Nearly one in five Orange County residents now is Asian American, the fastest growing racial group in the county.

But many leaders in politics, business and the nonprofit world don’t understand how diverse and complex the Asian community is, according to a report by the University of California, Irvine and the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

The report, “Transforming Orange County,” consists of interviews with twenty Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander leaders countywide and highlights the barriers faced by different Asian subgroups when it comes to issues like housing, health care, and education.

“Orange County is really culturally, socially, politically, the future of California and America,” said Karin Wang, vice president of programs and communications for Advancing Justice, which is based in Los Angeles. “The changes happening here are showing the rest of the country what’s happening.”

Of the 600,000 Asian Americans in Orange County, Vietnamese and Korean Americans are the first and second largest ethnic subgroups, with large concentrations of Vietnamese in Garden Grove and Westminster, and Korean Americans in cities like Buena Park and Fullerton. There are more than 200,000 Vietnamese in Orange County and 94,000 Korean Americans, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.

Other large populations reside in Orange County but lack visibility because they aren’t concentrated in one place, according to the report, such as the nearly 89,000 Filipino Americans that make up the third largest Asian subgroup in the county.

And within any individual ethnic group, there are generational and migration differences. Chinese Americans in Orange County range from recent immigrants to those whose family first immigrated five generations ago. They might come from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or be immigrants from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, according to the report.

According to the report, many groups, like Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI), aren’t recognized in demographic statistics, which often lump them into a broad “other” category. While they make up less than one percent of the county’s total population, Orange County has the fifth largest NHPI population in California.

The sheer number of Asian American ethnicities, and the cultural, political and linguistic differences that come with each group, often pose a challenge for leaders trying to organize their community or provide services, from health care to translators for elections.

The report recommends that more organizations collect disaggregated data on Asian Americans rather than lumping groups into broad categories.

“We don’t have enough [of a] culturally, linguistically [capable] workforce to provide services to our population,” said Vattana Peong, executive director of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit The Cambodian Family.

Health care is a particular concern. While many Asian Americans are going into the medical profession, for smaller groups it can be difficult to find a health professional or certified translator who speaks the same language.

Groups like Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian Americans also face higher rates of mental illness because of their trauma from war and displacement as refugees.

For example, in Orange County there currently is only one Khmer-speaking medical provider and physician assistant and no Khmer-speaking mental health providers for a population of 7,471 Cambodian Americans, according to the report.

Jane Pang, a program manager with the Pacific Islander Health Partnership, noted in the report that Pacific Islanders often lack translations for basic health care literature about cancer and obesity, diseases that heavily affect the community.

The report calls on health career programs to expand outreach and create a career pipeline for underrepresented Asian communities.

“Some people say there are so many Asians in college – you have no needs,” said Mary Anne Foo, the executive director of the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, or OCAPICA.

While 12 percent of Asian Americans in Orange County live in poverty – lower than the 13 percent for the general population – certain ethnicities face higher rates of poverty. Twenty percent of Thai Americans, 16 percent of Vietnamese Americans and 15 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live below the poverty line.

The report also notes that while Asian Americans are a growing force in local politics, Asian Americans only represent 14 percent of the county’s voters despite potentially representing 20 percent.

Voter outreach tends to target larger ethic groups like Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese Americans, passing over smaller groups where rates of limited English proficiency are higher.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders also tend not to identify strongly with either major political party, with 35 percent registered as Republican, 27 percent Democrat and 34 percent Independent.

The report calls on political parties and other voter education groups to conduct outreach in more languages, and target more nonpartisan voters, since many Asian Americans are unaffiliated with any party.

Community leaders interviewed for the report noted that Asian American voters don’t necessarily see themselves as a cohesive political unit.

Cyril Yu, a senior deputy district attorney and a board member of the South Coast Chinese Cultural Association, said in cities like Irvine, different Asian ethnicities don’t always vote for one another.

Within Irvine’s Chinese community, for example, there are political differences between recent immigrants, who tend to have established wealth from China, and previous immigrants from Taiwan who migrated to improve their education.

“And so it’s not that easy to say we’re all on the same page as the community because politically we’re not,” Yu said in the report. “There are people who see the world very differently than the other side.”

Read the full report and its recommendations online.

Contact Thy Vo at or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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