Historian George Stewart once amused himself by imagining the course of U.S. history if America had been discovered not on its Atlantic side by Christopher Columbus but on its Pacific side by a 15th century Chinese explorer named Ko Lum Bo. As hardy immigrants from the Orient began to establish colonies in the sweeping new continent, Stewart wrote in mock retrospect, they naturally ! adhered as closely as possible to the customs of their native land. Accordingly, "vast areas of the country were terraced and irrigated as rice paddies. The colonists continued to use their comfortable flowing garments, and pagodas dotted the landscape."
In 1985 it sometimes seems that the descendants of Ko Lum Bo, along with many of their neighbors throughout Asia, merely waited 500 years before turning Stewart's whimsy into something approaching reality. From the Flushing neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens to the Sunset district of San Francisco, from the boatyards of Galveston Bay to the rich Minnesota farmlands, a burgeoning wave of Asian immigrants is pouring into the U.S. Some of the newcomers do indeed continue to wear the comfortable flowing garments of their native lands. And in cities like Westminster, a Los Angeles suburb, an elaborately decorated archway stands prominently among shops that are designed to be reminiscent of Saigon.
Asians have become, just within the past couple of years, the nation's fastest- expanding ethnic minority, as measured by growth through births and legal immigration. (Hispanics are probably still ahead if undocumented entries are counted.) Though Asians still number only around 3.6 million, or 1.6% of the total U.S. population, their ranks have been swelling at an unprecedented rate since the reform of immigration laws in 1965. Last year alone, more Asian immigrants came to the U.S. -- 282,000 -- than in the three decades from 1931 to 1960. More than half settled in California, which has the nation's largest Asian population (64%). The torrent of new arrivals is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future: about 1 million other Asians have already applied and received preliminary clearance to come to America. By the year 2010, the Asian population in the U.S. is expected to more than double.
The newcomers are drastically changing the Asian-American mix. The 1980 census showed that Japanese Americans, the largest Asian subgroup since 1910, have dropped to third place (701,000), after Chinese Americans (806,000) and Filipino Americans (775,000). Japanese Americans play almost no role in the current wave of Asian immigration. Within the next 30 years, demographers expect Filipinos to become the largest group of Asian Americans, followed in order by Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Asian Indians and, in sixth place, Japanese.