Thursday, February 9th, 2023
By: Dorothy Chan
What is the Asian American dream? The answer lies in history- the history of Asians immigrating from many countries to the United States.
The Asian American dream is the goalpost that motivated troves of people from Asia to begin a new life in the 19th-century United States, and many more people representing various countries followed suit in the following century. The reasons for immigrating varied throughout history and across country-of-origin, making the Asian American dream dynamic. Today, first-, second-, and third-generation Asian Americans are writing a new chapter in history by pursuing their own vision of what the Asian American dream ought to be as shaped by their own present-day experiences, adversities, and opportunities.
One of the first Asian immigrants was a low-skilled male laborer who trekked from China to California to find work and send remittances home. They partook in hard manual labor in the Pacific West while, back at home, China was in social and political upheaval. Similarly, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Indian immigrants also left their homes to leverage the work opportunities brought forth by America’s rapid economic development. The opportunities in the US and China could not have been more dichotomous at the time. Hence the goal was quite straightforward at the time. Work hard, make money, and build a life better than what could have been.
Chinese miners working in California in the 1850s.
The road to creating such a life was not easy for many immigrant groups from Asia. In the early 20th century, people from China, Japan, India, and Korea possessed little to no civil rights because their demographic group was excluded from the law, denied citizenship and naturalization, and prohibited from owning land. It was not until a few landmark Supreme Court cases set the precedent for equal application under the law to be extended to Asians that these immigrant groups were able to dream bigger. In particular, the matter of birthright citizenship was addressed in the Supreme Court case, the United States v. Wong Kim Ark, in 1897. Mr. Wong Kim Ark’s parents were citizens of China and residents of America when he was born on American soil. The case’s presiding judges voted in favor of extending the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to Mr. Ark, which effectively set the legal precedent for all children of Asian immigrants to be naturalized as citizens of the United States.
Discrimination and prejudice certainly had not subsided, but the backing of the law opened the door to citizenship transforming how migrants shaped their own identity and dreams. With the passing of the Immigration Act of 1952 and subsequent court cases in defense of rights embodied in the Civil Rights of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment, the premise of an Asian American dream broadened. No longer was a dream confined to providing cheap, unskilled labor while staving off xenophobic violence. Achieving higher education and income levels became a possibility as long as the law permitted people to leverage hard work as a driver for social mobility.
Fast forward to today, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing voting group, as well as the student and immigrant demographic as a percentage of the nation’s population. Chinese immigrants are the largest Asian-origin group, which consists of 24% of the Asian immigrant population. The next largest groups are from India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. In 2019, there were a total of 5.4 million Asian immigrants. Since the 1970s, students from Asian countries, like China, India, South Korea, and Iran, constituted the largest percentage of international students by country of origin, while the number of international students opting to study in the U.S. also increased in parallel. By 2020, students from China and India made up 52.6%, or almost half a million students, of the total international students in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, 10.3 million Asians, or 4.7% of eligible voters in the U.S., were eligible to vote.
However, it is important to take a longer look at these numbers because these staggering statistics were primarily driven by six countries of origin groups in order from largest to smallest: China, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. These same six groups also constituted 85% of the Asian American population in 2018. Thus, defining what the Asian American dream could mean in a new era without considering who these numbers represent would lead to false conclusions premised on an overly generalized narrative. There are still great disparities in income, education, and population levels among immigrants from various Asian countries. Varying socioeconomic circumstances invariably give rise to many variations of the Asian American dream.
Asian Americans are a diverse group of people in terms of not only culture and language but also socioeconomic status, education level, and history in America. The term ‘Asian’ embodies a degree of diversity akin to what the Asian American dream means today. This dream, or objective, depends on one’s own circumstances as well as the external environment, and modern-day America is one of the top destinations for Asian immigrants to settle in. While some may be coming to escape political persecution and civil injustices, others may immigrate for education, job opportunities, affordable housing, or even a safe haven for investments.
Source: Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Perceived opportunities and optimism for a brighter future continue to drive people from Asia to come to America. As for first-generation Asian Americans, who are the children of immigrants, they are chasing their own dreams that look very different from those of their parents.
Take Kevin Ha, the founder of the Asian American Dream, Inc. (AAD), as a prime exhibition of what can be achieved as an ambitious and passionate advocate for the Asian American community. He is the eldest son of his parents, who both immigrated from Vietnam. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College, he worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, during which he founded AAD. Subsequently, he left his role to pursue a full-time nonprofit career where he is fulfilling his own dream of serving underserved Pan Asian American undergraduate students in his community as well as across the nation.
The Asian American dream is an individual journey shaped by one’s own narratives and experiences. The recent history of the Asian immigrant experience in America, most of which revolved around survival and financial stability, exemplifies the evolution of the Asian American dream. The dream is more dynamic than before, as Asian Americans can now dare to dream bigger than what could have been possible in the past.
Dorothy is a Data Operations Associate at PitchBook and has been with AAD since November 2021. She graduated from the University of Miami in May 2021 with a B.A. in Economics and Chinese Studies and minors in International Studies and Exercise Physiology. She hails from the sunny city of Miami, FL, and is currently based in Seattle, WA. She is interested in researching and discussing all things China, capital markets, and geopolitics and seeks to bridge the gap between the U.S. and China.