Thursday, August 11, 2011

Asian-Americans enjoy a long history here

First published in the Centre Daily Times, June 2, 2011

A few days ago, I was flying back from India after visiting family and commemorating the first anniversary of my father’s death.

As the flight from London neared Philadelphia, the flight attendant handed out arrival-departure records for nonimmigrant visitors and customs forms for everyone, including permanent residents and U.S. citizens. I picked up a customs form.

Next, she asked my neighbor, a turban-wearing man of Asian-Indian origin, if he would like the arrival-departure record.

When he replied in the negative, she clarified, “All visitors need a landing card, sir.”

“I am a U.S. citizen,” he replied, and calmly took a customs card.

The flight attendant had thought I was a U.S. citizen or resident, but seemed hesitant to accept that about my turban-wearing fellow passenger.

I am a first-generation immigrant and have lived here for only a little more than two decades.

My fellow passenger, however, was Sikh by religion and could have been a descendant of the earliest Asian-Indian immigrants, Punjabi Sikhs, who came to California in 1899.

He could also be related to Californian Dilip Singh Saund, the first Asian-American and first Sikh elected in 1957 to the U.S. Congress.

Interestingly, Saund emigrated from India via Ellis Island to study at Berkeley. He graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics in 1922 and a doctorate in 1924, and became a farmer because of limited opportunities.

Saund campaigned to allow “Hindus,” as South Asians were then called, to become naturalized citizens. He became an American citizen in 1949 after passage of the 1946 Luce-Celler Act allowing naturalization to Asian Indians and Filipinos.

Pondering how Asian-Americans fit into ideas of American identity is a worthwhile exercise considering the recent observance of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May.

President George H.W. Bush started this monthlong celebration in 1990 to honor the history and contributions of Americans with origins in Asia and the Pacific islands.

Contrary to common perceptions, the first Asian immigrants came to the U.S. centuries ago.

Filipino immigrants settled in New Orleans in 1763, followed by Chinese immigrants who came to California to mine gold in 1849. Significant Japanese immigration occurred between 1886 and 1911. Asian-Indian immigrants from Punjab arrived in California in 1899, and Korean workers came to Hawaii in 1903.

These immigrants faced hardships and discrimination while building railroads and working in farms, mines and factories. They were limited in their ability to own property, bring their families or become citizens.

Eventually, the 1924 U.S. Immigration Act shut down almost all immigration from Asia.

Four decades later, the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished immigration quotas based on national origin and allowed far more skilled workers and family members to enter the country than ever before.

Twenty five years later, the Immigration Act of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush, allowed higher quotas from all countries with preference for certain skilled positions.

These skilled Asian-Pacific immigrants and their descendants have made immense contributions.

Some notable Asian-Americans include Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!; Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail; Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems; and Vinod Dham, inventor of the Pentium chip.

Subra Suresh, of Indian origin, heads the National Science Foundation, and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, of Chinese origin, who was born in St. Louis, is our Secretary of Energy.

According to the Census Bureau, 4.4 percent of Centre County residents are Asian-Americans, which is close to the national average of 4.8 percent.

The next time any of us encounters Asian-or Pacific-Americans, with or without a turban, it would be wise to assume nothing about their history.

Like others in the United States, they may be a descendant of an immigrant who arrived centuries ago, or they may be a pioneering immigrant who arrived just yesterday. And like all of us, they can be expected to contribute to and benefit from this new country they now call their home.