Four Phases of Immigration

with an emphasis on Asian Americans in the United States.


Cassiel C. MacAvity






    This paper began as notes for an Asian American media history class final presentation and an additional realization of a problem with a usual model of categorizing assortments of immigrants and immigration over time. When telling of immigrant arrivals, a fairly common form is to note that Some Group arrived at Some Time And Point, and then a bit later there was Some Later Group, and so forth. Very often, all these arrivals are usually referred to as waves.. A problem with clumping all these Groups into one wave or another is that sometimes there is also the random single individual and the difficulty of being a wave of one. A bigger overall problem, or feature to an extent, is that while one can clump assorted people into various tidy, or untidy waves, this variety of sorting does tend to quickly achieve more divisions, subdivisions, alterations, additions, and counterexamples than a history of Protestant Christianity.

    What came to mind for an alternative involved noting that in all the assorted movements, the same behaviors keep repeating in all of the assorted variations. Furthermore, of all of these variations and similarities, everyone managed to group into what are here being called phases. Also, as a difference from the attempts to categorize everyone as being exclusively in This Group Wave or That Group Wave---and that one sole person there---what is recognized here is that just because some individual may clearly belong to one phase or another, there is nothing to stop that individual or group from being quite legitimately a part of a different phase as well.

    Of the examples given here, as noted, this concept was first done for an Asian American studies class, particularly one that focused on Asian Americans in movies, and also Asian Americans as portrayed in movies. For this reason, the set of examples used here has that focus. However, descriptions of immigration, and the phases outlined here, are not at all limited to Asian Americans. These phases apply to everyone, regardless of background or origin.

Four Phases Of Immigration

    Regarding Asian arrival on the North American continent, aside from the Asiatic arrivals that predated the American Indians, early Asian American history includes Filipinos jumping ship from Spanish ships in Louisiana, and sometime later, a major early wave of Chinese starting in the late 1840s. The gold rush and building of railroads fueled that later arrival, where later waves of Asians have themselves been continuations of and sometimes reactions to those earlier arrivals. Later reasons for such immigration or arrival for a short time have had numerous combined and separate inspirations. These range from joining earlier arrivals to economic unrest or war at home, opportunity in the U.S., being U.S. allies in a losing war and becoming immigrating refugees, and others.

    This time period covers well over 150 years and the people discussed here come from many cultures and occurrences. In all of this, there have been four phases that take place, sometimes with one or more examples themselves being in two or more phases. These phases are:

1) Basic Arrival and Us and Them.
2) The Fine Upstanding Gentlemen who can speak the language.
3) The American, Gimme my hot dog and a beer, keep the change.
4) Going back and Us And Them.


1) Basic Arrival and Us and Them.

    Here is the first arrival. Both those arriving and those they are arriving among comment in letters, in song, in newspaper reports, and then later in books, movies and television. There is a regular occurrence of statements that we are doing this, and they are doing that, and here we all are, and here is what we are doing. Examples include Chinese gold rush or railroad workers, assorted Asian cultures in Hawaii, assorted others on the U.S. mainland, post war refugees ranging from World War II to the Vietnam War and later the post Iranian revolution immigrants from Iran. All of these very clearly came to the U.S. as adults, arrived in a very foreign culture, and after enough years, while the very foreign U.S. culture remained foreign, it had also become home.

2) The Fine Upstanding Gentlemen who can speak the language.

    Later, there are two variations, or one phase with a couple of smaller occurrences. Of the smaller occurrences, there are very recognizable Americans of Asian ancestry, such as the later generations of the Louisiana Filipino arrivals who blend in as white because they aren't black, but still their ancestors did not all come from Europe. A later example is Heidi Bub, from the documentary Daughter From Danang, who herself is definitely American, but is definitely half Vietnamese.

    The majority of phase two is the arriving Asians who follow many others but themselves have additional attractions or occurrences that differentiate them from the phase one arrivals. While there may be legislative or other filters to block immigration, this second phase tends to be the educated or other advantaged arrival who uses that education or other connection as a lever to arrange such arrival.

    An individual example of this majority of phase two is Sare King Wong, father of actor Victor Wong. The elder Wong lived in San Francisco's Chinatown, taught other Chinese in the California central valley, and actively advised the post World War II government of Taiwan. Other examples of phase two immigrants include; Post Vietnam War South Vietnamese senior government and military officials. Chinese and Asian Indians who are educated "there" and come to the U.S. to work or continue their education. Cambodian refugees seen in the documentary Refugee who arrive in the U.S. or are born in the U.S. and grow up in San Francisco, but also remain immersed in their native culture. Again, the post revolution Iranian immigrants.

3) The American, Gimme my hot dog and a beer, keep the change.

    Phase three Asian Americans are definitely those who grew up in America, whether they were born in the U.S. or grew up here after being born elsewhere.. The earliest examples include the later generation Filipinos in Louisiana, followed by those born in Hawaii and on the mainland to gold rush and farm and other workers. Later examples are the children of the post Vietnam War and Iranian Revolution immigrants who do know what parents and other relatives have told them, but the U.S. is really the only home they have ever known. Basically everyone Asian in Better Luck Tomorrow is phase three, as are the younger generation Asians in Saving Face Among a number of examples in popular culture are Renee Tajima, Victor Wong, and the character in the movie Dante's Peak who was played by actor Tzi Ma, who was specifically created only after the beginning of production.

4) Going back and Us And Them.

    With phase four there are those who go back, but where they go to is not where they came from, and again, there is Us and Them. Examples here are Heidi from Daughter From Danang and Mike from Refugee, and also include the character of Ben Loy from Eat A Bowl Of Tea. For all three of those, they have their own experiences and what they are familiar with, and they have the knowledge that they are of a different culture than the multi-European culture held by many others, but when they go to the countries that their ancestors came from, the people may be family and the culture may be familiar, but what they find is clearly not home as they know it. Back at home is the culture they really know more of and fit in with.

While phases are quite descriptive, they are also not exclusive

    These four phases give basically solid frames of reference for all who are described by them. By contrast, such references as waves of arrival are affected by time of arrival, education, reason for arrival, and are limited to only those described by a particular wave. The initial gold rush, railroad and farm workers clearly fit into phase one. Sare Wong immigrated after the exclusion acts, but would have been able to do so as scholars were permitted, and thus fit phase two. His son Victor is definitely phase three. There is a Japanese ancestry classmate of mine from another college course who told of a visit she made to Japan; While she was in Japan, the native Japanese made it very clear to her that she is American, thus clearly putting her into phase four.

    At the same time, and as a feature of what is considered, these four phases are themselves not freestanding isolate concepts; Mike, from Refugee, clearly fits into phases two, three, and four. Heidi, from Daughter From Danang, fits into phases three and four. Sare Wong fits into phases two and four, but not necessarily three, where by contrast his son Victor very clearly is an all American phase three. Finally, there is an example of international very popular culture. Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco, raised in Hong Kong, further educated and started his film career in the U.S., went back to Hong Kong to make movies, where he died, and so also fits phases two, three, and four.











































































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Cassiel C. MacAvity