Though the Gold Rush triggered the first major wave of Asian immigrants to the United States in the 1840s, their presence in America predates the country itself. For example, in 1763, facing a life of forced labor and imprisonment during the Spanish galleon trade, a group of Filipinos jumped ship near New Orleans and established the settlement of Saint Malo, forming one of the first documented Asian American communities in North America.
While Americans with ancestral ties to Asia have made countless significant contributions throughout the country’s history, most have never made it into textbooks. From atomic science, to labor rights, to YouTube, here are a few examples of some of the major advancements made by Asian Americans.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Chinese-born physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, Ph.D., was instrumental in the developing field of atomic science. This included the Manhattan Project: the code name for research into atomic weapons during World War II. Specifically, she improved existing technology for the detection of radiation and the enrichment of uranium in large quantities.
Following the war, Wu’s research focused on beta decay, which occurs when the nucleus of one element changes into another element. In 1956, theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee, Ph.D. and Chen Ning Yang, Ph.D. asked Wu to devise an experiment that would prove their theory on beta decay. Wu did exactly that, but did not receive the 1957 Nobel Prize along with Lee and Yang—one of many examples of her work being overlooked. An early advocate for women in STEM, Wu spoke at a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964, famously telling the audience, "I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”
Farm Workers' Rights
Born in the Philippines, Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 at the age of 15 and immediately began working as a laborer, up and down America’s West Coast, as well as in Alaska. By 1930, he joined striking lettuce pickers in Washington, and spent the next several decades working as a labor organizer and eventually, a union leader—including forming the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956.
In 1965, Itliong and some of his union colleagues organized the Delano Grape Strike: a walkout of 1,500 Filipino grape-pickers demanding higher wages and improved working conditions. As the movement gained momentum, Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez from National Farm Workers Association joined Itliong and the Filipino Farm Labor Union. Eventually, the two groups combined to form the United Farm Workers, and the strike ended in 1970—but not before making major strides for agricultural workers, regardless of ethnicity.
"We got wage increases, a medical plan for farm workers, we set up five clinics, a day care center and a school," Huerta said in an interview.
Though her activism was influenced by the two years she spent in internment camps during World War II, Japanese American Yuri Kochiyama’s civil rights work extended to the causes impacting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Peoples, as well as Asian American communities. After World War II, Kochiyama and her husband—whom she had met at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas—moved to New York City, where they hosted weekly open houses for civil rights activists in their apartment. "Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7," her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman told NPR in a 2014 interview.
Kochiyama befriended and collaborated with Malcolm X in the 1960s, and continued to work with Black civil rights activists following his death. Then in the 1980s, she, along with her husband, campaigned for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese American interned during World War II. Their work became a reality in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law.
"She was not your typical Japanese-American person, especially a nisei [second-generation Japanese-American]," Tim Toyama, Kochiyama's second cousin, told NPR. "She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her."
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Ethnic Minority Psychology
Two Chinese American brothers originally from Portland, Oregon, Derald W. Sue and Stanley Sue, were influential figures in ethnic minority psychology. “Ethnic minority psychology is a subfield of psychology concerned with the science and practice of psychology with racial and ethnic minority individuals and groups,” says Sumie Okazaki, Ph.D., professor of applied psychology at New York University, and author of the book Korean American Families in Immigrant America: How Teens and Parents Navigate Race.
In 1972, the Sue brothers founded the Asian American Psychological Association—one year after writing a seminal paper on Chinese American personality. “Derald W. Sue is best known for his work on multicultural counseling and racial microaggression, and Stanley Sue is best known for his work on cultural competence in psychotherapy with Asian Americans and ethnic minorities,” Okazaki explains.
Although Indian American computer architect Ajay Bhatt had a hand in developing a range of computer-related technologies, the one he’s best known for is the Universal Serial Bus—better known as the USB. After emerging on the tech scene in the late 1990s, the USB became one of the most popular ways of transferring data from one device to another. The invention elevated Bhatt to celebrity-status in the computer world.
“I was totally surprised by how it has impacted everybody,” Bhatt told CNN in a 2013 interview. “I mean, my name became a common name—at least at schools and in technical communities. I truly get a rock star treatment and that is quite unusual to me—people asking for your signature, people asking for your picture.”
Two widely publicized but very different events from 2004—Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, and the deadly tsunami that ripped through parts of Asia—gave Jawed Karim the idea for a video-sharing site. Along with Karim, a Bangladeshi-German American, the core team behind YouTube included Taiwanese American Steven Chen, as well as Pennsylvania native Chad Hurley. What started out as a way of watching and sharing funny cat videos grew into a much broader platform that captures the attention of billions of people every day.
Functional Cure for HIV-Positive Infants
Throughout her 30-year career, Filipino American physician and pediatric immunologist Katherine Luzuriaga, M.D., has made significant contributions to our understanding of persistent viral infections in children. In addition to developing one of the early diagnostic tests for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection in children, Luzuriaga also conducted clinical research into antiretroviral therapies (ART) labelled for use in children.
In 2014, Luzuriaga and her colleague Deborah Persaud, M.D., were credited with being behind the first well-documented case of an HIV-infected child being functionally cured of the infection (meaning that the toddler showed no signs of the disease or detectable levels of virus—that is, without detectable levels of virus and no signs of disease, even without taking ART).
“Despite the fact that research has given us the tools to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, many infants are unfortunately still born infected. With this case, it appears we may have not only a positive outcome for the particular child, but also a promising lead for additional research toward curing other children,” NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. said in a 2014 news release from the National Institutes of Health.
Rights for Assault Survivors
In 2013, Harvard University student Amanda Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, attempted to access information on her rights as the survivor of a sexual assault, and found it nearly impossible. So when she realized that there was no national legislation in existence establishing consistent rules, rights and protections for individuals who have experienced sexual violence, she wrote it herself.
The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act of 2016 provides survivors with certain guarantees, including the right to a rape kit procedure at no cost, as well as the requirement that kits be preserved for 20 years. Nguyen was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and is the founder and CEO of Rise, a multi-sector coalition that advocates for survivors’ rights, and assists people in writing and passing their own bills.