Mammoth mountains, tropical rains, rice paddy agriculture, and a diverse mixture of religious beliefs characterize this region of Asia, which includes the countries of Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. Many immigrants have come to the United States from these countries over the last two centuries, adding richness and flavor to America’s melting pot. Here are some facts about several of the countries under the Southeast Asian umbrella.
Vietnam boasts a long history of religious diversity. It has citizens who are Mahayana Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Theravada Buddhist, Cao Dai, and Protestant. But religious freedom wasn’t always the status quo in Vietnam. In 1963, the Buddhist flag was banned; the mass demonstrations that followed contributed to the general frenzy and unrest of the Vietnam War.
Many Vietnamese came to the United States as refugees during and after the Vietnam War. Seeking freedom, many found opportunities to introduce Vietnamese culture into the fabric of American life, especially in the areas of cuisine, fashion and religion. Pho, a Vietnamese rice-noodle soup dish, has become widely popular across the U.S. From the political aspirations of Anh “Joseph” Cao, the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, to the design sense of Hau Thai-Tang, the Chief Engineer on the 40th anniversary edition of the legendary Ford Mustang, Vietnamese Americans have made vast and lasting contributions to American culture.
Spain was the dominant colonizer of the Philippines for several centuries until they ceded the islands to the United States in 1898. Because of their status as citizens of a commonwealth of the United States, Filipino people could immigrate to the United States much more freely than people from other parts of Asia. Filipino immigrants first came to United States in the 1900’s in search of agricultural work. Later in the 19th century, many came in search of a better life for their families. Many of these immigrants were highly skilled professionals, who in turn elevated their field here in the United States: Victoria Manalo Draves was the first woman in Olympic history to win two gold medals for diving in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London; Cristeta Comerford became the first woman executive chef at the White House in 2005; Kiwi Camara was the youngest person to enter Harvard Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2004.
Because the country of Malaysia is rich in natural resources, such as rubber, palm oil, tobacco, and petroleum, it garnered the interest of the British East India Company, and the first British colony was established on the Malay Peninsula in 1786. It wasn’t until 1957, after years of rebellion against Commonwealth troops, that Malaysia gained independence from Britain. It remains a multiethnic country, with a mixture of Malay culture, Chinese culture, Indian culture, and Eurasian culture, along with the cultures of the indigenous people. In addition to 46,459 Malaysian-Americans currently living in the United States, many Malaysians come to the U.S. to study. At any one time there are over 7,000 Malaysians studying at U.S. universities.
The Republic of Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, comprised of close to 230 million inhabitants and 17,508 islands, including Bali, Sumatra and Java. Indonesia is characterized by a wide diversity: there are hundreds of distinct ethnic groups and over 700 languages spoken, not to mention a rich diversity of plants and animals that include now-endangered orangutans, rhinoceroses, and tigers. Indonesia boasts a rich cultural heritage. It is home to Batik, a traditional art form that uses wax to create intricately-patterned textiles.
Indonesia’s rich offerings made the region a prime participant in trade with Indian, Chinese, and Muslim traders, and it became a Dutch colony which supplied such delicacies as nutmeg and cloves to Europe. At the conclusion of World War II, Indonesia secured its independence following three and a half centuries of Dutch rule. However, the history if Indonesia has been marked by unrest, including an anti-communist backlash in the 1960s which left between 500,000 and one million people dead, separatist violence, and widespread poverty. This upheaval prompted the emigration of tens of thousands of Indonesians to the United States, enriching America’s cultural landscape with their traditions, beliefs, and art forms.
While Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia had to fight for their independence, Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to avoid colonization. Thailand still suffered from political instability for much of the 20th century, seeing one military regime after another, until instating a stable democracy in the 1980s. Though American involvement in Thailand’s political history has been limited, American culture has benefited greatly from its Thai population, especially in the areas of culinary and religious diversity. The largest influx of immigration from Thailand happened recently; from 1981-1990, about 64,400 Thai people immigrated to United States. Los Angeles boasts the largest population of Thai people outside of Thailand.
Though the history of Southeast Asian immigration to the United States is fairly recent, their cultural contributions are deep and varied. From the Buddhist temples of Los Angeles and California to the Thai flavorings revered by America’s top chefs, Southeast Asians have enriched American culture with the best from their homeland.