ADS & ODS 1993

Hopes for a Better Future (Jan 1993)

Hopes for a Better Future

by Mana Southichack

In the early 1900s until around 1965, waves of immigrants were brought to Hawaii for use as plantation laborers. These groups of Asian immigrants -- Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos -- help make up Hawaii's multi-ethnic society today. Within the last decade, however, there has been another phenomenal wave of Asian immigrants adding to Hawaii's mixed plate. This time they come from other parts of Asia, and yet, the underlying cause is the same a hope for a better future.

Since 1975, Southeast Asians from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam have been the latest groups of immigrants to populate the United States. Out of a total of 2 million, over one million have settled on the mainland and 11,000 in Hawaii, of which 8,700 arrived as refugees. It is approximated by Dwight Ovitt, Assistant Refugee Coordinator of the State of Hawaii, that 100 Cambodians, 3,000 Laotians, and 8,000 Vietnamese live in Hawaii, with an increase of 600-800 a year, most of whom are Vietnamese.

As can be predicted, their exodus results from political and economic instability in their homelands. Until 1975, Laos and Vietnam have been stricken by war and ensuing economic hardships. In Cambodia, a civil war currently exists. These uncertainties, along with the higher standard of living in the Western world, give cause for the out migration of these Southeast Asian immigrants.

Once in the Western World, their initial intentions are to work until they can return home. But they eventually realize that their hopes of returning home are slim. With very little education and English-speaking skills, many of these Southeast Asians face the same obstacles that generations of immigrants have had to deal with in the past. They must settle into a foreign country by taking up menial labor or relying on welfare.

In a 1986 Immigrants and Hawaii Report, over half of these Southeast Asian immigrants were not proficient in English, and 55% were employed at the lowest end of the occupational scale. On an average, their yearly income is $7,000, which is a third of Hawaii's median income.

With all these difficulties, it is ironic that these Southeast Asian immigrants are often labeled as "successful Asians" because the term applies to other Asian groups like the Japanese, Chinese, or Koreans who are stereotyped as business-minded, ambitious entrepreneurs. For those who cannot tell the difference between various Asian languages and cultures, all Asians simply "look alike" and are lumped into one category.

While this may not seem like a real problem, what results from this false stereotyping is a lack of attention by the U.S. government to focus on their needs. Social programs for these immigrant groups are sometimes ignored, and along with society's discrimination against foreigners who speak with an accent, or do not speak English at all, the plight of these Southeast Asian immigrants results in virtually no chance for upward mobility.

Perhaps this situation is not what these Southeast Asian immigrants expected when they first arrived in the Western World. The first immigrants who came to Hawaii probably did not expect the harsh treatment they were to encounter on the sugar plantations. But back then, there were no programs to help them in their plight. Today, immigrants can step away from false stereotypes with the help of social programs and a change in peoples' attitudes toward immigrants. After all, if there is one thing that everyone deserves, it is a chance for a better future.

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