Asians battle 'model minority' label Study cites hurdles of recent arrivals

February 22, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,U.S. Census Bureau and Md. Office of PlanningStaff Writer

In a 2 1/2 -year tussle with the American economy, Vietnamese refugee Hoa Phung Nguyen has struggled mightily to get by.

Since coming to America in 1990, he has cleaned offices on the lobster shift, been laid off from a woodworking job, taught Asian languages until the supply of students dried up, and landed his best job yet, caring for plants in a Baltimore greenhouse for $7.25 an hour.

Mr. Nguyen, 53, a former Saigon police officer imprisoned under Communist rule, has eked out enough to support two sons who live with him in a modest East Baltimore rowhouse -- and to send money home now and then to his wife and four other children who remain behind in Vietnam.

Hoa Nguyen's Spartan existence is more typical of Asian-Americans than many Americans are likely to believe, according to a newly released report, "The State of Asian Pacific America."

A "model minority" myth -- that Asian-Americans are handsomely paid, highly educated overachievers -- often obscures the challenges facing recent arrivals, says the report by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

"The attitude is: We don't have to have programs for Asians because you're all rich," says J.D. Hokoyama, executive director of LEAP, a nonprofit, Los Angeles-based advocacy group. "The Asian community is so diverse. We have a lot of newcomers -- refugees and immigrants -- having a very difficult time. But the model minority view blinds people to their needs, especially at a time when money is tight," he says.

The number of Asian-Americans, the nation's fastest-growing minority, is expected to nearly triple by 2020 to 20 million, or 6 percent of the U.S. population, new projections in the report show. The Asian population nearly doubled during the 1980s to 7.3 million.

Measuring success

As a group, Asian-Americans have indeed been successful. Median household income for Maryland's nearly 140,000 Asians was over $45,000, according to the 1990 census, more than $3,000 a year higher than whites' household income.

But the household income statistics can be misleading: Asian-American households are larger than average and include more workers. When income is measured per capita, Asians' income is 18 percent less than whites' in Maryland.

And while wealthy Asian-Americans lived in $300,000 houses in Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties, nearly 11,000 other Asians in Maryland were poor -- including almost a quarter of Baltimore's 8,000 Asians. The Asian poverty rate was 8.1 percent, compared to 5.3 percent for whites.

Asian-Americans are Maryland's most highly educated racial group -- half have college degrees -- but 8 percent have less than a ninth-grade education.

"The characterization of Asian-Americans as the model minority is not entirely wrong," says Jai P. Ryu, a Korean-born sociologist at Loyola College, "but when it is presented as the entire picture, it becomes wrong."

When Asian students don't perform well in school, "the problems are really doubled because the general culture says you are Asian and you're not good academically, so what are you good for?" he says. "The stereotype of academic achievement makes them a double failure."

Pat Hatch, executive director of the Foreign-born Information Referral Network (FIRN) in Columbia, says the "successful Asian-American student is blinding us to the fact that we're losing all sorts of Asian students along the way -- and adults as well.

Ms. Hatch says the "model minority" stereotype undermines her lobbying for more English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers in Howard County, where more than half the ESOL students are Asian. "A positive stereotype can be every bit as damaging as a negative stereotype," says Ms. Hatch.

Language difficulties

The influx of newcomers who speak English poorly or not at all and who don't understand the American system well poses a particular challenge for schools and health care providers.

Nationally, nearly two-thirds of Asian-Americans were born outside the United States. That percentage is expected to decline only modestly over the next three decades as Asian immigration continues to run high.

"Many agencies now have a person who can ask a question or two in Spanish. But most don't have anybody who can speak with persons from Asian cultures," says Ms. Hatch, whose group provides volunteers to interpret for immigrants. "Lots of Asians don't try to access services such as health care and family planning."

The fastest-growing group of Asian-Americans, both in Maryland and across the country, is refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By the year 2000, Vietnamese are projected to be the third-largest Asian ethnic group in the U.S., behind Filipinos and Chinese.

Like Mr. Nguyen, who escaped Vietnam and reached a refugee camp in Thailand on a small wooden boat packed with relatives, the Southeast Asians come fleeing devastation.

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