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Asian New Yorkers surpass a million, and band together


NEW YORK » Not so long ago, the phrase "New York’s Chinatown" meant one thing: a district in Lower Manhattan near Canal Street. Now it could refer to as many as six heavily Chinese enclaves around the city.

Koreatown was well known as a commercial zone in Midtown Manhattan, but now parts of Queens, where tens of thousands of Koreans have moved, feel like suburban Seoul. The city has spawned neighborhoods with nicknames like Little Bangladesh, Little Pakistan, Little Manila and Little Tokyo.

Asians, a group more commonly associated with the West Coast, are surging in New York, where they have long been eclipsed in the city’s kaleidoscopic racial and ethnic mix. For the first time, according to census figures released in April, their numbers have topped 1 million — nearly one in eight New Yorkers — which is more than the Asian population in the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles combined.

That milestone, in turn, has become a rallying cry for Asian New Yorkers who have been working for years to win more political representation, government assistance and public recognition. Many leaders have seized on the 1-million figure as a fresh reason for immigrants and their descendants who hail from across the Asian continent to think of themselves as one people with a common cause — in the same way that many people from Spanish-speaking cultures have come to embrace the broad terms Latino and Hispanic.

"We are 13 percent of this city’s population!" Steven Choi, 35, a community organizer and a son of Korean immigrants, yelled into a microphone to a crowd of Asian activists who gathered recently outside City Hall to protest threatened cuts to social services. "We are 1 million strong, and we are not going away!"

The census shows a striking 32 percent increase in New York’s Asian population since 2000, making it the city’s fastest-growing racial group by far. The Hispanic population grew only 8 percent during that time, while the ranks of non-Hispanic whites declined 3 percent and blacks declined 5 percent.

As the number of Asians has soared, scores of groups that have long operated independently, and sometimes at odds, have begun pulling together into pan-Asian coalitions in recent years, particularly as younger generations and newer arrivals have seen the advantages of unifying.

But making that happen is not easy, because the population that calls itself Asian is extremely diverse. Asian-Americans in New York trace their roots to dozens of countries and speak more than 40 languages and dialects. Certain groups have fared much better than others: The poverty rate of Filipinos, for instance, is one-sixth that of Bangladeshis, according to 2009 data from the American Community Survey.

Older immigrants may have lingering prejudices against other nationalities, rooted in historic rivalries among their native countries. Some organizations, particularly well-established Chinese ones that were in the vanguard of the fight for immigrant rights during the last century, may be hesitant to share hard-won gains. And South Asian groups have sometimes felt muscled aside or ignored by their more established East Asian counterparts.

Finding common ground among so many constituencies is "a constant tension that our coalition faces," said Choi, a leader of the 12 Percent and Growing Coalition, a lobbying group that was formed in 2008 and unites more than 45 organizations that are either led by Asians or serve the Asian population.

"It’s important as a coalition that we’re not letting one narrative dominate over another."

A welter of narratives emerges from the government’s latest demographic figures. People who said they were of Chinese descent made up nearly half of all Asians in New York and multiplied in most city neighborhoods, especially in those where they began settling in large numbers decades ago, in parts of Queens and Brooklyn.

So did the second-largest group, Indians, whose presence has grown significantly, particularly in far eastern Queens. Other groups, meanwhile, became increasingly concentrated in newer enclaves, like Koreans in Queens; Filipinos in Queens; and Vietnamese in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Yet that diversity, Asian-American leaders say, has diluted their clout.

"While the numbers have been going up, they somehow feel that politically and otherwise, Asians are not visible," said Madhulika S. Khandelwal, 54, director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College and an Indian immigrant.

Asians in New York City still remain underrepresented in elected office, community leaders say, with only one Asian-American in the State Legislature, two on the City Council and one in a citywide post, the comptroller, John C. Liu. Advocates contend that public and private money for their community service organizations does not match the population’s size or need.

Choi, who is also the executive director of MinKwon Center for Community Action, an advocacy group in Queens, said that even though Asians are about 13 percent of the city’s population, social service organizations that focus on them receive only 1.4 percent of the Council’s discretionary allocations, and less than a quarter of one percent of the money for city social-service contracts.

Some community leaders said a "model minority" stereotype — the mistaken perception that Asians are universally high-achieving and self-sufficient — has blinded government officials and others to the needs of those who are not.

Median per capita income for Asians is well below the city’s average, and Asian households are on average more crowded than those of blacks, Hispanics or non-Hispanic whites, according to the American Community Survey. Asians also have the highest rate of linguistic isolation, a classification in which nobody older than 13 in a household speaks English well.

The push for broad coalitions has been fueled in part by well-educated young leaders who are more willing, and able, than their parents or grandparents to link arms.

Margaret May Chin, associate professor of sociology at Hunter College, said many of these new leaders grew up in pan-Asian communities in the United States in which the barriers that kept their forebears apart — language differences, ethnic prejudices or simply the daily demands of surviving as a new immigrant — might have receded.

"People have been looking outwards," said Chin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. "Koreans are talking to Chinese; the Chinese are talking to the Bengalis."

Sheebani S. Patel, policy coordinator for the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, an advocacy group in Lower Manhattan, said she had seen this shift in her own family. Her parents were immigrants from India; Patel, 27, was born and raised in Texas.

"A lot of that generation has been so immersed in their own community and working in their community and making it," she said, "whereas the second generation can see the similarities that bind us together."

Asian-American leaders say they are already seeing the impact of their coalition-building on elected officials. "We joke that some of the folks know 12 Percent and Growing Coalition better than they know our individual organizations because of the collective power," Patel said, gesturing toward City Hall.

"We’re here," Choi added, "and our numbers are much greater than everybody thinks."


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