Re-centering Iowa

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While the televised pictures of flooding in Iowa have not shown any APA faces during the time I have watched, I know there must be APAs living there because they have an extremely well-regarded three-term state representative, Swati Dandekar, who is currently running for state Senate (

One of the biggest myths in Asian Pacific America is that most of us are in Hawai‘i and on the East and West Coasts. In fact, two of the states with the biggest populations of APAs are Illinois and Texas.

Look at a Census map of the states with the biggest populations of APAs per county ( You will see that the Midwest states currently being hit by the worst flooding in many years include APA communities numbering between 1 and 3.5 percent of the state population.

For example, more than 50,000 Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander ancestry live in Iowa, and represent almost 2 percent of the state population. Both the University of Iowa and Iowa State University have strong representation by APAs. U.I. has an Asian Pacific American Cultural Center, which was established in 2003 to provide a space where APA students could interact.

Dr. William Liu, an expert in multicultural competencies and co-founder of the APA studies program at the University of Maryland, teaches on the Iowa faculty. I.S.U.’s Asian American Studies Program was started in 1999 to help the more than 3 percent of the undergraduate population that was APA.

One sign of how the Midwest is re-centering itself as a center for APA culture is that Wallace Loh, dean of Seattle University College of Arts and Sciences, was just named executive vice president and provost of the University of Iowa. Loh landed in Iowa 45 years ago as a teenage immigrant from Peru, and sees his return there as a chance to give back to the people who made it possible for him to succeed in the broader American and Asian Pacific American communities.

Dr. Loh spent his undergraduate years at Grinnell College in Iowa. After earning a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Yale, he went on to serve as vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of faculties at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 1990, he became the first APA law school dean when he took the reins at the University of Washington Law School. He also notably served as a policy advisor to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the first mainland APA governor. Nevertheless, despite the many personal and professional ties Dr. Loh has to Seattle and the APA community in the Pacific Northwest, the lure of the Midwest has brought him back to Iowa.

Iowa’s two law schools also contain signs of the growth of the APA community in Iowa. Peter Yu and Ellen Yee serve on the faculty of Drake University Law School in Des Moines. Barry Matsumoto and Tung Yin teach at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Among the jobs held by an APA that defy the stereotype of the science and math wizard is that held by APA novelist Lan Samantha Chang. Ms. Chang runs an MFA program and serves as director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, arguably one of the best programs of its kind in the nation.

Ms. Chang, like Dr. Loh, is another example of the hidden Midwesterners among our community’s leaders. While she is recognized for her degrees from Yale and Harvard, and literary works (Hunger and Inheritance) that contain venues from China and the United States, she actually was born in Appleton, Wis.

Iowa has an official Commission on the Status of Iowans of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage, which advises the governor and state Legislature in order to empower Asians and Pacific Islanders, improve their well-being and celebrate a diverse Iowa. It also includes nonprofit Iowa Asian Alliance and a South Asian volunteer group, South Asian for Obama, which played an active role in canvassing for Barack Obama earlier this year, helping him score a surprising victory over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa may not be seen as the center of APA culture and community, but its rise as a place for APAs to live and take leadership positions in the community mirrors the rise of the APA community in many other corners of our nation.

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