Ronault “Polo” Catalani has seen it happen many times. As a community lawyer, the manager of New Portlander Programs for the Office of Human Relations and son of Indonesian immigrants, he knows intimately the trajectory of many Asian families in Portland who arrive with hope and determination and then – through the difficulty of integrating into American society – spiral into despair.
“We know how we suffer, how our mothers anguish and our fathers feel humiliated at the disparity economically,” Catalani said. “We also know how much social and cultural and spiritual wealth we come with and how proud we are of that, and how that’s sort of ground out of people. It takes six to eight years to grind people down from optimistic newcomers to miserable minorities. We resent this a lot.”
Suffice to say, Catalani is not particularly surprised by a recent study finding that the notion of Asians as the “model minority” – that is, an ethnic population that’s managed to achieve relative success in the United States – is, in Multnomah County at least, a myth. According to a collaborative report by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University, the economic and educational numbers related to the local Asian community represent a “profound” difference from national statistics. Although they are mostly faring better than other minorities in Portland, Asians are much worse off here than in other parts of the country, where they find themselves on equal – if not better – footing with whites.
The study, issued in May and titled “Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile,” focused on all minority groups in Multnomah County but dedicated a section to the Asian community because the findings were “so significant that it is imperative that we alter the dominant discourse … about Asians in the USA.” It based much of its data on the Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey, which exposes several areas of glaring discrepancy between the experience of Asians in Portland and those living elsewhere.
For example, the poverty rate among Asians in Multnomah County is about 13 percent, while the national average is 11 percent (and 9 percent in Washington County). Nationally, Asians individually make $30,248 per year, roughly the same as whites; in Portland, the median income for Asians is $23,293, which is $8,596 less than the average for Caucasians. And in terms of education levels, where Asians are typically thought to thrive, 23 percent of Asians have less than a high school diploma compared to 8.3 percent of whites; the national number is 14.6 for Asians and 13.1 percent for whites.
Ann Curry-Stevens, an assistant professor at PSU and principal researcher for the coalition study, believes these figures dispel the “model minority” stereotype, which on the surface paints a positive picture of Asians in America but harms them in light of the true hardships they face.
“It means that the education system, for example, does not see that the Asian community needs specific assistance,” she said. “What’s not known is that we’re not doing so well here, and as a result, the Asian community isn’t seen to have legit claim to resources in the education system. It’s harder to say, ‘This community, too, experiences disparities,’ because it’s not perceived that they would.”
A comprehensive study specific to Multnomah County’s Asian population addressing the reasons why such disparities exist is expected to be completed in the next few months, Curry-Stevens says. But some in the local Asian community already have ideas, and it begins with the perception of Asians being one homogenous group. “In reality, the Asian community is composed of deeply varied groups – from Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino to Hmong, Burmese and Bhutanese,” the report reads. “Recent immigrants to this region likely account for a greater composition of the community.”
The Asian community is diverse in so many different ways, says Lee Po Cha, director of the International Refugee Center of Oregon’s Asian Family Center and co-chair of the Coalition of Communities of Color, “and that diversity not only brings language and cultural challenges, it also brings social and economic challenges.”
Catalani agrees. He says the rate of enculturation varies from one group to another. Those from more urban countries who have come here primarily for economic reasons are going to integrate quicker than those who have fled due to war, such as the Burmese and Bhutanese. “We have to teach them not to use the stove for heating the house,” Catalani said.
The federal government offers only eight months of monetary assistance to those who qualify as refugees. At that point, policymakers need to do more to help fill the gap, Catalani says. He said he hopes the coalition’s study, quantifying what he and others already knew, spurs them to spend money more proactively.
“You can pay up front for integrating newcomers into the life of our city, or you can wait until something bad happens,” he said. “There’s no money up front for caring for the psychological wounds of dislocation and the trauma and discontinuities, but there’s a lot of money for when our boys act out.”