Get used to seeing Asians as the new majority in California's professional world.
by H Y Nahm

"They're prepared to go head to against the best there is -- one another."
ot many years ago my wife and I would plot world conquest, hatch criminal conspiracies, or simply make cruel observations with the nonchalance of sociopaths while strolling through crowded shopping malls or dining in bustling restaurants. We simply broke into our rusty Corean and the people around us may as well have been cattle.
     Those days are gone, at least anywhere within 100 miles of Los Angeles. We can hardly sit down for a cup of coffee in a Burger King in Podunkville without hearing Corean spoken. I know we've broken up many an earnest Asian tete-a-tete simply by strolling into some charming little greasy spoon in remote, supposedly Asian-less hamlets. How could they know that we don't understand Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese or Vietnamese? It's awkward all around.
     One of the very few advantages enjoyed by early generations of Asian immigrants was their ability to share intelligence about money and character and cover for one another without disrupting a negotiation by excusing themselves to confer out of earshot. In business conferences, even sworn depositions or court proceedings, a bi-lingual lawyer could coach, course correct and spin control under the guise of translating for his foreign-born client -- may of whom were far more fluent in English than they found it advantageous to let on. Only the most callously cynical judge or opposing counsel would dream of questioning the lawyer's integrity by doubting the authenticity of the purported translation.
     That kind of advantage is a fast-wasting asset. A decade ago an Asian professional may have sat across from other Asians in only a tiny fraction of his dealings. Today a California Asian professional is likely to be selling to, buying from, representing or litigating against other Asians half the time, even more in growth fields like information technology, financial services, medicine and real estate.
     Let's get used to it -- we're no longer a minority in California's professional world. Somehow this fact always surprises Asian businesspeople, even those who have been living with its reality in their daily business dealings. The reason, I suppose, is that they know that in sheer numbers Asians are only 12% of California's population. In other words, if you are selling dogfood, toilet paper or detergent, we would be only one in eight prospective customers. That percentage climbs steeply, however, as the products and services moves up the socio-economic ladder.
     For those selling cram courses to California's college-bound seniors, Asians suddenly jump up to 27% of the mailing list. Those selling to elite college students going for their MD, MBA, PhD or JD plan on devoting 35% of your attention on Asians. Those selling BMWs or half-million-plus homes to status-conscious doctors, entrepreneurs, executives and lawyers in their 30s expect to see Asian faces on 45% of prospects -- their single biggest potential customers base!

     What about Whites, the supposed majority? If you're talking about affluent Californians in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, Whites outnumber Asians 2 to 1. But Whites -- already a 43% minority in sheer numbers -- are an aging and shrinking segment of the California market. Many older affluent Whites are fleeing for states like Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho where there's less competition for choice homes and jobs. Among high-income professionals aged 26-35 Asians outnumber Whites 42% to 39%, with the balance being made up of consumers of Hispanic, Middle-Eastern and African ancestry.
     To preview the $100K-plus income mix in 10 years, look at the mix in the elite UC system: the combined student bodies of UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Irvine are 44% Asian and 36% White. Add to that the fact that Asians are 1.5 times as likely as their college peers to end up in high-income professional and business positions after graduation, and you have the makings of an Asian plurality in California's professional world by the year 2005.
     Let's flash back to America's most notorious murder trial. It was no accident that the judge and three of four forensics experts were Asian. If the trial were being held in the year 2005 half the lawyers would also have been Asian. The juror pool, on the other hand, will continue to contain few Asians for a couple of decades. The reason? Asians are among the state's youngest and most actively employed.
     It has been at least two decades since ambitious young Asians saw themselves as minorities fighting for a place in the entitlements line. Today they're readying themselves for the toughest challenge of all -- going head to head against the best, that is, one another.


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