Educational opportunities help fuel Asian population growth in the St. Louis region
One headline from the 2020 census suggests the St. Louis region is struggling to grow.
But more detailed data paints a different demographic picture of the 14-county region defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. While the region lost white and Black residents in the past decade, othergroupscontinued to move in, including 21,998 Asians.
That community grew 37%, far outpacing the region’s overall 1.2% growth rate. The increase is mostly concentrated in St. Louis, St. Charles County and St. Louis County, where Asians now account for nearly 5% of the county’s 1 million residents.
Taken alone, those figures can obscure a vast and diverse community from the world’s biggest continent both in terms of geographic size and population.
“When you say Asian American, the image that comes up is that of people from the Far East,” said Dr. Zia Ahmad, a cardiologist in St. Louis County. “I’m an American, originally born in Pakistan.”
In more granular data about the Asian population, the Census Bureau includes counts for 20 countries across East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and ones that many people consider the Middle East.
“There’s different cultures and different languages,” said Shayn Prapaisilp, a second-generation Thai American born in St. Louis. “Just because the census says that we are one group doesn’t mean that we should be treated as one monolithic group.”
While he grew up in the area in the 1990s, Prapaisilp is one of the nearly 22,000 Asians who moved to the St. Louis region in the past decade.
He returned in 2014 for professional opportunities and is now the chief operating officer of his family’s business, STJ Group Holdings, which runs a handful of international markets and local restaurants, including Jay International, Global Foods and the King & I restaurant.
Prapaisilp said he also wanted to move back because of the significant cultural, political and social change he saw happening.
“I think a lot of young people who may have left St. Louis with the perception that it was kind of a dead end. Now with the culmination of so many things, it was the right time to move back,” he said.
He points to the lower cost of living, professional opportunities and a collection of world-class educational institutions.
Universities are a key gateway
Universities play an important role as an entry point into the region for many Asians. Rick Shang moved from Chicago in 2014 to pursue a Ph.D. at Washington University.
“That was my initial exposure to St. Louis,” he said.
Shang, who is originally from China, was eventually captivated by what he calls the industrial assets in St. Louis — the rivers, railways and central location in the United States.
“This is the picture that St. Louis should broadcast to other cities or countries,” Shang said. “There is innovation, there is capital. But more importantly there is availability of resources that are open to startup founders like me.”
Shang founded Vulpes, a research and development manufacturing company, in 2018. It develops ways to produce essential pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals.
Sriram Devanathan is another newcomer in the past decade who came for educational opportunities but wound up finding something else about the region that inspired him to stay. Devanathan is originally from India and moved to St. Louis from Ohio in 2011 to pursue postdoctoral research at Wash U.
As a biochemist, he was drawn to the work Wash U and other regional organizations were doing to make the results of scientific research tangible for everyday people, he explained.
“Cortex, BioSTL and other organizations have put in a huge effort toward that translational path,” Devanathan said. “That sparked me and gave me an idea that the region is at a tipping point.”
About 70% of Asians in the St. Louis region are foreign born, according to 2019 American Community Survey data.
There are specific challenges for regional leaders if they want these newcomers to stay, Shang said. They will be chasing educational or professional opportunities and may not necessarily see a reason to grow local roots, he added.
“I sometimes feel I share a lot of experience of other first-generation immigrants,” Shang said. “That is, when they move to St. Louis, it really takes almost entirely our personal initiative to be ‘part of the gang.’”
There are organizations, like the International Institute and the Mosaic Project, that ease the transition, but Shang said there should be more help to familiarize and welcome newcomers to the region.
That includes contending with the U.S. immigration and visa system. Some, like St. Charles County resident Krishna Kunapareddy, spend years waiting for permanent resident status.
“I’ve been in this country for 15 years, and I still don’t have a Green Card. I’m not a U.S. citizen,” she said. “Everyone talks about wanting to bring in international students, they don’t understand the problems after students are done with college education.”
Kunapareddy came to the U.S. from India for a master's degree in regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington. Her legal status makes it difficult for her to switch employers and travel back to India in case of an emergency.
Personal challenges aside, Kunapareddy, a regional planner for Lincoln, Warren and Montgomery counties, likes the St. Louis region and said it offers a range of amenities and activities that are easily accessible.
Devanathan also finds it exceedingly convenient to take his two sons to many activities around the area.
“I tell people who come to visit us, ‘Here are like 15 different things you can do in St. Louis and they’re all 30 minutes away from our house,’” he said. “The science center, the museum, the zoo: everything for a family.”
St. Louis combines some of the best parts of city life while retaining the feel of a smaller town, Devanathan said.
This feeling is also what Thi Nguyen loves about the region. She moved to St. Louis County with her family in 2017.
“It’s small enough that it feels really comfortable and you can get to where you need to go,” she said. “But it also has enough of that city feel where there’s diversity, there’s things happening.”
Nguyen identifies as Southeast Asian and has lived in several U.S. cities. She grew up near Dallas and has lived in Atlanta, San Francisco and most recently Boston.
Nguyen admits her move to the St. Louis region was a bit jarring coming from a place with a larger Asian community. She hopes the growing numbers in St. Louis will mean she and her children will see more Asian people regularly.
“A couple of years ago when my daughter was in kindergarten she came home and said, ‘Mom, am I beautiful?’” Nguyen explained. “I said, ‘Why would you say that?’ She said, ‘Well, I don’t see anyone else like me at school.’”
Nguyen also appreciates that many community organizations in the St. Louis area have strong commitments to social justice. The range of opportunities to engage and volunteer with them sets the region apart from others, she said.
Her family chose to volunteer with local Black farmers and learned about how they cultivate food. The experience also taught Nguyen’s family about the broader issues of nutrition and food access in parts of the St. Louis region, she said.
“My kids, we wanted to have them meet people of all different backgrounds, to give them a chance to make up their minds about people,” Nguyen said.
Schools are also critical
Some Asian residents have used school quality to decide where to live in the region. Amy Ryan, whose American family adopted her from South Korea, and her husband moved to Wildwood in 2004 specifically so their kids could be in the Rockwood School District.
“I can’t stress this enough, we knew we were going to get married and have children and the education system here was so good,” she said. “That’s deeply entrenched in any Asian American society: ‘How do I make the next generation better than where I am?’ That is through education.”
Ryan chafes at the way the district has been portrayed when its struggle over how to teach diversity spilled into national media. She recalls having her own concerns about the St. Louis suburb being less integrated than where she had been living in Chicago at the time.
“Once you get to know the people, it’s very different,” Ryan said. “The loud people are not what this district is all about.”
Ryan is confident she knows what the district needs. She’s now running for the school board.
“I thought I could represent not only my community but also the Asian American community,” she said.
Burgeoning political activism
Ryan’s candidacy reflects a larger shift among those in the Asian community in the St. Louis region who are getting more politically involved. The anti-Asian rhetoric during the coronavirus pandemic was a wakeup call for many Asian Americans, Prapaisilp said.
“They realized that civic invisibility had real consequences,” he said.
Issues within different Asian communities have long been overlooked, partially because civic participation historically took a back seat to work and schooling within those communities, Prapaisilp explained. It’s also because regional leaders have largely ignored smaller minority groups, he added.
“They knew about the Bosnian resettlement and some Vietnamese resettlement,” Prapaisilp said. “But for all intents and purposes politically, the Latino and Asian populations were left out.”
Nguyen has felt this when sharing her opinion as the only Asian person in a room.
“Include us in the decision-making,” she said. “Sometimes it does feel like policies, decisions or businesses don’t think about other communities and the values we have.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.