Understanding Santa Clara County’s Diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander Community

Our Diverse Community

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian’s three-part discussion series, “Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Experience,” kicked off on May 13, 2021 with panelists offering expertise and observations on the diverse make-up of Silicon Valley’s AAPI community, its multi-faceted history, and some of the biggest misperceptions about Asian Americans.

Hosted in partnership with Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), the “Understanding” series coincided with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and featured AAPI leaders from across the country.

“I think we’re lucky to live in one of the most diverse places in the country, but without understanding the diverse communities and cultures amongst us, understandably, misconceptions abound,” Simitian said, opening the first of three panel discussions.

“Our goal over these next few weeks is to foster a greater understanding of our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, and our classmates,” he added. “Tonight, we’ll explore the similarities and differences across cultures, generations, and birthplaces that many of us may not know or fully understand and appreciate.”

To put Santa Clara County’s diversity in context, Simitian noted that more than half of County residents are speakers of a non-English language, and 39% are foreign born. Comparing US counties, Santa Clara County has the second largest Vietnamese and the largest Hindi speaking communities.

Seven subgroups make up 95% percent of the AAPI population in Santa Clara County, with the four largest being Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Asian Indian, followed by Japanese, Korean, and Pacific Islander communities. While Silicon Valley is well-known for its demographic diversity, that diversity is relatively recent.

Panelist Michele Lew, CEO of The Health Trust, recalled that “as a kid in the 1970s, there was only one other Asian kid in my grade at my school in Palo Alto. Our community is very different today than when I was growing up,” she said. “If you go back and look at the 1970 census, I think the only Asian American subgroups they captured were Chinese and Japanese. Today, we track many more.”

Indeed, 50 years ago, the County’s population was 3-4% Asian American, said Simitian, who also grew up in Palo Alto. “Now our Asian American population is at or approaching 40%. That means our County is a very different place than the rest of the country, where an estimated 5-7% of the population is AAPI. It’s a different dynamic.”

The term “Asian American” is also relatively recent, inspired by the civil rights and black power movements in the 1960s. “It was a way to move away from the term of the day, which was ‘Oriental,’ which has within it an inherent foreignness, and a lack of human quality, frankly,” said panelist Pawan Dhingra, Professor of American Studies at Amherst College.

“Your rugs may be Oriental, but people aren’t. One of the primary themes you see in Asian American history is an assumption of being Asian, not American,” he added. “Saying ‘Asian American’ became a political act. It was a way of claiming an Americanness.”

AACI pioneered Asian American activism in Santa Clara County, said Lew, former AACI President and CEO. “Before, groups were ID’d by ethnicity. Back in 1973, AACI’s 12 founders saw the power of coming together as a collective, and over the decades AACI grew to provide services to all Asian subgroups as well as to non-Asian groups.”

Chinese Americans were the first, and still are the largest Asian immigrant community in the country, and in the Bay Area, according to panelist Natalie Masuoka, Associate Professor of Political Science, and Chair and Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA.

The reasons Chinese Americans were originally drawn to the US—to work on the transcontinental railroad and in service industries related to the California gold rush in the mid-1800s—have morphed. Today’s Chinese immigrants enter a broad number of fields, including science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM), as well as non-STEM fields.

Simitian noted the longstanding presence of the Chinese American community in California and the San Francisco Bay Area: “I recently talked with a colleague here in Santa Clara County who is Chinese American, and he referenced the fact that he’s a fourth generation Californian, a fourth generation American,” he said, noting that he’s a third generation American. “My grandparents were foreign born. As we’re in a challenging time, working yet again through issues around race and ethnicity in the US, I’m struck by the fact that my own family roots are relatively recent compared to folks who are sometimes obliged to prove their ‘Americanness’ or connection to the state or nation.”

The Vietnamese community’s immigration story, dating back to 1975, “really disrupts our standard narrative around Asian Americans and Asian immigration,” said Dhingra, author of Managing Multicultural Lives: Asian Americans and the Challenge of Multiple Identities and co-author of Asian America.“The Vietnamese for the most part arrived as refugees, which contrasts with the idea of people who voluntarily move from one country to another in search of better jobs, opportunities, or conditions.”

The Vietnamese community has grown from a relatively small to a substantial part of Asian America. “They were assisted to some degree by government programs, which can be common for refugees as a way to resettle in the US,” continued Dhingra. “The support one population gets when they come here plays a big role. It’s good to keep in mind, as we think about why one population does better when compared to another.”

Filipino Americans—now about 15% of Silicon Valley’s AAPI community—have yet another immigration story. “At one point the Philippines was an American territory,” said Masuoka, author of Multiracial Identity and Racial Politics in the United States and co-author of The Politics of Belonging: Race, Public Opinion and Immigration.

“There was longstanding influence by the American government, encouraging the immigration of Filipinos to service the agricultural industry, particularly in the Central Valley,” she added, noting that she was born and raised in Stockton, Calif. “This was the population I grew up with, Filipino Americans.”

Dhingra encapsulated the history of Asian Indians in the US, starting with immigrants—predominantly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—arriving in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s to work in the lumber mills. In the 1940s and 1950s, Asian Indians got their start in the hospitality industry, and now own about half of the nation’s motels, he noted. Today’s Asian Indian immigrant, he said, is more likely to be highly educated, have a visa to work in high tech, and arrive with family, ready to settle down and build community.

The panelists also explored Japanese, Korean, and Pacific Islander immigrant stories, all also unique, but with a shared history of mistreatment in the US and sometimes violent local opposition to their presence. Starting in 1875 through the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and beyond, US legislation and government policies have greatly impacted immigration and immigrants, in number, country of origin, and prioritization.

Today, Asian immigrants who qualify for a US visa tend to be more highly educated, with higher earning power, and settling in wealthier suburban neighborhoods, said Masuoka.

A surprise to many is that undocumented immigration among Asian Americans is on the rise—a symptom of a “broken immigration system,” said Simitian. “As someone who spent 12 years in the California State Legislature trying to respond to facts on the ground, and now as a County Supervisor, what you hear regardless of politics or ideology is frustration on the part of many folks that the system is so clearly dysfunctional, and we can’t get a federal response that is comprehensive by any measure.”

While there is a general recognition that the Asian American population is extremely varied, even in diverse Silicon Valley deeper understanding is often lacking.

“Joe, you and I travel throughout the county on a regular basis and know that San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population of any city outside of Vietnam,” Lew said to Simitian. “For many North County residents who don’t have reasons to come to San Jose, they might find the Vietnamese community is less visible. Similarly, other folks might interact primarily with the Asian Indian community and not have as much familiarity with the burgeoning, robust Korean community in Santa Clara County.”

Age is also correlated with awareness, Masuoka said. “Our generations here in California have a very different understanding of who their Asian neighbors are.”

Older Californians, she said, are more likely to think about the Asian American population as Chinese and Japanese: “The Japanese community was very large in California. They were the second wave following the Chinese. But with the internment of Japanese Americans and the history of tensions between the US and Japan, Japanese immigration plummeted after World War II.”

Younger Californians are likely to be more tuned in to the Asian population’s multi-ethnicity, particularly in the Bay Area, Masuoka added. “Because of the relatively high intermarriage rates, mixed race or bi-racial Asian Americans make up a growing share of our community.”

Simitian closed the first session with a viewer’s question, asking each of the panelists the biggest misperception they’ve confronted about the Asian American community.

“Asian Americans can be funny, can be creative, and when they do well in school, it’s not because they’re inherently smart,” Dhingra said. “There’s no secret sauce. There’s a lot of evidence to support stereotypes that we see”—citing Asian Indians excelling at the Scripps National Spelling Bee as one example—“but once you peel back that one layer, the diversity comes to forefront.”

The biggest misperception Lew encounters? “All Asians in Silicon Valley are doing well. We know that’s not true. We can see that there are subgroups struggling economically and in terms of health and wellness,” she said. “One of the things that AACI has championed and still has to champion today is to make sure we disaggregate Asian data because if we lump everyone into one group, sometimes we miss health disparities or other differences that really need a tailored approach.”

Masuoka put on her political scientist hat with her answer: “That Asian Americans are not interested in civics, government, elections. This misperception hits on this idea of Asian Americans not being Americans.”

While the Asian American population has a lower turnout rate than white Americans, “what’s not seen is that many . . .  are not citizens, and can’t vote. When naturalized, that rate goes significantly higher,” she said, adding that Asians are the largest growing electorate in America today. “What we’re seeing in politics is that this is a group that is highly invested and highly interested in what’s going on in their country.”

Watch the three-part “Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience” discussion series on Supervisor Simitian’s website here.

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