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date: 25 January 2021

Post-World War II Asian American Suburban Culturelocked

  • Mark PadoongpattMark PadoongpattDepartment of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Summary

Substantial numbers of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants moved into suburbs across the United States after World War II, bringing distinctive everyday lifeways, identities, worldviews, family types, and community norms that remade much of American suburbia. Although Asian Americans were excluded from suburbs on racial grounds since the late 19th century, American Cold War objectives in Asia and the Pacific and domestic American civil rights struggles afforded Asian Americans increased access to suburban housing in the 1950s, especially Chinese and Japanese Americans. Following passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, new groups of Asian Americans, particularly Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and South Asian Indian, joined Chinese and Japanese Americans in settling in earnest into all kinds of suburban neighborhoods. At the turn of the 21st century, a majority of Asians resided in the suburbs, which also became the preferred gateway communities for new immigrants who often bypassed urban cores and moved straight to the suburbs when they arrived.

Entrance into highly racialized postwar suburbs defined by white middle-class norms and segregated white privilege did not, however, mean that Asian Americans gained entry or assimilated into whiteness. While many certainly aspired to and reinforced long-standing white suburban ideals, others revamped, contested, and outright fractured dominant notions of the suburban good life. By the 1980s Asian Americans of various ethnic and national backgrounds had transformed the sights, sounds, and smells of suburban landscapes throughout the country. They made claims on suburban space and asserted a “right to the suburb” through a range of social and cultural practices, often in physical places, especially shopping plazas, grocery stores, restaurants, religious centers, and schools. Yet as Asian Americans tried to become full-fledged participants in suburban culture and life, their presence, ethnic expressions, and ways of life sparked tensions with other mostly white suburbanites that led to heated debates over immigration, race, multiculturalism, and assimilation in American society.

The history of post-World War II Asian American suburban cultures highlights suburbia as a principal setting for Asian American experiences and the making of Asian American identity during the second half of the 20th century. More broadly, the Asian American experience reveals how control over the suburban ideal and the making of suburban space in the United States was and remains a contested, layered process. It also underscores the racial and ethnic diversification of metropolitan America and how pressing social, political, economic, and cultural issues in US society played out increasingly on the suburban stage. Moreover, Asian Americans built communities and social networks precisely the moment in which the authentic “American” community was supposedly in decline, providing a powerful counterpunch to those who lament nonwhite populations, particularly immigrants, for fracturing an otherwise unified American culture or sense of togetherness.

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