The nineteenth century was a time of nation building in North America. Vast tracks of land needed to be cleared and cities were being built. People were necessary if the land was to be cleared and settled. Men, and later women, were brought in from all over the world to build the railways, cut down the forests, and work the farms and plantations. In Canada and the United States, preference was given to the English over the Scots and Irish, Northern Europeans over Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Europeans over Asians. At first, leaders in the United States and Canada praised ethnic minorities for their industriousness but as the infrastructure of these countries was being completed, the words of praise changed to complaints that these men (mostly Chinese, Indian and Japanese) were taking away "our jobs". Despite the racism and prejudice encountered by these early Asian pioneers, most remained in North America in the hopes of building a better life for their families.
Visible minorities faced increasing prejudice as the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth began. The west coast of North America had large concentrations of Asians, making them an economic threat and easy targets. Canada and the United States had relied on Asian workers to build their countries but now wanted these "strangers" to leave. Restrictions against Asian immigration increased at the same time that Canada and the United States were actively recruiting immigration from Europe. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, small numbers of Asian communities existed in pockets along the West Coast. Isolated from society at large, Asians lived on the periphery of North American society. They were seen as a source of cheap labour and provided services that made life better for others but separated by barriers of culture and language. Asians were rarely considered a real part of the countries they lived in. They slowly grew in number and gradually moved east in search of new opportunities and places where they were less of a perceived threat.
Things changed dramatically for Asian immigrants after the Second World War. While Europe was still recovering, North America experienced an economic boom. Contributions by Asians to the war effort led to the revocation of restrictions against Asian immigration and citizenship. The Civil Rights movement in the United States also had ramifications for Asians. As African Americans fought for political and social equality, other minorities also began to press for these same rights. It was a time for social change. Equality and prosperity brought new opportunities to everyone. By now, many Asian families were into their third generation in North America. Many grew up in North American culture and spoke fluent English. Asian ghettos, such as Chinatowns, emerged from their isolation and soon became centers of tourism and nightlife.
The late 1980s brought on a series of profound political changes in Europe and Asia. The Cold War, which dominated the world, following the Second World War, disappeared as the Eastern Bloc collapsed and communist nations in Asia either fell or introduced democratic reform. Huge advances in communication and travel meant that the "global village" was an increasing reality. Political activism took on a more international view. Increased awareness of what was happening around the world meant that people in North America cared as much about issues at home as they did abroad.
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