As Asian Americans struggle to gain recognition and representation in society, the very quality that binds them sets them apart.
"There are many people out there who do not see Asian Americans as Americans," said Mike Matsuda, a former state Assembly candidate and a panelist at Saturday's Asian Pacific American Leadership Summit at Santa Ana College.
The meeting was a gathering of local Asian Americans and their community leaders for a day of discussions on topics ranging from race relations in Orange County to advocacy and fund-raising tactics.
Orange County's Asian American community, always in the shadow of its larger counterpart to the north, is quickly emerging as a power to reckon with, those at the gathering said.
"O.C. has always felt like the stepchild of Los Angeles," said J.D. Hokoyama, president of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics. "But that is quickly changing."
LEAP, an 18-year-old policy and advocacy group, sponsored the event in recognition of the region's growing prominence in the larger Asian American community, Hokoyama said. The group is scheduled to launch a leadership program in Orange County next year to train Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders interested in pursuing careers in community activism.
The county already has the third-largest Asian American and Pacific Islander population in the country. The group makes up 13% of the county's 2.6 million residents.
But even as Asian Americans struggle to get recognition and representation, questions of identity remain. Finding a common thread among the dozens of culturally distinct communities, from Cambodians to Koreans to Chinese and Vietnamese, poses a challenge. Moreover, future Asian American leaders are bound to face tough questions about what it means to represent a particular group even as they speak of inclusiveness and a colorblind society.
"The stereotype that Orange County is a haven of upper-middle-class whites is breaking rapidly," Hokoyama said.
He and others at the conference agreed Asian Americans in Orange County are making inroads. In the last election, Matsuda, a first-time state Assembly candidate, garnered 46% of the votes in the 68th District, which includes Buena Park and Garden Grove. And Orange County's Vietnamese Americans see a familiar face in Xuan Vu, a field representative for Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), who won a second term this month.
Still, as these pioneers pave the road for other Asian Americans, they are vexed by attempts to pigeonhole minority advocates.
Matsuda took issue with news reports during the campaign that his candidacy depended on Asian American voters. He said such characterizations would not be made of white candidates.
"They don't say a white candidate depends on white votes," agreed Vu, who said she saw a similar depiction of Sanchez.
That is an issue that is likely to confound future Asian American leaders as they speak for the rights and needs of their communities but try to appeal to the broader society.
"Our challenge is to help educate the mainstream and redefine what it means to be American," Matsuda said. "Ideally, we want to be colorblind, but that is not the reality."
In many ways, Saturday's meeting represented the result of changes in Orange County that have been taking place for years, said Mary Anne Foo, executive director of Orange County Asian & Pacific Islander Community Alliance, a coalition of 20 community organizations.
The sheer population growth meant sooner or later Asian Americans would reach a critical mass that could no longer be ignored. Another factor was the gradual migration of people from Los Angeles to Orange County. Many Korean Americans moved south because of the riots, but others also were attracted by Orange County's calmer suburban settings.
They brought with them a lot of the community organizing models that had been used in Los Angeles for years.
"It meant we didn't have to reinvent the wheel," Hokoyama said.
But Orange County still has a long way to go.
"We are still isolated; we are really an island," said Audrey Yamagata-Noji, a board member with the Santa Ana Unified School District. "We're a couple of generations behind L.A., in my opinion, but we are getting there."