Asian and Pacific Islander

July 28, 2011

The women of Asia and the Pacific Islands are the world’s largest demographic group, comprising over one quarter of humankind. They inhabit regions as diverse as cosmopolitan Taipei and Tokyo, snowy Himalayan peaks, and the tropical isles of the Philippines. Over 10,000 years ago, Asians journeyed across land bridges and the ocean to become the first inhabitants of what is now known as the Americas. After the founding of the United States, Asian immigration was severely limited by more than two centuries of laws such as the 1790 Immigration and Naturalization Act that only allowed naturalized citizenship for “white” persons, and the Chinese Exclusion Act in effect from 1882 to 1943. In 1965, immigration quotas favoring those of European national origins were replaced by those favoring skilled professionals. Whereas 19th century Asian immigrants were mostly Chinese and Japanese male agricultural and railroad laborers, the post-1965 Asian immigration wave largely consisted of highly educated Chinese and Asian Indians. With the fall of Saigon to communist forces in 1975, Southeast Asians sought refuge in the United States. Initially comprised of the Vietnamese upper class fleeing political persecution, later waves consisted of rural populations from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia. Although now largely abandoned, anti-Asian laws continue to exist, such as those prohibiting Asians from owning land in Florida and New Mexico. However, because of civil rights legislation, these laws are unenforced.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, over 5.6 million Asian and Pacific Islander American women live in the United States, totaling approximately 2% of the U.S. population. They are remarkably diverse in terms of ethnic origin, educational status, socioeconomic status, and degrees of acclimatization to the Western world. The very concept of “Asia” originates from Europe and many who we consider “Asian” may not feel that they share a common ethnic identity. For example, Chinese and Japanese, who have a long history of war and genocidal conflict, see themselves as distinct as Germans and Jews. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legal bans on interracial marriage, existent in many states, were lifted. Today, many Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are of mixed race, further defying categorization.

Asian and Pacific Islander American women have made notable achievements. During much of the 1990s, Maxine Hong Kingston was the most widely taught living American author. Elaine Chao currently serves as the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Nevertheless, Asian and Pacific Islander women often endure negative stereotypes of submissiveness and of being accepting of sexual exploitation, as put forth by media images such as Suzy Wong and Miss Saigon. In 1988, playwright David Henry Hwang won a Tony Award for “M. Butterfly,” a play that critiques these stereotypes.

SEE ALSO: Immigrant health, Posttraumatic stress disorder, Suicide

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Category: A, Asian and Pacific Islander