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Asian Population Surges In U.S.

The scents of herbs and spices waft out of a Vietnamese medicine store, down a hall and past a restaurant where diners sip tea and eat bowls of pho. Pulsing Vietnamese music plays in the background.

It's a scene out of Hanoi — but it's really a suburban Washington strip mall that has become a hub for the burgeoning Vietnamese community and an example of what's happening elsewhere in the country.

Asians are projected to be the fastest-growing major population category over the next half-century, outpacing blacks, whites and Hispanics. Recent Census Bureau projections show the Asian population could grow by a third, to 14 million, by 2010 and more than triple to 33 million in 2050.

Immigrants from India and Vietnam contributed to the population surge during the 1990s. That's when the Eden Center strip mall took hold in Falls Church, Va., about nine miles west of the nation's capital.

On a recent weekday afternoon, shoppers strolled down the corridors and sidewalks of the 120-shop mall with bags and children in hand. A group of older men huddled around a table watching two others play a game of Chinese chess, while some visitors perused videos at a rental store. The yellow-and-red striped flag of the former South Vietnam fluttered high above the parking lot, next to an American flag.

"A good bit of it reminds me of home," Nguyen Ngoc Bich, 67, says as he strolls past the shops. Bich, a former Vietnamese diplomat who settled in the United States as a refugee in 1975 after the Vietnam War, was one of the mall's original investors.

"Just close your eyes and all you hear around is Vietnamese being spoken. It's all the familiar sounds of home," he said.

Like previous immigrant groups, many Asians come to America looking for a better job, more education or to reunite with relatives and friends.

Asians in America still concentrate in urban areas, but as with other minorities, are increasing in number in the suburbs and rural areas. A place like Eden Center serves as a gathering place similar to New York's Chinatown neighborhood, says Min Zhou, chair of the Asian American Studies program at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"It's a cultural hub and some sort of buffer" for those immigrants who live or work in mainly white areas, Zhou said. "You don't need it, but if you have it, it makes your life much more richer."

Asians with a Chinese background are the largest single group, with 2.4 million. But the population of Indian-Americans grew the most during the 1990s — 106 percent to 1.7 million. Vietnamese were next at 83 percent and grew to 1.1 million in 2000.

The technology boom of the 1990s lured many immigrants from India. Large numbers settled in California's Silicon Valley and other high-tech hotbeds like the Dulles Corridor outside Washington.

A catch-all category of "other Asians" had 1.3 million people in 2000. This included groups like the Hmong, whose population nearly doubled to 169,000. The Hmong are an ethnic group from the highlands of Laos who fought the communists alongside the CIA during the Vietnam War.

Many of the Vietnamese and Hmong came to America as political refugees. And a large number are children of U.S. soldiers stationed in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Growth has occurred beyond traditional gateways like New York and California. Towns along the Gulf of Mexico have for years attracted immigrant fishermen from Vietnam and Cambodia, and resettlement programs have created large Hmong refugee communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

There are numerous ripple effects. Many localities have created community outreach positions to learn about the needs of these new populations.

More businesses and strip malls like Eden Center are sprouting across the country, as more Asian families settle outside of cities. One such mall in Las Vegas, called Chinatown Plaza, bills itself as the "largest master-planned Chinatown in America."

Varun Nikore heads the Indian American Leadership Initiative, an organization that seeks to entice more Indian Americans into politics, an area that Nikore calls a "last slice of the American pie."

Out of the more than 1.7 million people of Indian descent in the United States, only a handful are in politics and none are higher than state legislative office, Nikore says.

"They're involved in cultural programs, and they are politically aware, but they haven't done the extra hurdle of trying to run for office," Nikore says. "We're basically trying to take the mystery out of the campaign process."

Whether projections about Asian population growth hold true depends largely on any changes to U.S. immigration policy, demographers note. They also suggest that improving economic conditions in Asian countries could reduce the number of people moving to America.