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How Asian Americans Remade Suburbia

Asian immigrants, once the “ultimate outsiders,” have profoundly reshaped the suburbs of San Francisco.

Mission San Jose High School is internationally renowned—and one of the main reason many Asian Americans have moved to this Silicon Valley suburb in recent years. (Courtesy of Willow Lung-Aman)

Levittown is no longer the suburban archetype. Over the last few decades, these spaces have increasingly become less white and less rich. But despite this ongoing transformation, the idea of what a suburb is—or should be—has remained stubbornly narrow.

A new book, Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia, explores that tension in the context of Fremont, California, the largest Asian American-majority suburb in the Silicon Valley. With its good schools, sprawling homes, and proximity to tech jobs, Fremont has long been the gold standard for the American Dream—a prime destination for upwardly mobile Asian Americans in San Fransisco and Oakland, as well as more recent waves of “high-skilled” immigrants. These new, incredibly diverse groups of residents have adapted their surroundings to suit their needs and reflect their values—but it hasn’t been an easy process.

As demographics have changed, schools, retail spaces, and even private residences have become battlegrounds for a growing struggle to define the identity of what was created as an exclusively white space. CityLab spoke with the book’s author, Willow Lung-Amam, who is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. The highlights of our conversation are below.

In your book, you talk about how Asian Americans been historically barred from the suburbs, in similar ways to African Americans. Could you talk about how that changed over time?

The position of Asian Americans, particularly of Chinese Americans, has really shifted in the American imagination over time—particularly in California. It goes back to the 1800s—to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the other laws through which Asian immigrants were denied citizenship and the ability to hold land. That lasted for such a long period. The immigration laws of the 1960s had a huge impact, not just on Asian migration, but the inclusion of Asians within the country. That’s one part of the story: how long Asian-Americans were excluded from even being able to establish a real presence in America.

San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1953 (AP)

Then there’s the other part of the story: housing discrimination and exclusion of Asian Americans from the suburbs. A lot of the first exclusionary zoning laws in California really focused on Asian Americans in Chinatowns. San Francisco had one of the first and most heavily enforced racial zoning laws. They were fueled by this idea of cultural contamination. Asian Americans were the ultimate outsiders, whose presence could somehow impact the purity of the American experience.

But in that changing period in the interwar years between World War I and World War II, there were strategic alliances being made with foreign powers, which influenced how Chinese Americans were seen at home. Foreign policy goals began to shift the discourse on who is acceptable as a neighbor and as a coworker. That's when we begin to see the contours of the “model minority” myth taking shape. It relies a lot on stereotypes about Asian American compliance and their willingness to quietly integrate, as opposed to African Americans, who were labeled as being too radical in their claims for civil rights. Of course, these perceptions weren’t true.

So at some point, Chinese Americans start making inroads into suburbia—some of them even acted as “straw buyers” for African-American friends, who were formally and informally barred from suburbia for a long time.

But even as they established their presence in a places like Fremont, Asians struggled to have their surroundings reflect their identity, values, and lifestyle. How did that play out in the public school system?

Schools are so essential to people's migration patterns. When you migrate, you do so in part to give your kids a better life. Education becomes a key tool for that. Fremont became a very popular destination for many Asian immigrants in part because it has a high-ranking schools. So, now you have lots of new housing being built in this neighborhood because it's so popular. So you already have tension around that growth, and it plays out in the school.

Asian Americans have become such a presence in the school system. And what they consider to be academic priorities differs from older or long-term white residents. There are fights over curriculum: whether it should be more science and math based and prepare kids for jobs in Silicon Valley, how many AP classes students should be able to take, how big a role the liberal arts should play, and whether how sports should be prioritized. There’s a perception of a clash of values that plays out in children's education.

What I show is that this is not just something that's happening inside the school and just affecting parents—it’s actually modifying the geography of race. Asian-American families are attracted to these schools, and at the same time, there’s white flight prefaced on these conflicts. I think this version of white flight is somewhat surprising, and based on a different set of demographic characteristics and triggers than what we’ve seen in the past.

The shopping mall might be the quintessential suburban cultural landscape, and Asian immigrants have reconfigured this space—they’ve put in Asian supermarkets, food courts, and theaters that screen Bollywood films. They often buy the space, instead of leasing it, and add signage in Asian characters. What are the consequences of these changes?

Shopping center, San Gabriel, California (Ann Johansson/AP)

Malls have been a social meeting ground for suburbanites for decades. It’s interesting to see that space filling that same function for a new group of suburbanites and I would say even more strongly than it might have served for white Americans in the past. Asian Americans have co-opted this space that made it their own. They’ve made it a very vibrant space that many different people—Asian and non-Asian—want to spend time in.

Many of the changes that Asian Americans have brought into the mall in terms of the store configurations, usage, and ownership models make it more functional and better reflect their identity. But these have also been points of tension. So much of the regulation of these Asian malls has been explicitly about sort of making it more mainstream—more in line with what we traditionally think about a suburban American mall.

The same issue plays out with respect to McMansions, right? These are much-criticized monster homes that many Asian Americans in Fremont choose to live in.

Regarding the McMansion critique, some of the environmental impacts are very, very valid. But I think we tend to overlook that there are residents living in these structures. We tend to put a lot of stereotypes that we hold about the houses, and about the suburbs themselves, on these residents. The thought is that because they have a big house, the residents are anti-environmental, they don't value community, and they only care about themselves and about their privacy. These houses are assumed to be one, universal; and two, universally bad.

I spoke to the residents that are actually living in these homes and asked them what these homes meant to them. And in doing so, a lot of the stereotypes fell apart. That’s because a lot of those stereotypes were constructed in a post-war white middle-class framework, and don’t necessarily hold up in the face of new immigrants that are moving to suburbs.

For instance, the “bigness and bling” notion—that these McMansions are all about trying to show off one's power. Certainly, some have the idea that their houses display their wealth, status, and achievements. And many don't think of that as a bad thing because they’re immigrants who’ve come to the United States and achieved something. That's seems a more acceptable thing to show off to the world about.

But there are also some very functional elements to these homes. Immigrants have multigenerational households. Many of the homes that are being built and rebuilt are taking into account for the accommodation of more dense family structures—people bringing their family from overseas to help watch their kids, or making room for their kids to later move back into the house when they are older.

It was also really interesting to me to sit down and talk to residents. Some told me, “Look at all the things that we've done to make this as environmentally friendly. We have double-insulated walls and new low-flush toilets and Energy Star appliances. Our energy bills aren’t any more than our neighbors next door, and we have more people living in our home.”

The McMansion becomes that symbol of a lot of things that Asian Americans aren’t doing right to assimilate. Even the design critiques of these homes are about how they’re too outlandish. They’re trying to do this faux-Mediterranean look, but they're not even doing it right. It’s too tacky, you know? That, to me, is a broader critique of immigrants never really being American enough. I challenge the notion that Asian Americans should fit into a suburban neighborhood exactly the same way a white middle class family does.

What is the main argument you’re making about suburbia through the example of Fremont?

Suburbia is actually pretty inflexible, and planners and policymakers reinforce that sense of conformity. That forbids suburban neighborhoods from changing in ways that they need to change in order to become more diverse.

When Asian Americans don't assimilate quietly, the markers of their non-assimilation are heavily critiqued and regulated. And I think that speaks to the larger ways in which suburbia and American society is still uneasy with the notion of difference.

And as suburbs themselves are changing, many of these conflicts are at play. They may not take the shape of how they're happening in Silicon Valley amongst a relatively privileged Asian-American professional class, but they're taking place in other ways, in other communities, and challenging the idea of what an American suburb looks like.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.