Oregonian Article on "What does it mean to be Asian?"

For decades, it didn't matter if a person were Samoan, Chinese or Korean. In data, they appeared the same: Asian and Pacific Islander.

That lump reporting masked a diversity of struggles and successes, says Joseph Santos-Lyons, the executive director of Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. The United States is now home to 23 distinct Asian American and 19 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island groups.

"Even though, politically, we have forged alliances, there's such a diversity of experiences and community needs," Santos-Lyons said. "We don't share a language. We don't share a lot of the same understanding of ourselves."

Santos-Lyons and other local Asian activists say a new report will change that. "Community of Contrasts," produced by the national group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, shows that Oregon's 251,000 Asian and Pacific Islander residents come from 29 different groups and experience vastly different levels of education, prosperity and English proficiency.

While some, including Japanese and Indian residents, may far outperform white Americans in attaining bachelor's degrees and high-paying jobs, Vietnamese and Laotians continue to struggle.

For Jenny Kim, president of the Oregon chapter of Korean American Coalition, the report revealed surprises about the community she thought she knew well: A third of Oregon's 20,000 Korean residents qualify as low-income according to the report.

"It is needed work," Kim said. "There are a lot of challenges, despite the model minority myth, a lot of Asians are still struggling to own homes, to be insured, to have access to full-time employment."

The report sheds unprecedented light on Oregon's Polynesian and Micronesian communities, islanders whose slight numbers often carry a large margin of error on Census reports. A Portland group that tried to count Tongans for a 2014 Coalition for Communities of Color's 2013 report did so by examining local church rosters and civic organization membership lists.

APANO plans to use the report to build political power for those groups, Santos-Lyons said. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are the second-fastest minority group, behind Latinos. Asian Americans are the third-fastest growing. Pointing lawmakers to specific problems and solutions can

"A fast-growing, poor community is a challenge and creates a need for focus and targeted intervention," Santos-Lyons said.

And yet, for Kim, the report also shows how important it is for the different ethnic groups to band together. Alone, the groups makes up only a small percent of Oregon's population. Even the Chinese, Oregon's largest Asian group, has only 40,000 members.

Working together will take a concentrated effort, she said. No matter how the world lumps them together, Asian and Pacific Islander groups remain fiercely individual.

"I might be mistaken for Chinese and Japanese, but the fact that I don't speak Chinese or know their culture makes it difficult for me to connect with Chinese people," Kim said. "But I believe very strongly that we do need to work together. Alone, we don't make enough of an impact as a political influence in any district or even state level. We need to collaborate."


Some takeaways:


  • Oregon has the country's second largest population of Chuukese, with 537 people from the Micronesian island Oceania.
  • Nearly half of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are low-income and nearly a quarter live in poverty. About one-fifth of Native Hawaiians live in poverty statewide.
  • The number of Bangladeshis in Oregon increased by 198 percent, to 378 residents, between 2000 and 2010. The number of Fijians grew up 108 percent, to 888 residents, in that time.
  • More than half of Oregon's Japanese residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor's degree, while only 16 percent of Laotian adults over 25 do.
  • Their rate of prosperity vary, too. Indians, for instance, have low rates of poverty, 7 percent compared to 12 percent for white residents. But more Vietnamese residents qualify as low-income, 35 percent compared to 29 percent of white residents.
  • While Vietnamese Americans own more than 3,000 businesses and Chinese Americans own more than 2,500 businesses in Oregon, their populations still report high rates of unemployment. From 2007 to 2013, the number of unemployed Asian Americans increased 83 percent in Oregon, a rate higher than any racial group.

-- Casey Parks


cparks@oregonian.com; @caseyparks