Southeast Asian Americans

  • By David A. Takami
  • Posted 2/17/1999
  • Essay 894

Never in the history of the United States have so many people come from the same region in so short a time under such dire circumstances as did the Southeast Asian refugees in the decade after 1975. Once in this country, the refugees and their families overcame great obstacles to learn English, educate their children, and achieve a degree of economic success.

By the end of the Southeast Asian War in 1975 -- 25 years of bombing and bloodshed -- millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians had died. Millions of survivors, faced with an uncertain future under totalitarian rule, sought the refuge of Western democracies, risking their lives in daring escapes across rivers, through jungles, and across seas roamed by marauding pirates.

100,000 a Year

For 10 years after 1975, 100,000 Southeast Asians per year streamed into the United States. About 45,000 ended up in Washington state, mostly in King and Pierce Counties, and some in Spokane, Yakima, and other cities in Eastern Washington. The exact population is difficult to gauge because of inter-state migration.

Before settling in the U.S., the refugees typically lived in camps in Asia for at least six months to learn English and basic information about American society. American families, usually selected by area churches, then sponsored them. Once settled, the refugees in turn sponsored friends and additional family members, who entered the country as immigrants.

Difficult Transitions

Most refugees typically have had greater difficulty adjusting to America than voluntary immigrants. Many lost relatives in the war and still suffer from its ravages, enduring nightmares, flashbacks, and severe depression. Most came with few if any transferable job skills. They also faced the enormous common barrier of learning a new language. Living conditions are often substandard, especially in urban neighborhoods.

Despite the obstacles, the vast majority of refugees have adapted well. Young people are earning above-average marks at school, and an increasing number of them are attending state colleges and universities. In their spare time, they have formed rock bands, which blend American rhythms with Asian lyrics, and play on soccer and other kinds of sports teams.

Hard Work Brings Modest Successes

Their parents work long hours as factory workers, custodians and restaurant workers, positions that don't require a high level of English. Others try their hand at business and farming. With the contribution of three or four incomes, more refugee families have been able to buy homes of their own. These successes, while modest by American standards, represent personal and community triumphs for people who have been so recently persecuted and dispossessed.


Hollywood movies on the Vietnam War all but ignore the central tragedy of the conflict: the loss of 1.3 million Vietnamese lives and the subjugation of 60 million survivors.

Vietnam defeated the French in 1954 and the country was split into communist North and nationalist South. From 1959 Ho Chi Minh's Vietcong army waged a prolonged guerrilla war with South Vietnam and its powerful ally, the United States. When the communists finally assumed power in 1975, South Vietnamese military and government escapees were the first of several hundred thousand Southeast Asian refugees to this country.

Vietnam was the most developed and urbanized of the nations in Southeast Asia, and most in this first wave of refugees were highly educated professionals. Once in America, they adapted fairly quickly. Another wave came later in the decade, the first of many groups of "boat people," whose escapes were arduous at best and often harrowing. Survivors tell tales of drinking seawater, ferocious attacks by pirates and even cannibalism.

Vietnamese have worked in numerous professions, from janitorial services to engineering and medicine. Like generations of Chinese and Japanese before them, they have opened small businesses such as grocery stores, shops, and restaurants. Vietnamese entrepreneurs have played a crucial role in revitalizing Seattle's International District, which had been deteriorating and all but abandoned by shop owners and restaurants. Due largely to the Vietnamese, business is booming today along South Jackson Street, especially near 12th Avenue S.

The Vietnamese bring with them a rich cultural heritage and a Confucian reverence for education. Vietnamese students are excelling in local high schools and colleges. Reader's Digest chronicled the astounding accomplishments of the Nguyen family of Seattle. Of the seven children, six graduated from college with honors (five from the University of Washington in 1987) and the youngest, 14-year-old Thien is a UW undergraduate.

Newspapers, student associations, a veterans' organization, anti-Communist political action groups, and the Federation of Young Vietnamese Volunteers are among the most active Vietnamese community groups.


Talk to Cambodians here about the movie, "The Killing Fields," and they will tell you that conditions under the Khmer Rouge were worse -- much worse -- than those portrayed in the film. Of the 8 million Cambodians alive in 1970, 4.7 million lived to see the year 1980.

Cambodia was drawn into the Vietnam War in the early 1970s when North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces began moving deeper into Cambodian territory. The fighting between government troops and the Hanoi-backed Khmer Rouge continued until the communist takeover in 1975.

The ensuing four-year period in Cambodia has been compared to the Nazi holocaust. The fanatical Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot virtually enslaved the entire Cambodian populace, forcing them to work 16 hours a day in state-run labor camps scattered throughout the countryside. The Khmer Rouge separated families and tortured political prisoners. Atrocity became commonplace: A million Cambodians were systematically executed, including thousands of educated people and Buddhist monks. A million more died of starvation or disease.

Under the Vietnamese, who invaded the country in 1979, the mass executions were halted. But living conditions remained abysmal.

Cambodians, along with Laotians and hill tribe refugees, came to the U.S. in two waves, the first in 1975, the second and larger wave in the early 1980s. Many in the second wave were farmers from small villages with little or no education or knowledge of Western culture. Between 1982 and 1988 about 3,000 Cambodians arrived in Washington state, increasing the total number of Cambodians to 10,000, the majority living in King and Pierce Counties.

Cambodians have made great strides in pursuing careers and educating their young. In addition to mutual assistance associations and other social welfare organizations, Cambodians assemble and worship at Buddhist temples. In Seattle, they have founded the Cambodian Study Center, which is devoted to seminars and special events promoting the Khmer language and culture. The Cambodian American Education Center honors Cambodians graduating from high schools and colleges.


During the 1960s, the U.S. fought a secret war in Laos to sever the North Vietnamese supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By 1970, two thirds of the country had been massively bombed, causing widespread environmental destruction and the flight of 600,000 refugees, 20 percent of the total population of Laos.

Immigration of the indigenous lowland Lao closely followed that of the Cambodians, most of them arriving in the U.S. from 1979 to 1982. Laotians number about 7,000 in the Puget Sound region.

Hill Tribes

Under the national category of Laos fall many culturally distinct ethnic minorities, most of them migratory montagnards or hill tribes from the lush mountainous region. Most of these refugees came in the broad second wave of Southeast Asian resettlement in the early 1980s.

The Hmong are perhaps the best known of the hill tribes. A fiercely independent and proud people, they were the backbone of the CIA-trained guerrilla force in Laos -- and suffered for it. When the communist Pathet Lao took power in 1975, they began an extermination campaign against the Hmong that took the lives of an estimated 10 percent of the Hmong population.

Washington state's 1,200 Hmong live primarily in the Seattle area, and have settlements in the rural community of Carnation in King County, as well as in Spokane.

The Mien, too, were caught in the crossfire of the Southeast Asian War. Some worked in the underground army. Most escaped to Thailand after 1975, a number eventually reaching the United States. About 1,000 have settled in Washington. Both the Hmong and Mien are originally from southern China and over the past few centuries had migrated south.

The Kmhmu, another Laotian hill tribe, which numbers 300 in the state, are said to be the indigenous people of Laos. Their history in that country, however, is a history of oppression. For centuries, they were treated as a kind of slave class.

For many of the Hmong, Mien, Kmhmu, and other hill tribes, cultural adaptation is not simply a matter of learning English, but requires an anthropological leap. In Asia, they typically slashed and burned jungle growth to clear land for planting -- the oldest agricultural method in the world. The village was their most complex social institution. Isolated in highland regions, these settlements were without electricity or roads. Several of the tribes didn't have a written language until 20 or 30 years ago.

Hill tribes form associations based on clans and religious practices, including animist sects, which reflect the traditional belief in a world of spirits. Shamans serve as intermediaries between the natural and the supernatural. Community organizations run the gamut from soccer teams to mutual assistance groups and meal programs for the elderly.


Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1989); David A. Takami, Shared Dreams: A History of Asians and Pacific Americans in Washington State (Seattle: International Examiner, 1989).

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