Washington, DC — Asian culture in America has become more pervasive and Asians’ acclimation more complete than that of other immigrants. Whether it is the culture that has become more accepted and fascinating to Americans or whether it is the individuals themselves who have better acclimated to American culture is examined in the latest issue of Contexts magazine (Winter 2004).
In Contexts, published by the American Sociological Association, two articles focus on Asian Americans and Asian spirituality within American society. Much of the increase in Asian culture’s pervasiveness in America has to do with accelerated immigration following the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which ended the national origins quota system, and the historic resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War. The Asian-American population grew sevenfold since 1970, rising from 1.4 million to 11.9 million (4 percent of the American population) in 2000. The largest subgroups are of Chinese and Filipino decent, followed by Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese plus some 20 other national-origin groups.
Sociology professors Wendy Cadge, Bowdoin University, and Courtney Bender, Columbia University, the authors of the Contexts article, explore whether Americans’ fascination with Asian spirituality is a fad that will fade or whether America’s involvement with these religions can be serious and sustainable in “Yoga and Rebirth in America: Asian Religions Are Here to Stay.”
“Americans made 629 million visits to complementary and alternative medicine providers, paying $27 billion in out of pocket expenses,” said Cadge and Bender. This amount is almost equal to the National Institutes of Health FY 2004 budget. “The increased popularity and acceptance of alternative medicine nonetheless introduces Americans to Eastern ideas of spirituality and health, even if taught by acupuncturists and Ayurvedic healers.” Some insurance companies, such as CareFirst, even cover acupuncture.
According to a 2003 survey by Robert Wuthnow, 30 percent of Americans report being at least somewhat familiar with Buddhist teachings and 22 percent claim similar familiarity with Hindu teachings. From temples and ashrams to alternative health clinics and yoga studios, the numbers of sites in which Asian religions are learned is steadily growing. The number of English language books about Buddhism more than tripled between 1965 and 2000.
“The recent burgeoning of Americans’ fascination with Asian religions is rooted in increasing immigration, widening global networks, and changes in American religious and health care institutions,” said Cadge and Bender. While Asians have been practicing their religions ever since their arrival, their religions went unnoticed or romanticized until their numbers grew after the U.S. immigration laws were relaxed.
Greater personal encounters with Eastern religions via the workplace and the American population in general (especially among people who are young, more educated, and live on the West Coast), expanding global and travel communication, and ongoing changes in medical practices and institutions in the United States has propelled the spread of Asian religions in America.
Asian religious centers provide more than a religious foundation, they also provide an organizational base for immigrants to claim recognition. For non-Asian Americans, one-third of Thai temples have programs in English. Many Americans participate in practices that developed within Asian religious traditions but are taught or practiced in other kinds of organizations, such as yoga classes taught in fitness centers. Yoga is seen as a “stress management” technique with numerous health insurance plans even paying for classes. This option to teach yoga as fitness and a devotional practice makes Asian religions available to a more varied American audience.
The authors conclude that while some of the interest is a fad yielding eventually to the next fashion, “Beneath the fad, however, hundreds of organizations have emerged around Asian religions in America and millions of people have been exposed to Asian religious teachings and practices.”
In the Contexts article, “Are Asian Americans Becoming ‘White’?” Min Zhou, a sociology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, explored the concept of the “model minority” and the qualities of Asian Americans considered different from other immigrant minorities. She said that in the United States, the label “white” is arbitrary and has more to do with privilege than biology.
One of the reasons that Asian-origin immigrants fare better than other immigrants is because today’s immigrants from Asia have more varied backgrounds and come for many reasons, such as to join their families, invest in the U.S. economy, fill the demand for skilled labor, and escape war and persecution. Today, more than half of the Asian-origin population is living in the suburbs surrounding traditional gateway cities, as well as in new urban centers.
“While middle-class immigrants are able to start their American lives with high-paying professional careers and comfortable suburban lives, low-skilled immigrants and refugees often have to endure low-paying menial jobs and live in inner city ghettos,” said Zhou.
The median income for Asians in 1999, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, was more than $55,000—the highest of all racial groups, including whites—and their poverty rate was 11 percent, the lowest of all racial groups. The media has attributed the success of many Asian Americans in American society to hard work, family solidarity, discipline, delayed gratification and non-confrontation, but “the truth is that an unusual number of them, particularly among the Chinese, Indians and Koreans, arrive as middle-class immigrants,” explains Zhou. “This makes it easier for them and their children to succeed and regain their middle-class status in their new homeland.”
One consequence of the model-minority stereotype is that it reinforces the myth that the United States is devoid of racism, fostering the view that those who lag behind do so because of their poor choices and inferior culture. This stereotype can pit minority groups against each other, impeding minorities’ demands for social justice. It can also have positive consequences, though.
“The model-minority stereotype holds Asian Americans to higher standards, distinguishing them from average Americans,” said Zhou. “Also, the model-minority stereotype places particular expectations on members of the group so labeled, channeling them to specific avenues of success,” in careers such as science and engineering.
Many children of first-generation Asian Americans live their whole lives in white neighborhoods. By the second generation, most have lost fluency in their parents’ native languages. Asian Americans also intermarry extensively with whites and members of other minority groups. More than one-quarter of married Asian Americans have a partner of a different racial background.
While Asian Americans are the most acculturated non-European group in the United States, “new stereotypes can emerge and un-whiten Asian Americans, no matter how ‘successful’ and ‘assimilated’ they have become,” concludes Zhou. “So becoming white or not is beside the point. The bottom line is Americans of Asian ancestry still have to constantly prove that they truly are loyal Americans.”
Members of the media interested in a copy of Zhou’s or Cadge and Bender’s articles should contact Johanna Ebner in the ASA Public Information Office (202-383-9005 x332, firstname.lastname@example.org). Further information on ASA’s Contexts magazine, published in collaboration with the University of California Press, can be found at www.contextsmagazine.org/.
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.