The Real Story of Asians in America That Hardly Anyone Is Talking About


On May 24, a heartbreaking article was published in the New York Post. According to the story, an elementary school in Flushing, New York, held a carnival during school hours May 21, complete with food, a jumping castle, inflatable slides and "a twirly teacup ride."

All P.S. 120 students grades pre-K to 5 were invited to attend, as long as they paid a $10 entry fee. Unfortunately, more than 100 children could not afford the fee. So instead of letting them go to the carnival, the administrators made them sit in an auditorium and watch "an old Disney movie" while 900 of their peers laughed, shouted and listened to a DJ perform outside.

The story gets sadder — one girl reportedly asked a teacher if she was "being punished" — but especially interesting for our purposes is the demographic breakdown of these kids. According to staffers quoted by the New York Post, most of the students at P.S. 120 come from poor, Chinese immigrant families, many of whom live "crammed into apartments" in the surrounding neighborhood, "struggling to keep their heads above water."

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It's a story we're not used to hearing. The stereotypes that shape our perceptions of Asian people in America are as vast as they are limiting, and rarely leave room for such nuance. In fact, most of our notions revolve around the "model minority" myth — the idea that characteristics unique to "Asian culture" have allowed them to flourish financially and academically in the U.S. in ways that other minorities have not.

Thursday night's Scripps National Spelling Bee seemed to highlight this point, with an Indian-American champion — two cochampions, actually — being declared for the seventh year in a row, and for the 14th time in 18 years. But as with any stereotype, this is only part of the story at best, and an outright lie at worst.

"The reality is far more complex," Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy and political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, and founder of, told Mic. "People tend to think that if you're Asian-American, you're doing just fine. But that negates the experiences of the people who are struggling."

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Rarely, for instance, do we hear tales of Asian-American poverty, immigration struggles or health disparities — all issues that impact Asians in unique and underreported ways, and are often shaped by what country they hail from and when they arrived. So in order to shed light on the topic, here are five findings that challenge the idea of what most imagine the "typical" Asian American experience to be.

(Figures come courtesy of the Center for American Progress' May 2015 analysis, "Asian Americans in the United States Today" and Karthick Ramakrishnan's AAPI Data.)

1. "Asian" is a very limited term.

So much of the Asian-American experience gets defined through the success of groups like Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans, who average some of the highest income and education rates of any group in the country, according to Pew Research Center.

But they do not represent all of Asian America. Hmong and Bangladeshi Americans, for example, both face poverty rates higher than 20%, while 37% of Cambodian-American adults have less than a high school diploma, compared to 13.4% of Americans in general.

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2. Asians are the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S.

The national conversation around immigration tends to focus on Mexico and Central America. But as of 2014, only 37% of Hispanics in the U.S. were foreign-born, compared to 66% of Asians.

Since 2008, Asians have represented 40% of the entire U.S. foreign-born population, compared to just 27% in 2005.

Even within those figures, there is nuance — different people come to the U.S. for different reasons, says Ramakrishnan. "A lot of Indian and Chinese immigrants come here on H1B visas for highly-skilled workers," he explained to Mic. "But groups from Southeast Asia, like Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong people, often come as refugees, and have some of the worst outcomes when it comes to high school dropout rates and living in poverty."

3. A large number of Asians in America are actually undocumented.

The number of undocumented Asians in the U.S. grew to 1.5 million in 2013, making up an estimated one-quarter of the undocumented population in states like New York and Virginia. The number of undocumented Indian-Americans, in particular, nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011.

According to AAPI Data, one in every eight Asian immigrants was undocumented in 2011, putting them at high risk for wage theft (as documented in a disturbing recent New York Times exposé on the nail salon industry), deportation and limited access to education resources.

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4. Where Asians live in America may surprise you.

The largest Asian populations in the U.S. are, unsurprisingly, found in California. But increasing numbers are migrating to states with negligible histories of Asian influence and community. The five fastest-growing Asian populations by state from 2000 to 2012 are, in order: Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota, North Carolina and Georgia. As a result, politicians in these places are having to shift their tactics to target Asian voters and their needs.

"Even though their numbers aren't as large as in the L.A. metro area or Houston, they get comparatively more attention when it comes to elections, as these races tend to be very competitive," Ramakrishnan told Mic. "Places like Nevada, or Virginia, these are often swings states ... So in an ironic way, they still have a ways to go, but when it comes to mobilizing Asians politically, [these states] get mobilized quicker."

5. Health disparities facing Asian Americans can be stark.

In the state of California, Asians have the highest rate of cancer deaths of any demographic, according to AAPI Data. Before the Affordable Care Act took effect, Asians nationwide were at the highest risk for Hepatitis B.

And that's saying nothing of mental health:

"Mental health issues are very significant," says Ramakrishnan. "Many of the refugee populations, they've experienced a lot of war-related trauma. These don't just go away when they get to America."

The takeaway: If we continue to flatten the experiences of Asian Americans into a monolithic whole, we are failing the populations within that whole — often people from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands — who still face significant barriers to living healthy, safe and secure lives in America. Changing this pattern starts with education.

For more information, check out the Center for American Progress' fact sheets on Asians in America.