Arrivals and Departures: Asian Communities in Virginia

40th Anniversary  •  Culture & Identity  •  Global Virginia  •  Grants

Cambodian dance troupe, Columbia Pike - Photograph courtesy © Lloyd Wolf /
Cambodian dance troupe, Columbia Pike - Photograph courtesy © Lloyd Wolf /

By Kevin McFadden

As planes from all over the world touch down daily in Loudoun County, do travelers take a moment to ponder how dramatically and perhaps unexpectedly American diplomat John Foster Dulles—the airport’s and locality’s namesake—changed the Commonwealth? Conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, which were part of Dulles’s legacy of aggressive opposition to communism rather than just “containment,” would dramatically unsettle global populations in ways that brought new immigrants to Sterling, Reston, Centreville, Chantilly, Leesburg, and beyond.

The 1970 U.S. Census reported 16,103 Asians in Virginia; by 1980 there were 66,209; in 2013 the figure neared half a million. Roberta Culbertson, a twenty-three-year staffer at VFH, remembered this shift in the 1980s:

When I came to the VFH, right in the middle of all this new and growing refugee resettlement growth in Virginia, I had discovered that most people did not have a clue as to what was happening and who was coming to dinner. The new demographics of Virginia were creating confusion, loss, pain, grief, and culture shock on both sides. It was clear to teachers, police, mental health workers, and others serving Virginians that the change could go very badly unless native-born Virginians had the opportunity to see the new Virginians as people, as ancient cultural traditions seeking to find a place here just as our ancestors had done.

Culbertson recalled VFH sponsoring conferences on Asians in Virginia, developing workshops to accommodate non-English speakers in hospital settings, and participating in a major grant to Virginia libraries from NEH on immigrant literature from past to present.

Immigrants, schools, volunteer groups, and the VFH’s own regional councils put together television and radio shows, videos (including one on the Lao temple in Catlett), curricula, and educational opportunities for service providers. Culbertson continued:

The VFH, long the home of untold Virginia history and the tales of the oppressed and forgotten, understood. It was important for Virginians to remember their heritage as a polyglot people, as survivors of slavery, war, reconstruction, depression, and much more than simple demographic change. It was also important for Virginians to recognize that current refugees and immigrants were products of American foreign and domestic policy, and not mere “interlopers” or “freeloaders.”

Culbertson worked closely with the VFH Fellowship program and many scholars whose work treated migrations related to violence.

Most memorable for Culbertson, however, was the development of work that would become the Institute on Violence and Community, which developed research, texts, and workshops dealing with violence’s survivors and reintegration with their communities. VFH created publications—Sacred Bearings and Tough Times Companion—in which the art and perspectives of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, and Sri Lankan contributors appeared, as well as an essay by the most famous Tibetan, the Dalai Lama.

A highlight was the 2002 VFH conference Postwar Communities, Identity and Belief. It was a chance for scholars and survivors to come together on the issues of survival, justice, reconciliation, and the renewal of political, economic, and cultural life. Culbertson recalled:

People from India, Peru, Guatemala, Argentina, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, and international academic programs studying violence from all over the U.S. came to Virginia to see how we were all doing, and what we were doing. We had simultaneous translation for a group of Vietnamese visiting a postwar center at the University of Massachusetts. The Rockefeller Foundation gave the funds for the conference, which focused on how the devastating effects of war and other mass violence on community and identity might be alleviated.

Healing wounds, rather than merely investigating them, became a focus of twenty-first-century programming at VFH. In 2006, VFH sent three staff to China in partnership with the China Association for International Friendly Contact; shortly thereafter, VFH hosted a delegation of Chinese to Virginia. Former VFH Board member Rose Nan-Ping Chen, who helped facilitate the exchange, saw benefits in two directions:

I very much wanted to introduce the “VFH concept” [of cultural programming] to the Chinese so that a similar model might emerge to preserve, to promote, and to celebrate the humanities. On the other hand, I also wanted the citizens in the Commonwealth to have access to understand, and to appreciate the Chinese culture and traditions; there was no better partner for doing that than VFH.

Chen, herself an immigrant to the United States, believes that the humanities are the truest hope for bridging cultures:

The journey to cross-cultural understanding is long and will take many turns, but having the desire to reach out is absolutely the first step.

Since 2001, VFH has made five grants to the Network of South Asian Professionals to support arts components of an annual festival in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., and four grants in the Arlington area that have resulted in web-exhibits, oral histories, and photography of immigrant communities, including Living Diversity, the forthcoming print publication of the Columbia Pike Documentary Project.

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.