Austin's Asian American Population Booming

Asian Americans are the fastest growing population segment in the United States, and Austin is no exception. The Asian American population here doubled between 2000 and 2010 and is expected to do the same between 2010 and 2020.

“Simplistically, the metropolitan area has become a go-to area for Asians of many backgrounds,” said Ryan Robinson, City of Austin demographer. “The Austin Asian community is very diverse and is doubling every 10 years.”

However, “Asian American” is a bit of a catchall category; the U.S. Census Bureau defines an Asian American as anyone from the Far East, Southeast or Indian subcontinent, which includes people from China, India, Pakistan, Japan, Vietnam, The Philippines, Korea, Mongolia, Bhutan and many other countries. These countries may be relatively geographically close, but their people, languages and customs are different – as are the challenges they face in Austin.

The Asian American share of Travis County’s population was 3.3 percent in 1990 and jumped to nearly 5 percent by 2000, according to U.S. Census data. In 2012, it stood at roughly 6.8 percent, according to the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce. People from India and China are leading the population growth, but, according to the City of Austin, Vietnamese people moving here from Houston are also a quickly growing population segment.

Travis County’s  6.8 percent Asian American population stands far above the national 4.2 percent, and Texas is one of only four states where more than half of all U.S. Asian American-owned businesses are located (the others are California, New York and New Jersey). For perspective, at this rate of growth, by the middle of the decade the number of Asian Americans will exceed the number of African Americans in Austin.

“Unlike in Dallas or Houston, Austin’s Asian American population was growing at a slow rate before the last decade,” said Ramey Ko, an advisory board member for the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, adding that although the University of Texas had a high Asian American enrollment rate, most of those students left after college. “Because of the way it grew, there wasn’t any one community that had a head start, so Austin’s Asian community has been more pan-Asian than other communities.”

Despite the numbers, because the substantial Asian American population in Austin is still fairly new, one of the basic problems for this very diverse community is getting recognition that it exists, Ko said.

“The challenge for us is simply not being invisible,” he said. “We’re not even at the stage of talking to people about solving our issues – we want people to know that we exist and what our issues are.”

As a result, Ko said a lot of the Chamber’s work centers around two things – first, trying to get a seat at the table for City discussions, and second, trying to educate representatives on the very far-ranging issues that Austin's Asian American community cares about.

One issue at hand is making sure the Asian American population is represented in the city council redistricting. To participate in the committee set up to draw proposed boundaries, a person must have lived in Austin for the past five years and voted in the last three of five City elections. With such a new population, those requirements will leave many Asian Americans out of the discussion, Ko said.

“Our community isn’t familiar with these institutions and has no experience with this type of governance, then there is the language barrier – there are dozens [of languages] to worry about,” he added. “I recognize the challenges there, but it means that a lot of the things that get announced go right past our communities. Those of us who are involved want to make sure that our community knows that these things are happening and people are attending meetings.”

One resource that will be useful in educating and unifying the community is the under-construction Asian American Resource Center on Cameron Rd. near U.S. 183, sharing its name with a nonprofit serving the Asian American population.

The Asian American Resource Center has been in the works for a while – it was funded by a Bond Election in 2006, when it joined the Parks Department family of cultural facilities. The center aims to move beyond the expected cultural events though, holding health fairs and legal clinics, Asian language classes as well as classes in English as a second language. The 16,400-square-foot center is set to open in May.

“There hasn’t been a center like this before, where so many cultures are housed in one space,” said Lesley Varghese, executive director of the Asian American Resource Center. “The idea is that it’s inbound and outbound arts and cultural education for everyone in Austin.”

One of Varghese’s hopes is that the center will serve as an education point for all Austinites about their Asian American neighbors, bringing people of all communities together.

“One problem is that everyone compiles Asian Americans together and there’s not a lot of understanding about Asian Americans,” she said. “The center will be able to hopefully educate people on the different cultures. Also, the community is so dispersed across the city that the center will hopefully be a place to draw everyone together.”

Asian Americans have historically been lumped together in government data, no matter what their country of origin. 

“There are multiple state departments that don’t even collect data on Asian Americans; we’re ‘other’ [on data forms],” Ko said. “The City of Austin is getting better about that sort of thing; being a more diverse city, they do a better job, but it’s still hard.”

Collecting data is just a start, said Varghese, who is working with Austin and Travis County on the Asian American Health Initiative. The social services contract breaks down Asian American data by ethnicities to better understand both the languages the city and county should consider translating documents into, as well as the problems facing specific groups.

“Someone who is Asian American would have different issues than a recent refugee,” she said. “Certain communities are affluent, others are not; certain speak English well, and others don’t. There are so many issues; it’s literally impossible to say there’s just one issue.”

There is an advantage, though, to being a fairly new community in a growing city. The Asian American community in Austin is able to learn from other cities’ more established communities and “get ahead of the game on issues other cities have struggled with,” Ko said, adding that as the community gets more included in cultural events, and people recognize the community’s contributions, “it gets easier every year.”

Austin’s overall population has doubled since 1990 and is expected to do the same over the next 20 years. People from all nationalities are coming because they hear it’s a relatively inexpensive place to live, a place where you can find work and a place where people are welcoming and cultural opportunities are abundant. Varghese hopes the Austin American Resource Center will be a place for all of Austin, as they city continues to grow.

“The whole point is to share a culture and build a community in Austin; we want people to come out and take Bollywood dance lessons and volunteer to teach ESL or teach gardening with seniors,” she said. “We talk about Austin being progressive, and we’re becoming increasingly international, but that shouldn’t be a city segregated by populations.”

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