Research Magazine 2006

Anthropologists explore Asian civic involvement

In Texas, the word immigrant often conjures thoughts of Hispanics.

Yet between 1990 and 2000, the number of Vietnamese immigrants in the state almost doubled and the number from India increased 169 percent. The Center for Immigration Studies also reported a substantial increase from China/Hong Kong/Taiwan, Korea and Pakistan.

As the influx grew, social scientists wondered why the Asians have less political clout than their numbers would suggest. And it quickly became apparent that the population labeled “Asian” by the U.S. Census encompasses countries with vast cultural, religious and linguistic differences.

Little is known about the nature of individual and collective participation in the public sphere, so the Russell Sage Foundation awarded a $150,000 grant to anthropology Professor Deborah Reed-Danahay and Southern Methodist University anthropology Professor Caroline Brettell to examine how two groups of immigrants differ in community participation by ethnic group, generation and gender.

“We are each looking at two very different groups,” Dr. Reed-Danahay says. “I’m studying the Vietnamese in Tarrant County, and Dr. Brettell is studying the Asian Indians in Dallas and Collin counties.”

The first group of Vietnamese arrived in Texas shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

“They were the elites who had worked closely with the American government during the war,” Reed-Danahay said. “They were well-educated at home but often had to take menial jobs in the U.S. since their degrees did not transfer and they lacked English skills. Later, waves of Vietnamese were also political refugees fleeing the communist government of Vietnam, often by boat and risking their lives on the open sea.”

Many Vietnamese Americans over age 50 lack fluency in English, but future generations are expected to be primarily economic migrants who have English skills and are well-educated.

Dr. Brettell said that Asian Indians who immigrate to the United States are generally well-educated and come with reasonably good language skills. They also hail from a more open political structure, while the Vietnamese fled a communist regime.

“Indians are proud to say that this nation is the oldest democracy, but India is the largest,” Brettell said.

Reed-Danahay and Brettell are interviewing both immigrant and non-immigrant community leaders and observing public events, festivals and meetings of ethnic civic associations. They’re also interviewing parents of school-age children, as well as older adults.

Reed-Danahay has observed that Vietnamese Catholic churches and Vietnamese Buddhist temples both hold classes on Sundays to help preserve the language and culture among younger generations. She attended an event where groups displayed their knowledge in front of a large audience of parents and other children.

The anthropologists hope to identify the main arenas, both locally and at a regional level, that foster civic knowledge and engagement among immigrants. They will be looking at work sites, schools, churches and temples and at the role of ethnic and non-ethnic media. They will seek to find the formal and informal modes of civic engagement among Indian and Vietnamese immigrants and their children and examples of successful community participation.

The study will determine what factors, such as gender and generation, influence community participation within each of the groups, as well as how differences between the two groups affect the ways they engage in the public sphere. The professors plan to publish a book on their findings.

— Sue Stevens