They are strangers, but they already know one another’s stories. So when Mona Rahman, 24, tells the other five people at a New York City dinner table about how her superstrict parents never let her sleep over at friends’ houses, there are chuckles of recognition. There are equally empathetic, if more sober, nods when Grace Chang Lucarelli, 32, speaking in a soft Texan drawl, recalls “people making fun of me” because she was one of the few Asian Americans in her town. The people around the table grew up in rural Texas, suburban New Jersey, upstate New York, small-town Virginia and the real O.C. But they are the children of parents who immigrated to the U.S. from India, the Philippines, Korea, Bangladesh and Taiwan. What they share, says Korean American Suzette Won Haas, 31, is the sense of “feeling like the hyphen in between” the Asian and the American in Asian-American. That particular identity was made possible 40 years ago, in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act. Exclusion laws passed in the early 1900s had reduced Asian immigration to a trickle. In 1965, the year the Civil Rights Act came into effect, says New York University sociologist Guillermina Jasso, “the racist elements of immigration law were abolished.” Annual per-country quotas shot from 100—yes, 100—for most Asian nations to 20,000, with preferences for close relatives of U.S. citizens and those skilled in fields with labor shortages, like medicine. The new law unleashed a wave of immigrants who came to the U.S. to further their education or get a better job. By 1980 more than 190,000 Indians—some 90% of them college educated—had arrived. About 13,000 Korean doctors, pharmacists and nurses got green cards. The Filipino population in the U.S. nearly quintupled, to 500,000; so many medical professionals emigrated that politicians in Manila warned of brain drain. The American story is, of course, made up of successive influxes of immigrants who arrive in the U.S., struggle to find a place in its society and eventually assimilate. But the group of post-1965 Asians was different from the Jews, Irish and Italians who had landed earlier. The Asian immigrants’ distinctive physiognomy may have made it more difficult for them to blend in, but at the same time, their high education and skill levels allowed them quicker entrée into the middle class. Instead of clustering tightly in urban ethnic enclaves, they spread out into suburbia, where they were often isolated. And it was there that their kids, now 20 to 40 years old, grew up, straddling two worlds—the traditional domain their recently arrived parents sought to maintain at home and the fast-changing Western culture of the society outside the front door. The six people at the New York City dinner are members of that second generation and—full disclosure—so are we, the authors of this article.
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