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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

September 28, 2006

Written by C.N.

Indian Americans: Model Immigrants?

National-level statistics consistently show that Asian Indians are one of, if not the most socioeconomicly successful of all immigrant or ethnic groups in the U.S. Does that make them the model immigrant group? A recent guest column published at BusinessWeek Magazine argues that yes, Indian Americans are the example that other ethnic/immigrant groups should follow:

Not only are they leaving their mark in the field of technology, but also in real estate, journalism, literature, and entertainment. They run some of the most successful small businesses and lead a few of the largest corporations. Valuable lessons can be learned from their various successes. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income of Indians was $70,708—far above the national median of $50,046.

An Asian-American hospitality industry advocacy group says that Indians own 50% of all economy lodging and 37% of all hotels in the U.S. AnnaLee Saxenian, a dean and professor at University of California, Berkeley, estimates that in the late 1990s, close to 10% of technology startups in Silicon Valley were headed by Indians.

The article goes on to cite twelve factors that account for the success of Indian Americans, including things such as education, upbringing, hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, social networks, and “integrating into U.S. society,” etc. First, I would like to acknowledge that yes, the statistics and empirical evidence do not lie — Indian Americans as a group have achieved high levels of socioeconomic success, for which they, Asian Americans in general, and American society at large should be proud of.

At the same time, I and other demographers would point out that Indian immigrants tend to have very selective characteristics. That is to say, an overwhelming proportion of Indians who immigrate to the U.S. already have a college degree, are already fluent in English, and have advanced job skills. That means that once they get to the U.S., they already have a head start in achieving socioeconomic success. In other words, much of the success of Indian Americans come from the advantages they’ve accumulated even before setting foot inside the U.S.

Of course, Indians still work very hard to apply their education and skills after arriving in the U.S. and like I said, in no way am I discounting or minimizing their success. My point is that they are able to build upon certain advantages that other Asian immigrant groups do not possess, for example southeast Asian refugees who had to flee their homeland at a moment’s notice. That helps to explain why some Asian ethnic groups have been able to achieve more success than others.

In other words, part of the equation is how hard they work once they get to the U.S. But another large part of it are the advantages they’ve accumulated even before their immigration. Therefore, there are some aspects of the Indian American success story that other immigrants can follow, but there are others that are largely beyond their control.

September 26, 2006

Written by C.N.

Asian American Buying Power

As you probably know already, Asian Americans tend to have the highest median household income along with the highest rates of having a college degree. Does this mean that, as a consumer group, Asian Americans have enough buying power for advertisers to take seriously? According to new research, the answer is yes — Asian Americans have an annual buying power of about $427 billion:

Per new statistics released earlier this month by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, Asian consumer annual buying power in the United States has reached $427 billion, representing a 59% increase since the beginning of the decade. Furthermore, Asian buying power has the second fastest projected rate of growth, slightly behind Hispanic buying power. By 2011, Asian buying power will grow 46% over the current benchmark to reach $626 billion.

Reflecting the Asian population distribution by state which was recently documented in the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey (ACS), California and New York remain in first and second place for annual Asian buying power, with $140.5 billion and $41.5 billion respectively. . . . The Selig data also highlights . . . that Asian consumers wield a disproportionately larger clout in terms of their purchasing power than the absolute size of the Asian population would otherwise imply.

“Most often, marketers hesitate in considering Asian programs because they overly focus on the comparatively smaller size of the Asian population vis-à-vis the larger Hispanic and African American audiences,” said Saul Gitlin, Executive Vice President – Strategic Services, Kang & Lee Advertising. “However, while the Asian population may be only one third the size of the Hispanic population, Asian annual buying power already represents 53% of Hispanic buying power.

It’s nice to hear that American advertisers and companies are likely to become increasingly aware of the purchasing power of the Asian American community, especially since we have apparently have disproportionately high level of buying power per capita. But I think it would be even nicer if American media companies, advertisers, and businesses recognize that if they want our dollars, they also need to earn our respect.

That means no advertisements that contain disparaging or stereotypical images or portrayals of Asians, nor supporting TV or radio shows that contain material that we as Asian Americans find offensive. That also means that we as Asian Americans need to be more selective with our money and by supporting companies that share our values. Religious conservatives have been doing this for years now, and we can and should do the same.

September 24, 2006

Written by C.N.

China Can’t Make Up Its Mind

In recent years, there is increase hope that as China continues to modernize and embrace capitalism (along with hosting the Olympics in two years) that one potential trickle-down effect is that its infamously iron-fisted control over media and other forms of expression and freedom will gradually lessen. However, as Time Magazine reports, the exact opposite seems to be happening:

The New China News Agency, known as Xinhua, released details last week of new regulations tightening control over distribution of information by foreign wire services. By forcing news agencies such as Reuters, Bloomberg and the Associated Press to distribute content through—and share revenue with—Xinhua, China was effectively rigging the market to favor its domestic news operation. . . .

Xinhua’s power grab was also widely condemned overseas as an attempt to control the foreign media: among other restrictions, the rules prohibit dissemination of news that undermines “the fine cultural traditions of the Chinese nation.” . . . In the past few months, Beijing has issued several regulations and is drafting more that appear to be aimed at limiting the ability of overseas firms to do business in China.

Last week, China’s stock-market regulator temporarily banned investment by foreign brokerages in domestic securities firms . . . And in late August, the Ministry of Commerce issued new rules on mergers and acquisitions, including a number of vague provisions that appear to give the ministry wide powers to review and halt mergers.

Apparently China can’t make up its mind on what type of country that it wants to be — a strict communist (more like totalitarian) regime in which virtually aspects of life and economic activity are tightly controlled, or a modernized and capitalist society that welcomes foreign investment and insures press freedoms. China seems to be swinging back and forth between these two scenarios, like a jury member who bounces back and forth and can’t make up his mind during deliberations.

What’s the result of this indecision? Nobody is pleased and people on both sides lose confidence and trust in the Chinese government. This is the case when it comes to foreigners trying to do business in China and with Chinese citizens themselves who are growing tired of their government’s ineffectiveness.

Is China at a crossroads where they need to chart one path and stay on it, for better or for worse? If they’re not at this juncture now, if this types of events continue to happen, China will be at that point very soon.

September 21, 2006

Written by C.N.

Rising Popularity of Buddhism in U.S.

The history of Buddhism in the U.S. is still relatively short. It first came to the U.S. with the first Asian immigrants back in the 1800s and then enjoyed somewhat of a “trendy” fascination in the 1960s but beyond that, has not really become integrated into the fundamental fabric of American society. However, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, that may be changing as Buddhism continues to attract more followers:

Buddhism is growing apace in the United States, and an identifiably American Buddhism is emerging. Teaching centers and sanghas (communities of people who practice together) are spreading here as American-born leaders reframe ancient principles in contemporary Western terms. [T]he number of adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey.

An ARIS estimate puts the total in 2004 at 1.5 million, while others have estimated twice that. “The 1.5 million is a low reasonable number,” says Richard Seager, author of “Buddhism in America.” That makes Buddhism the country’s fourth-largest religion, after Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Immigrants from Asia probably account for two-thirds of the total, and converts about one-third, says Dr. Seager, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y.

What is drawing people (after that fascination with Zen Buddhism in the ’50s and ’60s)? The Dalai Lama himself has played a role, some say, and Buddhism’s nonmissionizing approach fits well with Americans’ search for meaningful spiritual paths. . . . Even a larger factor, he suggests, is that Buddhism offers spiritual practices that Western religions haven’t emphasized. “People are looking for experiential practices, not just a new belief system or a new set of ethical rules which we already have, and are much the same in all religions,” Surya Das says.

As a believer in Buddhist philosophy, I think it’s great that Buddhism is continuing to gain followers and starting to make an imprint among many Americans. Especially in times of global conflict and hostility, the calming messages of peace, respect, and harmony that come from Buddhism are very much needed and important.

At the same time, I also hope that Buddhist philosophy and practice do not get corrupted and commercialized as another fad or the latest cultural fashion trend. In many ways, that is already happening with different elements of traditional Asian culture. I think Buddhism is more inherently resistant to such “capitalist corruption” but the possibility is always there.

May all beings be happy . . . and may all followers of Buddhism keep its message simple and pure.

September 19, 2006

Written by C.N.

New Status Symbol in China: Tan Skin

In the past and in many Asian countries, having dark skin was associated with lower status, specifically with peasants having to work outside under the hot sun. Conversely, light skin was associated with being wealthy enough not to have to do manual work. However, as Reuters/Yahoo News reports, this traditional perception is slowly being reversed as China’s elite are increasingly associating tan skin with affluence:

[Old perceptions are] now changing in China, especially in its richest and most sophisticated city of Shanghai, where having a nice tan is increasingly seen not as a sign of peasantry but rather as a status symbol. The recent boom in tanning salons in China is starting to shake deep-rooted traditions about skin tone, though it still seems a long way from denting the multi-million dollar market in skin whitening creams.

Bronze Bodies, a newly opened tanning salon in fashionable central Shanghai, has expanded its VIP membership to about 900 people and is planning to deliver value-added services like how to coordinate hair and clothes with newly tanned skin. “I am making a fashion statement,” owner Li Rui told Reuters. “It’s not merely about tanned skin, but creating a fresh lifestyle choice for Chinese.” . . .

“People can immediately tell how wealthy you are by looking at your golden tanned skin,” said a tanning branch manager who identified herself as Jin. “It looks shiny and healthy, quite different from the dim and coarse skin of day laborers.” The appearance of tanned models on billboards around China and of bronzed actors, such as Hong Kong heart throb Louis Koom, on television and at the movies is also having an impact.

I suppose it was inevitable. As China and other developing countries continue to embrace capitalism and American culture, American norms of physical beauty were bound to come along as well. From a sociological point of view, it’s very interesting to observe how centuries, even millenia of social norms on China about light vs. tan skin is being changed so quickly by American culture.

It just goes to show the unrelenting power of capitalism and status symbols of material success.

September 17, 2006

Written by C.N.

India Asserting Its Cultural Independence

As you probably know by now, India is on the fast track to becoming the world’s next economic superpower, along with China. As part of their economic and political development, India is also asserting its cultural independence. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, one prominent example of this trend is the process of renaming its cities:

The trend that began vexing cartographers a decade ago when Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, and Calcutta became Kolkata has only gained speed. In part, India is merely sweeping clean the last corners of colonialism – offending few beyond upper-class English-speaking Indians and outsiders who have wrapped India’s identity in its anglicized names. In part, its politicians are using words as a tool – sometimes more to divide than to unite.

But underneath all is a new and unprecedented Indian self-assurance. More than half a century after the British left, India is making a statement that can be seen from politics to its economics: We are now a power in our own right, and the world must come to accept us on our own terms – whether that is nuclear weapons or a high-tech hub that might sound like baby talk to the foreign ear. . . .

Yet some of the other changes take a different tenor. India has slowly found firmer footing as a nation after the tumult of partition with Pakistan and the uncertainty caused by former leader Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule in the 1970s and ’80s. In this collective exhale, new and not always inclusive forms of national and regional politics have found space to expand.

Foremost among them has been more extremist strains of Hindutva: the doctrine that India – with an 80 percent Hindu majority – is a Hindu nation and should start acting like it. . . . By this measure, he says, Delhi is Indraprasth – harking back its name in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Even “India” is not beyond revision. After all, India’s namesake – the Indus River – has been in Pakistan since partition. Mr. Gangwar suggests Hindustan. Others favor Bharat.

What should we make of this development? On the one hand, certainly India — as well as any other developing nation — has the right and moral justification to rename its cities however they want to, and not have to accept the Anglicized names imposed on them by their former colonial rulers. At the same time, can this trend be pushed too far, to the point where it starts to divide people by ethnicity, religion, and/or language? Absolutely.

Let us not forget that despite its best efforts, many parts of Indian society still operate according to the caste system, which to this day still necessitates India having to use controversial affirmative action programs to help the lowest caste of “Untouchables.” Also, nationalist Hindu groups have also tried to literally rewrite textbooks in the U.S. on how India’s history should be portrayed, stirring up even more controversy over who, if anyone, gets to “speak” for the Indian American community.

In other words, tensions, differences, and potential divisions still exist among Indians. Like most other issues, I would think that the “best” solution is somewhere in the middle, in which Indian cultural independence can be celebrated and respected, while the cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity that is one of India’s hallmarks can still be respected and celebrated as well.

September 14, 2006

Written by C.N.

The Effects of Class, Race, and Place

It should be well-known by now that a person’s race and social class has a large influence on his/her life chances. No matter how much right wing conservatives may disagree, being poor and of a certain racial/ethnic minority in the U.S. is likely to be associated with many socioeconomic and institutional disadvantages. But as CBS News reports, where a person lives can also have a large effect on the quality of his/her life:

Asian-American women living in Bergen County, N.J., lead the nation in longevity, typically reaching their 91st birthdays. Worst off are American Indian men in swaths of South Dakota, who die around age 58 — three decades sooner. Where you live, combined with race and income, plays a huge role in the nation’s health disparities — differences so stark that a report issued Monday contends it’s as if there are eight separate Americas instead of one. . . .

Murray analyzed mortality data between 1982 and 2001 by county, race, gender and income. He found some distinct groupings that he named the “eight Americas:”
1. Asian-Americans, average per capita income of $21,566, have a life expectancy of 84.9 years
2. Northland low-income rural Whites, $17,758, 79 years
3. Middle America (mostly White), $24,640, 77.9 years
4. Low income Whites in Appalachia, Mississippi Valley, $16,390, 75 years
5. Western American Indians, $10,029, 72.7 years
6. Black Middle America, $15,412, 72.9 years
7. Southern low-income rural Blacks, $10,463, 71.2 years
8. High-risk urban Blacks, $14,800, 71.1 years . . .

Scientists have long thought that the Asian longevity advantage would disappear once immigrant families adopted higher-fat Western diets. Murray’s study is the first to closely examine second-generation Asian-Americans — and found their advantage persists.

The article also points out that it’s not really lack of health insurance that is largely responsible for such mortality disparities but rather, lifestyle choices such as alcohol and tobacco use, obesity, and lack of physical activity (along with high blood pressure and cholesterol) that make the biggest difference. One thing to note however, is that it is very unfortunate that Hispanics/Latinos were not included in the data, most likely due to their official classification as an “ethnic” rather than a “racial” group (meaning Hispanics can be of any race).

At any rate, the results for Asian Americans is pretty striking and suggests, at least initially, that there apparently is something about Asian culture that promotes better health or at least better longevity. While it’s slightly reassuring to find out that my culture apparently offers some health benefits to me, the larger social implications of this finding are a little more vague and even potentially troubling.

Specifically, I’m worried that findings like this are the first steps for some people to reinterpret the results to mean that Asian Americans are genetically and biologically different from “real” Americans and as such, should be treated differently than other Americans. In other words, findings like this have the possibility of perpetuating the cultural stereotype that Asian culture is inherently different from “mainstream” American culture and that therefore, Asian Americans are inherently different from mainstream Americans.

The moral to this story is that as with any scientific or statistical data, the numbers do not just “speak for themselves.” Rather, people sometimes interpret the numbers to mean what they want them to mean, and to achieve certain political or cultural goals. Therefore, we need to assert that data like this only show one part of the larger picture about Asian Americans.

September 12, 2006

Written by C.N.

More Au Pairs Coming From China

When many of us think of au pairs (young women — sometimes men — who come to live and work in the U.S. in a family’s home), usually we think of them coming from European countries. In recent years however many are increasing coming from China. As the New York Times reports, there are a few different reasons for this trend, as well as different challenges involved in recruiting au pairs from China:

Au pair with American family © Danny Padilla & NY Times

Their services are in great demand, in part because so many Americans have adopted baby girls from China. Driving the need more aggressively is the desire among ambitious parents to ensure their children’s worldliness, as such parents assume that China’s expanding influence will make Mandarin the sophisticates’ language decades hence. . . .

The last two years have seen an astonishing increase in the number of American parents wishing to employ Mandarin-speaking nannies, difficult to find here and even harder to obtain from China. Au Pair in America had received no requests for Chinese au pairs until 2004, said Ruth Ferry, the program director. Since then, it has had 1,400. . . .

Among Chinese-Americans, it is difficult to come upon young women interested in child-care careers, nanny agency representatives say. In China’s new culturally progressive climate, biases against such domestic work prevail. Ms. Zhang, one of the au pairs who arrived last week and moved in with a family in New Hampshire, said her parents had initially disapproved of her decision, especially because she was then working in customer service for Continental Airlines in Beijing.

“There are prejudices about being a baby sitter,” she remarked. “They said: ‘You have a great job coming out of college. Why would you want to go to America to take care of children?’”

I find it interesting that many Chinese apparently look down upon working as an au pair because it apparently represents settling for a lower-status job compared to what young Chinese women can expect to make nowadays. In other words, perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, Chinese women (and presumably their families as well) probably would have jumped at the chance to come and work in the U.S.

But now that China’s economy has exploded, its society modernizing, and the country has become an emerging global superpower, expectations and aspirations are different. Working in childcare is now largely seen as a step back for Chinese women. It just goes to show how globalization and modernization can change individual and national perceptions in a very short amount of time.

September 10, 2006

Written by C.N.

The State of Muslim Americans

As we approach the five-year anniversary of 9/11, Reuters/Yahoo News has an article that summarizes some of the challenges that many Muslim and Arab Americans still face in their efforts to demonstrate that they are just as American as anybody else:

Ihsan Saadeddin is proud to be an American. But he’s tired of having to prove it just because he’s a Muslim too. The Palestinian grocery store owner in Phoenix has called the United States home for 25 years and feels as American as the next guy. He met his wife in Arizona, sent his three children to public school and has a weakness for McDonald’s.

But Saadeddin says the September 11 attacks were a tragic watershed which turned U.S. Muslims from ordinary citizens into objects of suspicion and discrimination overnight. He believes it is why he was questioned at the airport for 45 minutes last month and asked repeatedly if he supports terrorism. . . .

U.S. officials deny they unfairly target Muslim Americans and say community leaders have better access to top U.S. officials than ever before. Outreach efforts include town hall meetings with law enforcement officers and training courses for officials by community members.

It’s clear that we as a society still have a long way to go in the effort to reduce the levels of racial profiling and ignorant anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash that still exist in this country. As a sociologist, I am willing to accept that changing attitudes will take time and patience.

However, I am not willing to accept the fact that every time there is some “security” incident at the airport or on a flight that the first people who get detained and interrogated are Arab and Muslim Americans, despite the fact that the vast majority of such incidents, particularly in recent weeks, have nothing to do with them.

As the article mentions, what we need is better and more useful intelligence, part of which involves better cooperation with Arab and Muslim communities, to identify possible security threats, rather than blanket suspicions and kneejerk reactions against Arabs and Muslim every time there is some security incident.

September 7, 2006

Written by C.N.

Is China Becoming Less Communist?

As China becomes increasingly integrated into the globalized international community, how is that likely to affect their traditional communist ideology? The New York Times presents one possible answer by reporting that the latest Chinese textbooks significantly downplay China’s communist history and ideology, to the extent that Mao Zedong is mentioned just once in one major textbook:

When high school students in Shanghai crack their history textbooks this fall they may be in for a surprise. The new standard world history text drops wars, dynasties and Communist revolutions in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology, social customs and globalization. Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once — in a chapter on etiquette.

Nearly overnight the country’s most prosperous schools have shelved the Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the 1950’s. The changes passed high-level scrutiny, the authors say, and are part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today’s economic and political goals.

Supporters say the overhaul enlivens mandatory history courses for junior and senior high school students and better prepares them for life in the real world. The old textbooks, not unlike the ruling Communist Party, changed relatively little in the last quarter-century of market-oriented economic reforms. They were glaringly out of sync with realities students face outside the classroom. But critics say the textbooks trade one political agenda for another.

I’m not sure what to make of this particular development. On the one hand, we might see it as a positive trend in that the political dimensions of communist ideology are deemphasized and instead, more “pragmatic” aspects of Chinese society are stressed. On the other hand, we might also see this as another ploy by China’s totalitarian regime to control the flow of information, to control what its citizens learn by literally rewriting history however they want to.

In that sense, we might liken this particular development to efforts in other countries to deemphasize less-than-flattering episodes in their history, most notably illustrated in Japan where a nationalist movement seeks to downplay Japan’s atrocities committed against its foreign neighbors during World War II, and by efforts of nationalist Hindu groups to influence history’s depiction of Indian culture.

It just goes to prove the old adage that the victors are the ones who get to write history.

September 5, 2006

Written by C.N.

Asian American Students Still Deal with Violence

No matter how much we as Asian Americans show that we want to be part of the American mainstream, it seems almost inevitable that we encounter resistance, hostility, and at times, violence in that process. One group of Asian Americans for whom that is a sad part of their daily lives is high school students. As the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports, the demographics of a town or high school can change, but violence against perceived “foreigners” still lingers:

Student leaders stopped in St. Paul, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake asking school administrators to address problems facing Hmong students. Racism, hostile school climates, college readiness and language barriers were some of the challenges discussed. . . . Students said violence also is often an unavoidable part of their school lives.

Kabee Chang, who is not related to Mysee Chang, has only lived in the United States for two years since emigrating from Thailand. At Minneapolis’ North High School, Kabee Chang said it’s difficult to avoid a fight. His friends have been hit in the head and punched while going from one class to another.

“One time I could see my friend had been hit, so I was afraid to go in the bathroom because the same thing would happen to me,” Kabee Chang said. Out of fear, he said now he won’t go into the bathroom or hallways by himself.

It is nothing less than an outrage and tragedy when students of any racial/ethnic/cultural background encounter violence and harassment in their attempts to get an education, so that they can improve their lives, their family’s lives, and be a productive citizen of the U.S. We cannot expect students to excel academically when even their most basic need to feel physically safe can’t be guaranteed.

In that context, school districts and officials bear the responsibility to ensure that students can get an education in a safe environment. Yes it would be nice if teachers and counselors are culturally-competent and nurture students as much as possible, but at the very least — the bare minimum, schools need to provide their students with an environment that is free from ongoing threats of violence and physical harassment.

September 3, 2006

Written by C.N.

Reverse Migration Back to China

You may have heard that the world in general and American society in particular is becoming more transnational. Ever wonder what that really means? Well here’s one example of it — as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, more Chinese immigrants are deciding to return to China to live and work, attracted by China’s booming economy, low cost of living, China’s growing international prominence, and a reemergent Chinese identity:

Well-to-do Chinese around the world are being drawn homeward by affordable housing, food and recreation — as well as a sense of belonging. Driving this trend are China’s booming market economy, improved transportation and telecommunications, potential returns on real estate investments and the emergence of a transnational identity for many of the emigres and their children.

All this is despite the pollution, horrendous traffic and what Hu said are people in Shanghai who lack the grace to stand in line or to apologize for jostling someone. . . . “The center of gravity is shifting to China, but to be successful, you need to be successful in the United States,” said Peggy Liu, 38, co-founder of a venture capital firm, who moved from the Bay Area to Shanghai with her husband and two sons — following her parents. “You need a foot in both worlds.”

As I said, this “reverse migration” trend is another telling example of how increasingly globalized American society is becoming. As I’ve also written about before, this trend also extends to Asian Americans engaging in business ventures in Asian countries and to Asian universities recruiting Asian American academics to move to Asia and build up their universities over there.

Asian Americans and Latino Americans have already embraced this transnational trend, so unless the rest of the U.S. wants to get left behind and become increasingly internationally isolated, it’s in their best interests to get with the program as well.