Asians to America with Skills

A Wave of Arrivals From the Far East Enriches the Country's Talent Pool

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While the projections are impressive, what really distinguishes the Asians is that, of all the new immigrants, they are compiling an astonishing record of achievement. Asians are represented far beyond their population share at virtually every top-ranking university: their contingent in Harvard's freshman class has risen from 3.6% to 10.9% since 1976, and it currently stands at 18.6% at Berkeley, 18.7% at Cal Tech and 8.7% at Princeton. At Columbia, enrollment in the engineering school is more than 20% Asian. In this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search, nine of the 40 semifinalists were Asians, as were three of the ten winners.

Partly as a result of their academic accomplishments, Asians are climbing the economic ladder with remarkable speed. The 1980 census showed that median household income for the group as a whole was $22,700, exceeding not only that of American families in general ($19,900) but also the level reported by whites ($20,800). The national median was topped by the Japanese ($27,350), the Asian Indians ($24,990), the Filipinos ($23,680), the Chinese ($22,550) and Koreans ($20,450); among major Asian groups, only the Vietnamese ($12,840) fell below it. The household statistics are somewhat misleading, to be sure, since Asian families are much more likely than whites to rely on the paychecks of two or more family members. Even so, the overall gains in Asian earning power have come far more rapidly than those for any prior surge of immigrants, who had to labor a generation or more before catching up to average living standards.

Asians are well represented in the ranks of managers and professionals. Nearly half of Asian Indians fit into those high-status job categories, almost twice the rate for whites; a survey conducted by the Chicago Reporter, a monthly newsletter about minorities, found that 39% of all Asians in that city were managers or professionals. The Asian hegira has also spawned a new class of small entrepreneurs, many of whom work schedules that make the 40-hour week look like child's play. Asian-owned fish markets, green groceries and restaurants have breathed fresh life into fading inner-city districts.

No single factor can account for the perseverance of so diverse a group. But a psychological insight is provided by Vachirin Chea, 27, a survivor of the Cambodian death camps who has prospered in banking and real estate in Lowell, Mass. "I have to be an American now," he says. "But I get my strength from being Cambodian. If I had been raised here in America, I would not have that kind of strength. All that suffering, the anger in me, is what keeps me going."

Unlike the mass migrations of Europeans to the U.S., the Asian movement is fueled largely by the educated middle class. Except for the Indochinese, with their large refugee contingent, the new Asian arrivals are at least twice as likely as a native-born American to be college graduates. Moreover, since many others are admitted because of a desirable vocational background, the group as a whole has greatly enriched the nation's talent pool. Says Rand Corp. Demographer Kevin McCarthy: "The Asians are the most highly skilled of any immigrant group our country has ever had."

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