Just when I think you know Anchorage, it changes.
That's what I thought when I read a report last week from the state about Alaska's increasingly strong connection to Asia and the Pacific Islands. For the first time, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Asian and Pacific Islanders make up the city's largest minority group, just barely eclipsing Alaska Natives. (Natives continue to be the largest minority group statewide, making up roughly 17 percent of the population.) One in 10 Anchorage residents is now Asian or Pacific Islander.
The Asian/Islander influence in Anchorage is obvious, but sometimes the most obvious things are most easily overlooked. On Fireweed Lane, in East Anchorage and Midtown especially, it's hard to find a strip mall without an Asian restaurant, Asian/Pacific Island-language church or ethnic grocery store. Sushi is almost as ubiquitous as pizza. You can buy Polynesian specialty Spam musubi at the gas station, local gyms offer hula classes. Anchorage has, for decades, had among the country's highest percentages of indigenous people, but with each of the last few census cycles, the city has deepened its international connections to Asia, and to a slightly lesser extent Mexico and Central America.
You might not know it, but Alaska has been uniquely connected to Asia at other times in its history. In the 1890s, Chinese and Japanese workers came to work in fish processing and mining. At the time, Alaska was the most Asian location among all the states and territories. The population dwindled around World War II. (Three hundred Alaskans of Japanese heritage were also sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor.) The trans-Alaska oil pipeline began another season of growth among Asians and Islanders. The group quadrupled between 1960 and 1980, and quadrupled again between 1980 and 2000.
Now, the state has the seventh largest per capita Asian population in the U.S. The group grew 60 percent -- by about 17,000 people -- between 2000 and 2010. During that same time period, the Pacific Islander population more than doubled. The Asian-Pacific Islander community is now about 50,000 to 60,000 people strong, depending on whether you include people who are biracial. That's twice the size of the city of Fairbanks. The Asian population is most concentrated per capita along the Aleutians and in Kodiak. But the largest number of Asians and Pacific Islanders live in Anchorage.
It's a little funny to look at race the way the government does. The "Asian" U.S. Census category is very broad, and adding Pacific Islanders makes it even broader. Half the world's population lives in the part of the world that the U.S. Census classifies as Asia and the Pacific Islands. It spans from China to the tip of Micronesia and includes Native Hawaiians.
Alaska's Asian community is like nowhere else. For one thing, it's half Filipino. That compares to 20 percent nationwide. Other groups with a larger presence in Alaska than in the U.S. as a whole are Korean, Hmong and Lao. Seattle, which also has a large Asian population, is heavily Chinese, a trend fueled by expansion in the tech sector. Other large groups there include Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean.
In Alaska, jobs supporting the Asian and Pacific Islander community tend to be service occupations, like food prep and janitorial, office work, trucking and construction occupations, according to the state.
There are more Pacific Islanders per capita in Anchorage than in any other county in the U.S., except in Hawaii. More of those are from Samoa than in any other state. Islander families are large. Over half the population of Pacific Islanders are under 25.
All of these trends are even more pronounced in the schools. While 10 percent of the Anchorage population is Asian or Pacific Islander, that percentage increases to 16 percent in the city's public schools. Hmong is the second most popular language spoken in Anchorage schools, just ahead of Samoan and Tagalog. (Spanish is the first.) As this generation of children grows up, the look and culture of the city and the state will continue to change.
Another thing that will likely happen in the next few census cycles: places like Anchorage will become increasingly biracial. Racial identities are already increasingly blurred here. This is especially true among both Alaska Natives and Asians, two of Alaska's largest racial groups. A quarter of the Asian population and a third of the Pacific Islander population identify as multi-racial, and the percentages are higher among children. That's another reason, a generation from now, the city will look very different.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.