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date: 30 March 2017

Southeast Asian Americans

Summary and Keywords

In geopolitical terms, the Asian sub-region Southeast Asia consists of ten countries that are organized under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Current member nations include Brunei Darussalam, Kingdom of Cambodia, Republic of Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Malaysia, Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Kingdom of Thailand, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The term Southeast Asian Americans has been shaped largely by the flow of refugees from the American War in Vietnam’ however, Americans with origins in Southeast Asia have much more diverse migration and settlement experiences that are intricately tied to the complex histories of colonialism, imperialism, and war from the late 19th through the end of the 20th century. A commonality across Southeast Asian American groups today is that their immigration history resulted primarily from the political and military involvement of the United States in the region, aimed at building the United States as a global power. From Filipinos during the Spanish-American War in 1898 to Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong refugees from the American War in Vietnam, military interventions generated migration flows that, once begun, became difficult to stop. Complicating this history is its role in supporting the international humanitarian apparatus by creating the possibility for displaced people to seek refuge in the United States. Additionally, the relationships between the United States, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are different from those of other SEA countries involved in the Vietnam War. Consequently, today’s Southeast Asian Americans are heterogeneous with varying levels of acculturation to U.S. society.

Keywords: Southeast Asian Americans, refugees, Filipinos, forced migration, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese

Southeast Asian Americans at the beginning of the 21st century are heterogeneous, with varying levels of acculturation to American society. While some of the migration experiences of these diverse communities reflect the strategic search for better life elsewhere, others are entangled in homeland political transformations that have generated diverse movements across multiple national boarders before settling in the United States. To understand Southeast Asian American history requires an examination of the complex histories of colonialism, imperialism, and war from the late 19th through the end of the 20th century. What Americans of Southeast Asian descent have in common is that their immigration history resulted from U.S. political and military involvement aimed at building the United States as a global power. From Filipinos during the Spanish-American War in 1898 to Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong refugees from the American War in Vietnam, military interventions generated migration flows that, once begun, became difficult to stop. Complicating this history further is the United States’ role in supporting the international humanitarian apparatus by creating the possibility for allies to seek refuge in the United States.

Who are Southeast Asian Americans?

Historian Sucheng Chan has noted that no satisfactory term exists to collectively refer to people from Southeast Asia living in the United States.1 In geopolitical terms, the Asian sub-region, Southeast Asia, consists of ten countries that are organized under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Current member nations include Brunei Darussalam, Kingdom of Cambodia, Republic of Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Malaysia, Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Kingdom of Thailand, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Of the 17.3 million Asian Americans in 2010, 37 percent have Southeast Asia origins. About half of the 6.4 million are Filipinos (3.4 million), and Vietnamese comprise the second largest group (1.7 million).2 Because the Hmong (260,000) living in the United States are those from Laos, when this population is added to the Laotian (232,000) group, those with origins in Laos constitute nearly half a million.3 The remaining significant groups include Thai (237,000), Burmese (100,000), Indonesian (95,000) and Malaysian (26,000).4

Migration and War

The number of Americans with origins in Southeast Asian nations reflects the level of American involvement in particular locations as well as the liberalization of U.S. immigration policies during the mid-1960s. Any attempt to understand their histories requires an examination of the lasting effects of military undertakings and of these migrants’ motivation to move. For groups like Filipinos, migration has occurred over the course of 100 years, while refugees from the Vietnam War era have arrived in significant numbers only in the last few of decades. Once the migration process began, it became difficult to completely end to it due to multiple factors, including the sponsorship of family members through regular U.S. immigration channels. It is evident that war instigated migration, but the underlying reasons for movement differed across the heterogeneous Southeast Asian groups. Thus, it is necessary to identify the different ways in which Americans of Southeast Asian descent have come to the United States.


The U.S. occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War in 1898 marked American entry into world affairs and set in motion American interests in Southeast Asia. Under American rule, Filipino development mirrored many aspects of American society, including education and politics. Thousands of Filipino students attended American schools and universities. Many more would come to California and Hawaii as agricultural workers during the 1920s. Their status was altered by the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act (Philippine Independence Act), which put the Philippines on the road to self-rule and changed the status of Filipinos to aliens instead of U.S. nationals. Providing the Philippines with an annual quota of only fifty individuals reduced Filipino migration, and thus their overall U.S. population, by 1940. Like other countries torn by the politics of World War II, Filipinos were divided. Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines following the attack on Pearl Harbor generated tremendous tension between those who viewed the Japanese as liberators and those who joined forces with Americans against the Japanese. While the United States recognized Philippine independence in 1946, it maintained substantial military bases there. Consequently, Filipino women married to American servicemen accounted for a significant portion of migration in the ensuing decades. Additionally, the Education Exchange Act of 1946 facilitated the migration of nurses from the Philippines to the United States. Upon completion of their training, many nurses remained in the United States rather than returning to the Philippines. In addition to this Act, Americanized hospital training systems, set in place during the colonial period, contributed to the large flow of nurses to the United States.5 Though small in comparison to European nations, the annual Filipino quota doubled with the passage of the 1948 Luce-Cellar Bill. The spike in Filipino migration, however, came following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Celler Act). Changes in immigration policies enabled Filipino Americans to bring family members who were outside of the quota system to the United States. The need for medical workers in the United States allowed nurses, physicians, and medical technicians who were already trained with American standards to immigrate in sizable numbers. Furthermore, the Health Professions Assistance Act of 1976 allowed American hospitals to recruit nurses directly from the Philippines. In addition to Filipino men in the U.S. military, the phenomenon of military brides continued with the increase of U.S. military personnel based in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. In addition to military brides, many American men sought “mail-order brides,” where marriages were arranged by mail between men in the United States and women in the Philippines. All of these post-1965 policies and practices contributed to the dramatic increase in the Filipino American population.

Vietnam War Refugees

The areas known today as Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam had endured foreign occupation and domination; thus, contact with intrusive foreigners was not new to the inhabitants. Cultural and political influences absorbed by the native populations from outsiders have been integral in their developments. The region was influenced by traditions and religion from China and India in immeasurable ways. While they are multiethnic countries with groups embracing a variety of religious beliefs, Buddhism is the dominant religion. Centuries of Chinese influence meant that ethnic Chinese presence and cultural influence in these countries were common, most significantly in Vietnam. Although other European powers were present earlier, French conquest of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam began in the mid- to late 1800s, resulting in the establishment of Indochina. Though varied in terms of investment, colonial rule influenced these societies in multiple ways. During French colonial rule, Vietnamese were encouraged to settle in Cambodia and Laos, where they dominated government posts and commerce. Although those with education and French language skills were highly valued, many farmers and fishermen migrated as well. World War II changed France’s great power status in Europe and contributed to its inability to maintain its colonies amidst tremendous fervor for decolonization throughout much of the colonized world. Under the leadership of communists, Vietnamese nationalists rallied people throughout Indochina to rise up against the French. The Franco-Vietnam War (also known as the First Indochina War) would last for eight years (1946–1954).

The U.S. decision to support the French in 1950 marked direct American interests in Indochina. French defeat by Vietnamese nationalists in 1954 ended its colonial rule. When the French departed, the United States moved in to support anti-communist groups throughout Indochina. As the Cold War gained momentum, the presence of American military advisers, beginning during the mid-1950s, would result in a quarter-century commitment. Full scale warfare, compounded with internal political and military divide, within Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, led to tragic outcomes for all involved. Although U.S. military and political commitments were focused on Vietnam, the conflict spread to neighboring Cambodia and Laos. The nature of the American war in Vietnam coincided with domestic social and political turmoil in the United States and led, in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, to the displacement of huge numbers of people, straining the fabric of Cambodian (Khmer), Laotian, and Vietnamese society. The 1973 ceasefire agreement permitted the United States to disengage from the region, and the fall of Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Vientiane in 1975 triggered the refugee conditions. For those who witnessed the end of the American war in Vietnam, images of people clinging to ships and narratives of near death escapes are common. The exponential increase in the number of displaced persons from the region makes it difficult to erase these images. Although the war was responsible for the displacement of the native population, their decision to flee in its aftermath depended on the extent to which they were involved with American military and humanitarian efforts throughout the war.

During the war, many in neighboring Laos and Cambodia were pulled into the debacle due to their proximity, while other Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore were heavily impacted by the arrival of thousands of refugees in the aftermath. As first asylum nations, refugee camps were set up to receive those fleeing war-torn Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Because the duration of the camps and the volume of arrivals varied, each first-asylum host country responded differently. Freedom of movement also differed across refugee camps and first-asylum countries, but, regardless of where they first sought refuge, the camp experience for most Southeast Asian refugees was one of isolation because refugee camps were usually located in areas away from the local population. From the mid-1970s through early 2010, refugees from the American war represented nearly half of the 2.9 million people who entered the United States, of which the Vietnamese were the vast majority. Postwar political and economic conditions also played an important role in influencing peoples’ decisions to emigrate. Although there are similarities across the former French colonies in terms of the retribution imposed by the new regime on those who collaborated with Americans during the war, significant differences existed within each nation that either promoted or prevented local populations from leaving their homes to seek refuge elsewhere.

The first phase of Vietnamese emigration, in the days leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government on April 30, 1975, consisted primarily of people who possessed marketable skills to survive in America. Many were educated and spoke some English due to their previous work either with the South Vietnamese government or directly with Americans in Vietnam. During and following the couple of weeks after the air evacuation, thousands left on their own using small boats, ships, and aircrafts. U.S. Navy and cargo ships operating near the coast of Vietnam rescued some at sea. The first group of Vietnamese refugees who left in April 1975 did not experience living in refugee camps in Southeast Asia. In fact, accommodation for this group was established at four military bases in the United States, including Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.6 Some basic needs support were provided to the refugees as they waited to be sponsored out of the camps.

The second phase of Vietnamese emigration began in 1978, when many fled political repression and social and economic reforms. Some of the so-called “boat people” who left Vietnam in the late 1970s were ethnic Chinese who feared persecution due to their ethnicity. Many perished at sea due to the insubstantial quality of their boats and the danger of sea pirates. Because this second group of refugees came from poor backgrounds and many were not educated, they experienced greater adjustment challenges than those who fled in 1975. Those in the second phase would linger in refugee camps in the various first-asylum countries, hoping for opportunities to settle in third countries. Several U.S. congressional actions would help to facilitate Vietnamese immigration. In1980, Congress established the Orderly Departure and the Humanitarian Operation programs, which enabled those who had arrived earlier to sponsor family members. The programs enabled several categories of people to immigrate: those with family members living in the United States, former U.S. government or firm or organization employees, and reeducation center detainees. The 1988 Amerasian Homecoming Act was passed to allow children born in Vietnam of American fathers to immigrate. By 2009, more than 25,000 Amerasians and 60,000 to 70,000 of their relatives had immigrated through this Act. Since 1975, about one million Vietnamese have immigrated to the United States.

Cambodian neutrality was stipulated in 1954 by the Geneva Accords, but the hot war across the border in Vietnam could not allow Cambodia to be uninvolved. Even though both the U.S. and Vietnamese communist forces used Cambodian territory, it was the 1970 invasion that made U.S. expansion of the war beyond Vietnam visible to Americans. Besides the bombing of Cambodian territory, American backed forces were trained and provided with resources to battle the communist Khmer Rouge. As the situation in Vietnam deteriorated following the cease-fire agreement, internal struggles intensified. Consequently, American personnel evacuated from Cambodia on April 12, 1975. Khmer Rouge forces took over the country soon thereafter and, in their attempts to create an agrarian utopia, murdered close to two million Cambodians during the next few years. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, instigating the flight of many Cambodians to refugee camps in Thailand. More than 100,000 Cambodian refugees have immigrated to the United States. Following Vietnam’s troop withdrawal from Cambodia in the late 1980s, the United Nations supervised the repatriation of more than 350,000 Cambodian refugees living in Thai camps.

Like Cambodia, Laos’ proximity to the struggle in Vietnam forced it into the conflict. Its own internal political struggles, indeed, mirror closely what occurred in Vietnam. American military and humanitarian aid to the country commenced in the mid-1950s. The difference is that U.S. combat troops were not sent to Laos. Instead, counterinsurgency efforts were used over the course of the Vietnam War. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited local people, trained and supplied them with weapons, and paid them to be America’s foot soldiers in Laos. These covert operations subsumed a great number of Laotians, and their involvement with the U.S. secret war in Laos had tragic consequences. The most well-known were Hmong ethnic minorities, who lived in the northeastern part of the country bordering Vietnam, but other ethnic minorities such as Khammu and Mien fought alongside Hmong. Because of the contentious political split within the ruling Lao elite, the majority ethnic Lao population also became American allies. In addition to CIA activities, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided humanitarian aid to the local population, which was an integral part of the military efforts because it responded to the needs of thousands of people internally displaced due to the fighting on Lao territory. In mid-May of 1975, a CIA evacuation of Hmong military leaders from their base in northeastern Laos airlifted about 2,500 people to Thailand. The exodus of people from Laos officially came to a halt in the mid-1990s, as United Nations-sponsored camps closed. Of the more than 200,000 refugees from Laos who resettled in the United States, half are Hmong. In addition, 10,000 Mien and 4,000 Khammu fled the country following communist takeover in 1975. Today, over 260,000 people of Hmong ethnicity, 230,000 Lao, 60,000 Mien, and 8,000 Khammu, live in the United States.

Other Southeast Migrants and Refugees

The presence of Thai and Burmese Americans reflects the historical migration trajectory of Filipinos and refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam; but at the same time, they depart slightly from the processes that occurred in these nations. The difference was Thailand’s position in the region and Burma’s contentious past resulting from British rule. As the only Southeast Asian nation not colonized by European powers, Thailand, which was known as Siam until 1938, established firm rapprochement with Western powers from the late 1800s to early 1900s. The first Thais set foot in the United States in 1829. They settled in North Carolina and were officially naturalized in 1839. However, prior to the late 1960s, very few Thai migrated; less than 5,000 people of Thai ancestry lived in the United States.7 Although some Thai sought employment in America following changes in U.S. immigration policies in the mid-1960s, like some Filipinos, Thai migration occurred largely through spousal migration. In 1967, a treaty signed by the Thai government and the U.S. military allowed American soldiers to come to Bangkok for rest and recreation (R & R), which led to the explosion in Thailand’s sex industry. Thousands of bars, nightclubs, and massage parlors were established to provide sex services to American servicemen. Not only did R & R help fuel the Thai economy, the American military presence in Thailand throughout the Vietnam War resulted in many marriages between Thai women and American men who served in Vietnam. Consequently, more foreign-born Thai Americans living in the United States are women than men. In recent years, the number of Thai who arrive in the United States as professionals or students has contributed to the diversity of Thai Americans. Their largest concentration is in the Los Angeles area. Thai American community leaders were successful leading a campaign to designate a section of East Hollywood as “Thai Town.”8

Refugees from Burma are one of the newest groups to settle in the United States in large numbers, but migration of people from Burma began in the mid-1960s. Modern day Burma was conquered by the British in 1824; like French Indochina, Burma consisted of many ethnic groups. The Burmans are the majority, but ethnic groups such as the Karen make up a significant portion of the population. British colonial rule brought about some educational and economic changes to ethnic minorities who had previously been repressed by the majority and, consequently, divisions deepened. Missionaries were successful in converting many Karen to Christianity, and these converts would eventually contribute to the establishment of separatist nationalists. As it had for other colonized people, World War II opened up new opportunities for Burmese nationalists who desired independence from Great Britain. Through political and military struggles, Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, and until 1962, the country operated under democratic rule; however, a coup in 1962 placed the country under military rule. The one party system led to further repression of ethnic minorities who desired separation. The antagonistic political situation resulted in decades-long military struggles between the military government and its ethnic minorities.9

Burmese nationalist xenophobia led to the implementation of prejudicial policies. Those of Chinese descent who were primarily Buddhists became victims of socioeconomic oppression and race-based educational discrimination.10 Such internal political instabilities and the promise of opportunities in the West encouraged the first wave of Burmese immigrants to the United States during the mid-1960s. Many Burmese of Chinese descent left following the 1967 anti-Chinese riot in Burma. Unlike ethnic Chinese, other ethnic minorities did not have the same means to leave. Ethnic armed groups have fought with the central government since. A major offensive against the Karen National Union in 1984 caused the flight of about 10,000 refugees to Thailand. During the August 8, 1988 “Democracy Uprising,” spearheaded by students and monks and known as “8 8 88,” hundreds of thousands of people took part in protests throughout the country demanding democracy. Since 1984, an estimated 140,000 refugees have been living in nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. The conflicts have also generated the internal displacement of more than one million people, in addition to the hundreds of thousand who have sought refuge in other neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia. Since the early 1990s, the United States has settled about 100,000 refugees from Burma, the majority of whom arrived between 2007 and 2010.11

The majority of Burmese Americans settled in California, but there are sizable populations in Indiana, New York, Texas, Arizona, and Minnesota. Although it is too early to tell how the political climate in Burma will evolve, there are signs of change. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to Burma in December 2011 was the first visit to the country by an American diplomat in 50 years. Some Americans believe that this marks the beginning of efforts to improve relations between the two countries, which they hope will lead to greater social and political change in Burma, though this optimism is met with defiance by some in the exiled communities and by anti-government groups inside Burma. Aspiration for self-determination of ethnic minority groups such as the Karen continues to be full of uncompromising rhetoric, in particular from those living outside of Burma. This challenge to the government and the misery generated by sustained low-level conflict continues to get in the way of a peaceful solution.

The Politics of Forced Migration

The displacement of such an intense volume of people brings into question the responses by actors such as the United States, whose intervention often contributed to their plight in the first place. The extent to which states offer temporary and permanent refuge depends on a number of critical factors. Anthropologist Liisa Malkki argues that the factors influencing human displacement are not only complex, but also encompass many levels. She writes, “Nationalism and racism, xenophobia and immigration policies, state practices of violence and war, censorship and silencing, human rights and challenges to state sovereignty, ‘development’ discourse and humanitarian interventions, citizenship and cultural or religious identities, travel and diaspora, and memory and historicity are just some of the issues and practices that generate the inescapably relevant context of human displacement today.”12 Upon displacement, the refugee becomes a problem to be solved by state actors.

The controversial and unpopular Vietnam War generated social, economic, and political devastation; thus, most Americans were pleased to see it come to an end in the early 1970s. Instead of cutting all ties to the region, the United States was confronted with the increasing flow of people who sought refuge as a result of their entanglement with American efforts during the war and the ensuing economic and political repressions implemented by the victorious regime. Instabilities on all fronts within American society meant that the refugees confronted a dichotomous response from U.S. citizens. Because many Americans also faced issues of joblessness and diminishing resources during the late 1970s and 1980s, they were openly antagonistic toward the refugees. This hostility was indeed a reflection of the legacy of discrimination against newcomers outside of Western Europe and the legacy of the unpopular Vietnam War. Interestingly, however, the racial and economically based resentments were accompanied by unprecedented humanitarian aid provided by thousands of individuals and groups. American voluntary organizations throughout the country identified sponsors for refugee families, allowing them to leave the uncertain refugee camp life. Dispersal policies implemented at the federal level resulted in refugees being distributed across the country. With the exception of some 15,000 Vietnamese foreign exchange students on temporary visas, or wives of U.S. soldiers who had served in Vietnam, the refugees had no established community in the United States This lack of a community to receive them has not prevented the refugees from establishing thriving communities during the last few decades.

The integration of Southeast Asian Americans into U.S. society has varied, depending largely on their personal backgrounds before arriving in America. Some came with professional experiences that were transferable, or they had educational skills to obtain necessary training to enter the U.S. job market; however, the majority of refugees arrived with little or no formal education. Many either took low-paying jobs to make ends meet or relied on public resources for survival. Due to social and political climate changes in the United States by the time Southeast Asian refugees arrived, those who wanted to better their socioeconomic conditions to enter a variety of spaces that were not previously available to people of color were able to do so.

The majority of these former refugees and their American born children reside in states with large immigrant and/or Asian American populations, such as California, New York, and Texas. Refugee resettlement policies and practices of dispersing refugees throughout the country resulted in Southeast Asian Americans building new ethnic communities in areas that have not traditionally had large numbers of people of Asian descent. In states with large Asian American populations, they have not stood out, but in states with very small numbers, they have changed the demographic landscapes of those locations. For example, in Minnesota and Wisconsin, both of which have about 12 percent people of color, Hmong Americans are the largest Asian groups. Furthermore, by 2010, Vietnamese Americans became the fourth largest Asian community in the United States.13

Southeast Asian refugees have built permanent communities in numerous locations, such as the Vietnamese in Westminster, California; Houston, Texas; and New Orleans, Louisiana; the Cambodians in Long Beach, California and Lowell, Massachusetts; the Hmong in Fresno, California and St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Laotian in San Francisco, California. They start small businesses that often cater to their respective ethnic communities. Self-help community-based organizations are established to facilitate the transition to U.S. society. Southeast Asian American elected officials include Hmong American Choua Lee, who was elected to the Saint Paul Public Schools in 1991; Vietnamese American Tony Lam, elected to Westminster City Council in 1992; Cambodian American Rithy Uong, who was elected to the Lowell, MA city council in 1999; Hmong American Mee Moua, who won a special election to the Minnesota Senate in 2001; and Vietnamese American Anh “Joseph” Cao, who was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2008. Their contributions to American society during the short time that they have been in the country are notable in the areas of education, business, and civic engagement. Consequently, the types of scholarship about these groups have begun to shift to better reflect their dynamic communities.

Contrary to many success stories of individuals beating the odds to succeed in education and in various sectors, former Southeast Asian refugees continue to face challenges, with adults who have little or no formal education to enter the labor force and youth who struggle as they negotiate through their bicultural lives.14 This segment of the population often lives under dire conditions. As a group, Hmong Americans remain the most impoverished Asian Americans. Youth from all of the Southeast Asian American groups who engage in crime-related activities have received much attention by law enforcement.15 Vietnamese organized crime groups and Hmong, Lao, and Cambodian gangsters and delinquents are subjects of many scholarly studies. Rather than embracing white middle class American values, they have fallen prey to stereotypes of problem minorities who have experienced downward assimilation into the underclass. Overall, the contentious migration and settlement of people from the Southeast Asian region was set in motion by American conquest and occupation more than one hundred years ago. More recently, military activities during the Cold War, in addition to liberalization of U.S. immigration policies during the mid-1960s, enabled the entry of many different groups from the region. The American war in Vietnam generated the most diverse flow of people from Southeast Asia. The emigration of children born to Vietnamese women by American servicemen and refugees propagated by sustained internal political and military struggles in Burma continue to broaden what constitutes Southeast Asian American history.

While those who became refugees before settling in the United States often experienced loss and trauma, their life experiences reveal that, like other immigrants, they do eventually transition to create meaningful communities. The refugees may begin their lives working in janitorial services or as factory workers, but their children often adapt well and enter professions such as engineering and medicine. Those who arrive as professionals and/or spouses of American citizens may not encounter the same problems as refugees, but they often face similar difficulties as racial minorities. The challenge for scholars and other researchers interested in studying Southeast Asian Americans is to continue to explain the experiences of diverse groups that have been subsumed under an ambiguous category. Furthermore, the migration experiences of Southeast Asians have been products of war, both directly and indirectly. With the exception of Filipino Americans, the histories of more recent arrivals have shaped their place in Asian America. Researchers who study these groups often find themselves not able to engage in conversations about such issues as race because their communities arrived in significant numbers in the post-Civil Rights era. At the beginning of the 21st century, Asian American scholars have the opportunity to embrace the diverse histories of those from Southeast Asia as an integral part of the Asian American experience rather than place them on the margins. Southeast Asian Americans can also actively engage in larger conversations about Asian America, in addition to strengthening knowledge production about individual ethnic groups. Such incorporation of Southeast American history will enhance the larger body of knowledge about Americans of Asian origin.

Discussion of the Literature

Despite the diversity of ethnic groups from Southeast Asian countries, since the mid- to late 1970s, the category “Southeast Asians” has primarily referred to post-Vietnam War refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In fact, the term became synonymous with “Southeast Asian refugees,” “Vietnam war refugees,” or “Indochinese refugees.” Lumping these ethnic groups into undifferentiated categories neglects the diversity discussed in this article. Consequently, the burden has remained with individuals and groups to distinguish their distinct cultures and histories to others in the United States who cannot tell them apart. Furthermore, many scholarly studies have focused on certain ethnic groups, while very little is known about others. The vast majority of scholarly studies about Southeast Asian Americans center on refugee resettlement and issues of acculturation and adaption. More research has been conducted on Vietnamese and Hmong refugees than the other groups. The lowland Lao have received the least attention. More recently, refugees from Burma have become subjects of great interest to scholars. Interestingly, however, they are often referred to as Burmese refugees or Karen refugees and not automatically funneled into the Southeast Asian refugee category.

Early research conducted by outsiders, with support from bilingual ethnic community leaders, has highlighted the difficulties of adjusting to life in America. Such studies focus primarily on those who are known to community leaders in ethnic organizations of those who are those most in need. Studies funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) primarily measured the extent to which the refugees were able to obtain suitable employment that would lead to self-sufficiency. Those refugees who relied on community-based organizations for support tended to be the most vulnerable. Issues most commonly examined in scholarly and community based studies include mental health, education, crime related incidents, culture, and poverty. The adjustment experiences of those who did not become clients of such social service agencies were rarely documented. Consequently, early studies on Southeast Asian refugees did not fully capture the broad spectrum of integration into American society.

The trend in scholarship about Vietnamese Americans, outlined by Yen Le Espiritu, somewhat reflects studies about other Southeast Asian refugees. Initial studies characterized them as helpless and demoralized refugees who were victims of the Vietnam War, in need of care to be provided by Americans. Researchers often portrayed Vietnamese refugees as passive individuals to be rescued, focusing on a moral responsibility of the West to lend a helping hand. After arrival, studies of adaptation focused on Vietnamese as “problems to be solved,” while at the same time, they began to highlight the successful economic adaptation of some.16 The bulk of the early research studies are based on sample surveys or ethnographic investigations, where the former constitute biased samples and the latter case studies.17 These studies are generally conducted with one of two purposes: 1) a “disinterested stance” of “objective” academicians to produce knowledge for its own sake; and 2) an advocacy stance of community spokespersons to demand actions. The latter are aimed at program implementation and set ideological or moral principles for public policy, which include policy research and progress reports to funding organizations.18 Again, the challenge with these biased studies is that they focus on vulnerable populations that are known to institutions, thus the voices and experiences of those not known to the agencies are left out, resulting in the inability to generalize findings. As Liisa Malkki has argued, “although many refugees have survived violence and loss that are literally beyond the imagination of most people, we mustn’t assume that refugee status in and of itself constitutes a recognizable, generalizable psychological condition.”19

Ethnic-specific social science studies clearly dominate the field with some having tried to compare the groups. Although some researchers use the term Southeast Asian, they do not include all groups; thus, it is not always possible to tell who exactly is the subject in some studies. The shared experiences of war and displacement have enabled scholars to analyze their sense of community and livelihood within particular U.S. locations.20 Elders whose lives were often turned upside down as a result of migration encounter isolation and loss of social status, regardless of ethnicity.21 While social science research on adjustment and adaptation continues to be conducted, new works of scholarship on Southeast Asian Americans during the last decade have begun to explore the diversity within the groups. In particular, they critique Southeast Asians’ transformations from refugees to citizens. Though refugees do find themselves in situations where they become victims to be rescued by states and the international humanitarian regime, refugee status has enabled them to exercise agency.22 This agency has transferred from the immigrant generation to their children, who are transforming themselves into new Asian Americans.23 They are reproducing ethnic culture and recreating new identities in diasporic locations.

Southeast Asian American scholars have actively contributed to the production of knowledge about their communities. Two Amerasia Journal volumes on Vietnamese Americans, in 2003 and 2005, changed the landscape of refugee studies in general and Vietnamese American studies in particular.24 The articles moved beyond describing Vietnamese identity and cultural production to presenting critical analyses of the various dimensions of Vietnamese American life. While publication of research in mainstream scholarly journals is more common, several peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary academic journals have been established to focus on specific ethnic issues. These include the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Hmong Studies Journal, and Journal of Lao Studies. Interestingly, however, the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education & Advancement was established to provide a publishing venue for Southeast Asian American studies scholars. As a peer-reviewed journal, it is open to all scholars; however, the journal does emphasize the importance and need for more research conducted by native Southeast Asian American researchers. Since 2006, when its first volume appeared, both Southeast Asian American and non-Southeast Asian American scholars have contributed to the journal.

Primary Sources

Some local libraries and state historical societies in locations with large Southeast Asian populations have collections on these groups. Many higher education institutions and community organizations have established oral history projects and archival collections. The following are some examples. The Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) at the University of Minnesota holds the Refugee Studies Center Collection. Established in 1980 as the Southeast Asian Refugee Studies (SARS) project, its name changed to Refugee Studies Center in 1995, to encompass new refugees from the former Soviet Union and African nations. The collection includes extensive resettlement materials ranging from family case records, to social services, and community building efforts. Several institutions have a wide range of primary Hmong related sources: Hmong Cultural Center and Hmong Archives in Minnesota. Examples of Cambodian-related sources include Cambodian Community History and Archive in Long Beach, California and University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1987, Southeast Asian Archive was established at the University of California, Irvine, to document the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees. Holdings include books, refugee orientation materials, government documents, reports and surveys, newspaper clippings, video and audio recordings, personal and institutional papers, posters, photographs, ephemera, paintings, and dissertations and theses. The Asian American Studies Collection at the University of California, Berkeley also contains materials about Southeast Asian Americans. The oral history project at the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas, includes some interviews with Vietnamese individuals. The Filipino American National Historical Society in Seattle, Washington, contains many sources on this group’s history.

Further Reading

Aguilar-San Juan, Karin. Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Chan, Sucheng. Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.Find this resource:

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(1.) Sucheng Chan, Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), xxiii.

(2.) Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans in the United States, 2011. Washington, DC, 55–56.

(3.) Groups such as Iu Mien, Tai Dam, and Cham are not distinguished by the Census due to their small numbers.

(4.) U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census. Note that Burmese includes all people from Burma (Myanmar), but not all are ethnic Burmese. The vast majority of refugees from this country are ethnic minorities such as Karen and Chin. Although Burma’s name officially changed to Myanmar, the term Burmese Americans is used to refer to all people from this country because that is how the U.S. Department of Homeland Security identifies them.

(5.) Catherine Ceniza Choy, Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

(6.) Gail Paradise Kelly, From Vietnam to America: A Chronicle of Vietnamese Immigration to the United States (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977).

(7.) Todd LeRoy Perreira, “The Gender of Practice: Some Findings among Thai Buddhist Women in Northern California,” in Emerging Voices: Experiences of Underrepresented Asian Americans, ed. Huping Ling (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 160–182.

(8.) Chanchanit Martorell and Beatrice “Tippe” Morlan, Thais in Los Angeles (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2011).

(9.) Ashley South, “Karen Nationalist Communities: The ‘Problem’ of Diversity,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 29, no. 1 (2007), 55–76.

(10.) Joseph Cheah, “The Function of Ethnicity in the Adaptation of Burmese Religious Practices,” in Emerging Voices: Experiences of Underrepresented Asian Americans, ed. Huping Ling (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 199–217.

(11.) Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

(12.) Liisa H. Malkki, “Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995), 495–523.

(13.) Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans in the United States, 2011, 9.

(14.) Mary Bulcholtz, “Styles and Stereotypes: The Linguistic Negotiation of Identity Among Laotian American Youth,” Pragmatics 14, no. 2–3 (2004), 127–148.

(15.) Stacey Lee, “More than ‘Model Minority’ or ‘Delinquents’: A Look at Hmong American High School Students,” Harvard Educational Review 71, no. 3 (2001), 505–528.

(16.) Yen Le Espiritu, “The ‘We-Win-Even-When-We-Lose’ Syndrome: U.S. Press Coverage of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the ‘Fall of Saigon’,” American Quarterly 58, no. 2 (June 2006), 412–443.

(17.) Elena S. H. Yu and William T. Liu, “Methodological Problems and Policy Implications in Vietnamese Refugee Research,” International Migration Review 20, no. 2 (Summer 1986), 483–501.

(18.) Ibid., 496–497.

(19.) Malkki, “Refugees and Exile,” 510.

(20.) Jeremy Hein, Ethnic Origins: The Adaptation of Cambodian and Hmong Refugees in Four American Cities (New York: Russell Sage, 2006).

(21.) Dan F. Detzner, Elder Voices: Southeast Asian Families in the United States (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2004).

(22.) Aihwa Ong, Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

(23.) Wanni W. Anderson, “Between Necessity and Choice: Rhode Island Lao American Women,” in Displacements and Diaspora: Asians in the Americas, eds. Wanni W. Anderson and Robert G. Lee (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 194–226.

(24.) “Vietnamese Americans: Diaspora and Dimensions,” Amerasia Journal 29, no. 1 (2003); “30 Years AfterWARd: Vietnamese Americans & U.S. Empire,” Amerasia Journal 31, no. 2 (2005).