Asians to America with Skills

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

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For most the climb is frustrating but ultimately successful. Antonio Cube, 49, a Filipino attorney, immigrated with his wife and two children in 1970. Accustomed to the services of three maids and a driver at home, but unqualified to practice law in the U.S., Cube found work instead as a computer encoder in a bank. "I almost went home," he says now. "But the bank sent me to technical schools and moved me up little by little. For five years my wife and I worked two full-time jobs." Today Cube is a supervisor for Seattle's Rainier Bank and owns not only his own home but three other houses in the metropolitan area. Two of them, now rented, are earmarked for his children, both university students. "We feel that life is about saving for the future," says Cube. "We live for our children."

Like previous generations of immigrants, many Asians seek to realize their personal American dream not just by finding a good job but by starting their own business, the ultimate statement of independence. These enterprises also provide a chance to maximize the productive potentials of entire families and a way to absorb newly arrived members, who often become eligible for immigration after the pioneering one attains citizenship. The entrepreneurial impulse runs strongest among Koreans. Nearly one in eight Korean Americans is self-employed, by far the highest rate for any ethnic group. Says John Kim, a Korean-born New York lawyer: "One thing about Koreans is that they don't like to be dominated by anybody."

Sang Kook Nam, 37, and his wife Seon Kyung, 35, respectively a mechanical engineer and a nurse, arrived from South Korea in 1974 to live with Nam's brother in Michigan. Nam pumped gas for the first year, saving enough to open his own filling station, then a body shop, then a used-car dealership. His wife, meanwhile, started a jewelry store. In 1979 the Nams sold their businesses and set out for Los Angeles, where Nam attended dry-cleaning school and within six months made a $20,000 down payment on a store. That has since expanded to a chain of five dry-cleaning outlets, which are managed by the Nams. "We should work harder than other Americans," he says. "Otherwise we cannot succeed." Signs of the Nams' success include an attractive four- bedroom home in the upper-middle-class city of Garden Grove and two late- model U.S.-made cars.

The Asian-American success story, while impressive and increasingly conspicuous, is by no means universal. A sizable minority of immigrants from the Far East cannot, for one reason or another, adjust to their new lives and sink deeper and deeper into despair. Not surprisingly, such feelings are much less common among immigrants who came to the U.S. on their own initiative than among those who fled their homelands for political reasons.

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