Foon Rhee

If we can tell Chinese and Korean food apart, why not people?

Shang Xiong, center, performs with Hmong Cultural Heritage Center dancers during AsianFest 2016 in Fresno. Asian Americans are lumped together too often, though they have different immigration histories.
Shang Xiong, center, performs with Hmong Cultural Heritage Center dancers during AsianFest 2016 in Fresno. Asian Americans are lumped together too often, though they have different immigration histories.

I was born in Korea, but growing up I got used to being mistaken as Chinese or Japanese instead – usually out of innocent curiosity, but sometimes out of ignorance, even hate. It happened again this month in Jamaica, where walking down the “Hip Strip” in Montego Bay, “Chinese?” was the second most frequent and annoying question, behind only “marijuana?”

Isn’t it a little weird that many of us can more easily tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean food than people?

This may be a somewhat sensitive subject, but, hey, it was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, so how about trying to do just a little better?

Way too often, Asian Americans are all lumped together as a “model minority” with the highest income and most education. I grew up with expectations that I’d be a whiz at math and science, but my calculus and physics teachers can tell you that’s a myth.

So I’m always intrigued to see reports that highlight differences between groups of Asian Americans. Some examples from a new paper by the Urban Institute, plus the U.S. Department of Labor:

▪ While Indian Americans earn an average of $67,000 a year and more than two-thirds are in management or professional jobs, Vietnamese Americans make an average of $42,000 and 30 percent are in service work.

▪ While 76 percent of Indians and 59 percent of Koreans have at least bachelor’s degrees, only 30 percent of Vietnamese Americans do.

▪ Indian and Filipino Americans have the lowest poverty rates, and Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans the highest.

Also, a recent study of Asian American households in the Los Angeles area found a wide gap in wealth. Japanese American families had a median net worth of $592,000 – compared to the white average of $355,000 – but the number was only $61,500 for Vietnamese Americans and a paltry $23,400 for Koreans.

Pat Fong Kushida sees the differences every day as president and CEO of the Sacramento Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce.

Chinese and Japanese were the first to settle in Sacramento, and despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, they established themselves. Many prospered by starting small businesses.

Now, the 200-member chamber is trying to help more recent immigrants from Southeast Asia do the same. “It’s more difficult,” Kushida says. “The world has changed. It’s harder to achieve the American dream.”

She counts herself lucky. Her grandfather came to Sacramento from China in the early 1900s to work on the railroad and started a poultry market at 16th and W streets that eventually became a chain of 40 groceries. Her husband Victor Kushida is Japanese American; his family owned a TV and appliance store at 21st and Broadway.

Different groups of Asian Americans have their own immigrant histories. Chinese and Japanese Americans were the first to arrive, in the mid-1800s, and many to California. They were mainly men and low-skilled laborers. The door closed with the anti-immigration law in 1924, but reopened with a 1965 law that created large-scale immigration. This new wave has become increasingly higher skilled and educated and has made Asians the nation’s fastest growing racial group.

Now, there are about 20 million Asian Americans, about 6 percent of the total population, with nearly two-thirds born abroad. About 6.3 million live in California, where Asian Americans are about 15 percent of the population, with Filipinos and Chinese the largest subgroups, followed by Vietnamese, Indians, Koreans and Japanese.

It is true that many Asian Americans share some common beliefs. A comprehensive national survey found that in general, they put more value on marriage, parenthood and career success than other Americans.

But the Pew Research Center also found cultural, political and social differences among various groups of Asians. For instance, while generally more Democratic, Indian Americans are the most heavily so, while Filipinos and Vietnamese are the most evenly divided between the two parties.

Japanese and Filipino Americans are most accepting of intermarriage, while Koreans and Vietnamese are less comfortable. And when they intermarry, they’re more likely to wed non-Asians than Asians from other countries.

About 40 percent say their circle of friends is dominated by those from the same country. Only 1 in 5 describe themselves most often as Asian Americans, while 60 percent identify with their home country.

Asian Americans live these distinctions every day. Stereotyping – even supposedly positive traits – goes against the individualism that is at the heart of being an American. Martin Luther King Jr. had it right: We should all be judged by the content of our character.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee