An American life: How Asian migrants built unique communities

South Asian shops and restaurants populate the area known as “India Square” in Iselin. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tanya Bindra

Stories about Asians migrating to the United States are often familial. We grow up with tales of how our great-great-grandfather – or grandmother, or father – came to this country.

Others get those stories from history books in school. We learn that the first major wave of Asian migration to the United States dates to the mid-1800s, and exclusionary policies followed soon after.

Less often do we land somewhere in the middle – learning about why there was an influx of Cambodian refugees to a California beach town in the 1970s, for example, or South Asians to central New Jersey in the 2000s.

Today, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States. We are far from monolithic, with ties to more than 20 countries and many more ethnicities and languages. The communities we have formed in various pockets of America all have stories to share.

At the same time, there has been a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes since the beginning of the pandemic. Some residents are newly fearful of the neighborhoods their families have lived in for generations; others say the racism and xenophobia has been there all along.

This project is a glimpse at the migration stories behind four places around the country – each with a rich history that deserves to be told.

The Asian American population has increased in Middlesex County, which includes Edison and Iselin. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tanya Bindra

1. Edison, N.J.

Driving down the street in Edison, N.J., you might see Indian restaurants, a Hindu temple, a mosque and a gurdwara. Edison, a township with a population of more than 100,000, is 48.6% Asian, up from 29% back in 2000.

Speaking to The Post, residents described it as a peaceful neighborhood where immigrants had come to attend good schools and generate income. Its charm has only grown during the pandemic, which has fueled a real estate boom in the suburbs.

Towns like Edison were already “magnets” for South Asian immigrants, “and then they become even more so because they already have the infrastructure that a certain community is craving,” said S. Mitra Kalita, 45, author of “Suburban Sahibs,” which in 2003 chronicled how surrounding Middlesex County has become home to one of the largest Indian populations in the world outside of India. Kalita, who has founded two media companies, URL Media and Epicenter NYC, said that South Asian immigrants are attracted to Edison’s “schools, ethnic grocery stories, even funeral parlors that know the cultures and customs of an immigrant population.”

That same year, 2003, Jaspreet Singh and his family moved to Edison. He was 15. He recalled being sent to an “English as a Second Language” class and getting help from older South Asian students to understand lectures. He observed other students carefully.

“In the cafeteria, I used to watch how they order the sub. Just what kind of bread they’re taking, and things like that. So after one week, I could help the other kid, he was struggling to order a sub,” Singh said. “It’s like a helping train.”

Singh, now 34, is a co-owner of India Sajawat and Puja Hut, a religious-goods store in town.

Jaspreet Singh, 34, who moved to Edison in 2003, recently bought a farm in nearby Plainfield, N.J. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tanya Bindra

While the pandemic temporarily closed the store, it has seen a recent influx of business as people came to purchase Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist items, seeking out religious faith for comfort during uncertain times, according to Singh. The diverse array of products – idols, god houses and more – reflects the clientele, who hail from all regions of India, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh and more.

As Edison and Middlesex have grown increasingly Asian over time, that hasn’t come without pushback. County residents describe facing a campaign against Asian migration in the region, including political fliers mailed to homes in 2017 that claimed: “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town!”

Kalita traces this to the surge in racist rhetoric during the Trump administration, which, she says, trickled down into local politics despite Edison’s diversity and large, visible immigrant population.

“You should feel safe sending your kids to school anywhere. But if you are brown, you should feel especially safe sending your kids to school in Edison, New Jersey,” she said. But that sense of safety has come to feel more tenuous, she says, when “there is now a minority population that is contending with what it means to be a minority.” – Shannon Liao

Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants have created areas such as “India Square,” a collection of shops and restaurants that cater to the South Asian community in the town of Iselin, N.J. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tanya Bindra

2. Cleveland, Miss.

Scattered throughout the cotton fields and long country roads on each side of the Mississippi River is the occasional low-slung building that once housed grocery stores run by Chinese Americans known in the region as the Delta Chinese. The first immigrants, who arrived in the post-Reconstruction era of the 1870s to work in the cotton fields, would over generations knit themselves into the fabric of the Delta, existing in the gap between Black and White residents of the Deep South.

The Delta Chinese have dipped in numbers over the years, as have their stores, but their legacy played an important role in shaping the region. And this has prompted the remaining community of Delta Chinese to preserve and share their history.

“I think the impact is the values that [we’ve] passed along to our families,” said Gilroy Chow, an 81-year-old native of Clarksdale, Miss., and president of the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum. “It says that the values they passed on to these families – the ones that stayed and the ones that moved – have had a strong work ethic, strong family values, strong belief in the education system.”

Chow’s mother and father immigrated from China in 1916, first arriving in New Orleans before moving to the Mississippi Delta region and the small town of Clarksdale, which today has a population of about 14,000.

“They stayed, working in grocery stores with cousins and uncles,” he said. “We then moved to New York when I was 6, and I’m the only one that came back.”

Chow’s parents were among the Chinese immigrants who ultimately settled in the Delta region of Alabama and Mississippi and whose path when they arrived in the United States was shaped by immigration restrictions that specifically targeted the Chinese.

Work in cotton fields quickly proved too grueling and low-paying for immigrants trying to send money to their families in China, and a string of anti-Chinese immigration laws, including the 1875 Page Act that banned Chinese women, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prevented more Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States to work as laborers. Merchants, and their families, however, were exempt from the exclusion laws.

“That’s why you realize, ‘aha’ – that’s why the story of so many Chinese in the Delta started with grocery stores,” said Emily Jones, an archivist and historian at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., a town with about 11,000 people.

“Being a merchant was the only way to come in – you had to have a plan and the financials to back it up, but ‘paper sons’ and ‘paper daughters’ was a big part of this story, too,” Jones said, of the practice by immigrating merchants of sometimes claiming distant relatives or unrelated villagers as their children.

The merchant Chinese immigrants still faced discriminatory policies once they arrived in the United States, including restrictions on where they could live or go to school, and they had to navigate a society starkly divided by Black and White when they were considered neither. The question of where Chinese immigrants and their American-born children fit in was raised in an education battle – Lum v. Rice – that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. Gong Lum, a grocery store owner from Rosedale, Miss., whose daughter was barred from remaining at an all-White school because she was “not of the Caucasian race,” lost the case in 1927.

Jones said that while the Delta Chinese endured racism and exclusion, there were also instances of togetherness and community. Tucked in the museum’s archives are contracts between two Chinese families in Greenville, Miss., and Jewish property owners that conveyed the Chinese families had paid off a rental – in essence owning the property – and that the Jewish landlord would hold it in trust for the families until they could own it legally.

“That’s a truer side of what the South is, not the viciousness. And the Chinese were a big part of that,” Jones said. “They had to navigate all the different things put in place to make them fail, and succeeded because of neighborliness and industriousness.”

The number of Delta Chinese peaked around the late ’60s to early ’70s, and began to decline as children – now fourth- and fifth-generation Americans – left the area to pursue school and work elsewhere.

“An interesting dynamic of the Mississippi Delta Chinese, in the peak around 1970, there were probably about 2,500 Chinese,” Chow said. “There were many families that settled in small and larger towns with grocery stores. . . . But within each town, you would find a Chinese grocery store – even in a town of 1,000, there may be two [Chinese] grocery stores, even.”

Chow returned to Clarksdale to raise his family and ultimately retire – he after years as an engineer whose work included NASA’s Apollo space program, and his wife, Sally, as a schoolteacher – because of the community, and his fond memories of his early childhood years.

“There’s the saying about Kevin Bacon and everyone being separated by six degrees,” Chow said. “If you’re from the Mississippi Delta, it’s more like three.” – Kim Bellware

3. Long Beach, Calif.

At Riverside Supermarket in Cambodia Town, a wooden statue of an aspara spirit, which is often depicted in Cambodian art, is displayed. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Bing Guan

Cambodia Town, a one-mile stretch of Anaheim Street in Long Beach, Calif., is lined with Cambodian-owned restaurants, grocery stores and community centers nestled in strip malls. According to 2020 Census data analyzed by The Washington Post, the Los Angeles metro area, which includes Long Beach, is home to more than 40,000 Cambodian Americans – the largest concentration of Cambodians of any city outside of Cambodia.

The initial influx can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s, when a foreign exchange program between Cambodia and California State University at Long Beach brought a wave of affluent students to the area. Many of these students were the children of government officials and diplomats.

But in the 1970s, the demographics of Cambodian immigrants to the United States changed quickly: Refugees were fleeing the Khmer Rouge, a violent regime that killed nearly 2 million people. According to data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service obtained by historian Sucheng Chan, nearly 160,000 Cambodians entered the United States between 1975 and 1994. The vast majority of these people were refugees.

According to Chan, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, created by the Refugee Act of 1980, determined Long Beach to be a city with a sufficient amount of inexpensive housing and jobs that did not require English fluency. Affordable property allowed many Cambodian immigrants to start businesses and build the cultural hub that Cambodia Town is today.

Sophya Chhiv, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, grew up in the heart of Cambodia Town. Like many other refugees, her parents landed in Long Beach, where cultural ties existed and familial seeds had been planted.

However, the presence of other Cambodians in Long Beach – a sunny, beachy enclave about 30 minutes from downtown L.A. – did not make growing up in a new country any easier, according to Chhiv, now 38 and the mother of two children.

“We were put in a place that did not have the right amount of resources for our community,” Chhiv said. “Young folks, like myself and my sisters, can end up in prison or on drugs in gangs because we’re trying to survive in a country we know nothing about. Our parents couldn’t speak English, couldn’t work, couldn’t support us financially, mentally or emotionally.”

The situation got more dire in 2002, when a repatriation agreement signed between Cambodia and the United States put Cambodians convicted of crimes at risk of deportation. At the time, Chhiv was a founding member of Khmer Girls in Action, a community organization for gender and racial justice. In response, the organization launched an anti-deportation campaign that raised awareness and provided services to families who had been impacted.

“The resettlement for Cambodian refugees [was in] overpoliced and underresourced [areas],” Chhiv said. “I felt like our community was being criminalized in so many different ways.”

Between the fiscal years of 2016 to 2018, ICE deported 218 Cambodians, according to a report by NPR. Many of these people are forced to return to a country that they are no longer familiar with – some had come to the United States as children.

The Cambodian American community in Long Beach has rallied together to advocate against deportations that threaten to tear families apart, as well as other issues such as housing, which has grown increasingly more expensive in the city. Many Cambodia Town tenants are struggling to keep their businesses afloat, residents say, and several longtime Cambodian grocery stores and event spaces have closed recently.

But longtime residents like Chhiv are fighting to maintain the pride in being part of the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia: “Keeping Cambodia Town alive and well is very much needed,” she said. – Emily Liu

4. Philadelphia

For more than 200 years, Philadelphia has boasted the title of America’s birthplace.

But the earliest waves of Filipino migration to the city were made possible through America’s empire-building aspirations: its colonization of the Philippines, beginning in 1898 and lasting through the end of World War II.

The first of these migrants were Filipino naval officers, whom the U.S. Navy recruited as messmen and stewards on their ships at the turn of the 20th century. A community began to bloom in southern Philadelphia, near the city’s naval yard.

In 1912, these retired officers founded what is considered to be the country’s oldest Filipino American organization, the Filipino-American Association of Philadelphia, said Rommel Rivera, a psychiatrist who chairs its board.

As Filipino seafarers began laying down roots in the city, another influential group of migrants arrived: “pensionados,” elite students chosen by the U.S. government to be educated in American colleges.

The program, established in 1903, was an offshoot of President William McKinley’s larger goal of “benevolent assimilation,” an approach that his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, continued after McKinley’s 1901 assassination. The competitive grant offered education and advancement opportunities, particularly in fields of administration, medicine and engineering. The name “pensionado” comes from the $500 pension, or stipend, the U.S. government gave each scholar, equivalent to a little more than $16,400 today.

The U.S. government’s aim was to establish a class of Americanized Filipinos who would return to their homeland and help lead it. It could also strengthen the ties between colonizer and subject by quelling Filipino opposition to the United States after the Philippine-American war ended in 1902.

Pensionados who passed through Philadelphia and other cities went on to become leaders in the Philippines. Antonio Sison, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, headed the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and the Philippine General Hospital during a time that encompassed the Japanese occupation of the country between 1942 and 1945. His wife, Honoria Acosta-Sison, who graduated from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, is known as the “Mother of Philippine Obstetrics” for developing the specialized field there.

Philadelphia was an appealing choice for aspiring physicians, noted Rivera: Good medical colleges, including one for women, a fledgling Filipino community in a bustling port city. But he said there is “little documentation” about how other Philadelphia residents received the pensionados at the time.

In other parts of the country, Filipinos were sensationalized or discriminated against. Indigenous Filipinos were showcased as part of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In California, a 1906 marriage between a Filipino pensionado and a White woman landed them on the front page of their local paper. In Indiana, fueled by reports that pensionados at the state university were “flirting with white girls,” lawmakers introduced a bill forbidding White people from marrying “persons having more than one eighth Filipino blood.”

Still, these first medical students have a lasting legacy, helping to build the medical infrastructure of the Philippines and opening doors for future immigrants working in medicine, Rivera said.

“In a way, it’s an advantage . . . because it’s easier for them to come here to the U.S.,” he said. “What we’ve learned in the Philippines is what’s being taught here.” When the United States experienced a nurse shortage after World War II, it turned to Filipinos to help staff the nation’s hospitals.

Today, Filipinos make up more than a quarter of migrant nurses in the United States and 4% of all nurses, according to the Migration Policy Institute – and that number doesn’t include second- and third-generation Filipino Americans. Filipino Americans are now 1.2% of the U.S. population, based on U.S. census data.

In the greater Philadelphia area, there are an estimated 35,000 Filipinos – and at least five Filipino nursing associations, according to Rivera. The area’s Filipino American community also includes students, physicians, restaurateurs and business owners. Rivera sees the proliferation of social and professional organizations, in particular, as a uniquely Filipino impulse.

“We multiply by division,” he said, using a phrase he had heard from a local elder. “We grow by dividing people.” – Anne Branigin



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