Asians to America with Skills

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

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Given the rich diversity of Asian immigrants' backgrounds, it is all but impossible to generalize about their experiences in becoming Americans. For many the closest thing to a common hurdle is the daunting necessity of adjusting to a new culture, an especially difficult challenge to non-English speakers. "English is the great prohibitor," says Martha Copenhaver, the director of a Southeast Asian education program in Arlington, Va. "Without it, you can't advance even if you are otherwise qualified."

Most Asians either have some knowledge of English before coming to the U.S. or quickly acquire the rudiments of an English vocabulary, often by methods bordering on the draconian. Son Nguyen, 18, a Vietnamese-born high school graduate in Houston, recalls that his brother-in-law required him to memorize one page of an English dictionary after school each day. More conventional teaching techniques are available throughout the U.S. in federally sponsored language programs. Those fortunate enough to have studied English at home can often make the transition easily. Cal Tech Senior Hojin Ahn, 24, a native South Korean, arrived in Los Angeles three years ago able to read and write English proficiently. Last year Ahn compiled a better-than-perfect 4.1 grade average, among the highest at Cal Tech, and was awarded a partial scholarship for his senior year.

The other all but universally shared experience is finding a job. That can be a profoundly humbling experience, especially for highly educated Asians. Degrees and credentials that took years to attain suddenly count for little or nothing. Jei Hak Suh, 43, gave up a banking career in South Korea to move with his wife and two young children to Los Angeles in 1981; with his English far from polished, he realized that the banking jobs available to him would not pay enough to support his family. He is now a construction worker.

A few manage to resume careers with relative ease, though often in circumstances that they could never have imagined in their previous lives. Dr. Diem Duc Nguyen, 39, a South Vietnamese army surgeon who left Saigon on a refugee ship in 1975, tried working for a private ambulance service rescue squad in Florida but did not take to it. Then he learned of a medical retraining program in Nebraska and secured an interest-free loan to enter it in return for pledging to practice in rural Bridgeport (pop. 1,668) whose only two physicians were nearing retirement. Says Banker Eldon Evers, who negotiated the deal: "Everything has worked to the letter." Now married to an American nurse, Nguyen has lived in Bridgeport for eight years and happily calls it home. "I never knew anything about Nebraska until I came here," he says. "I smelled the manure and got used to it."

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