrate into American society with ease, and some found self-employment by opening small businesses catering to other co-ethnics. With fewer transferable skills and limited English, second and third wave refugees found work in blue-collar electronic and mechanical industries. By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, global restructuring led many Vietnamese Americans to participate in dot-com industries, particularly in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, niche service industries such as nail salons enabled many Vietnamese immigrants with low English proficiency and few skills to become lucrative entrepreneurs. Likewise, Cambodians found the proprietorship of doughnut shops, another semi-skilled and labor-intensive enterprise, to be financially rewarding.

Having faced the terrors of war and the daunting task of rebuilding new lives in a foreign land, Southeast Asian Americans continue to confront new challenges. Despite government assistance, many people from these communities still live below the poverty line. And although Southeast Asian American youth have often been hailed as the new "model minorities" for their strong academic achievements, gang violence often plagues these communities. The generation gap between immigrant parents and their U.S. born children also divides the community, especially regarding their divergent attitudes toward the homeland and communism. Nevertheless, after nearly three decades of living in the United States, Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees have become productive citizens in American society, contributing as laborers, professionals, and business owners to the nation's economy. And in their efforts to preserve cultural traditions and institutions, Southeast Asian Americans have revitalized many urban areas by creating strong ethnic communities that cater to their compatriots and contribute to the multiethnic landscape of America.


Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Frank, Anne. "Documenting the Southeast Asian Refugee Experience." Southeast Asian Archive at the University of California, Irvine. Available from

Haines, David W. Refugees as Immigrants: Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese in America. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1989.

———, ed. Refugees in America in the 1990s: A Reference Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

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

Kibria, Nazli. Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans. Princeton, N.J.: University of Princeton Press, 1993.

Rambaut, Rubén G. "Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian Americans." In Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues. Edited by Pyong Gap Min. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1995.

Nhi T.Lieu

See alsoAsian Americans ; Vietnam War .

About this article

Southeast Asian Americans

Updated About content Print Article


Southeast Asian Americans