Southeast Asian Americans: History, Demographics & Traditions

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education with a focus in counseling.

Who are Southeast Asian Americans? This lesson looks at a group of people who have immigrated to the US from eleven different Asian nations. Learn why they immigrated to the US, and some issues they face.

What Constitutes Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia

Asia has the largest land area, population, and some the most diversity of any continent. It is home to some of the largest and richest countries in the world such as China and India, but it also contains some of the smallest and poorest.

Among these smaller countries is a grouping of ten that have formed a confederation of states called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The federation is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. These make up a trading bloc and a general economic confederation that has been called the 'Asian Tiger' due to its rise in global economics.

Although the Southeast Asia economic bloc includes the ten nations listed above, United States census data on Southeast Asians often only includes three nations (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) and a dispersed ethnicity (the Hmong), while some include all ten, plus Timor-Leste grouped within them.

Immigration to the United States

The bulk of the immigration from these nations to the United States has happened during two time periods. After the Spanish-American War at the end of the nineteenth century, the US annexed the Philippines from Spain. As a US protectorate, Filipinos were able to emigrate from the Philippines to the US and they did so in large numbers.

The other major event was the Vietnam War. As the war was ending, the US allowed a large number of people to immigrate to America from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with the Vietnamese in the majority.

Because of these two events, and quotas being discontinued in the 1970s, the population from the entire region has continued to increase.

Population Demographics

The 2010 census reported that the Asian American population was 17.3 million. Of this group, 6.4 million, or 37%, are from countries in Southeast Asia. These individuals are largely Filipino and Vietnamese (5.1 million total).


Although there is a stereotype in the United States that Asians as a whole perform well in school, have high standards of living, and acclimate well to the US, the statistics do not bear that out.

When Southeast Asian Americans are divided by country of origin, there are some large disparities. Though Filipino Americans have among the highest rates for completing high school and getting college degrees for any group, others from Southeast Asian nations have low rates of educational attainment.

Those from the three core Southeast Asian nations (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) lag seriously behind other groups. Those from Cambodia and Laos have the lowest diploma and degree rates of any racial or ethnic group.

Difficulty in this area is due to several factors such as English proficiency, a lack of resources, and few teachers who are proficient working with this group. Parental involvement can be low as well, due to cultural and language barriers.

Language and Religion

All countries in the region have unique ethnic histories, languages and religious preferences. Many immigrants from this region either speak their country's language (for example Laotian or Burmese), but a significant number speak either Mandarin or Cantonese dialect. People from the Philippines also speak English and Spanish.

The religious preferences vary according to region and outside influence. Many Filipino Americans are Catholic. However, Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world and most the other countries are primarily Buddhist. These religious preferences carried over as their inhabitants came to America.

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