Asian surnames become more prevalent in the United States

People walking by murals depicting Buddha, crane, dragon and Bruce Lee (© Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
People walk by murals, including one depicting martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, in San Francisco's Chinatown in 2018. (© Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

The U.S. census has shifted from being a tally of a lot of Smiths and Johnsons to one more likely to also include names like Lee, Zhang and Nguyen.

The government counts each resident of the country every 10 years. While this roll call of residents is done mainly for the purpose of congressional apportionment, it also sheds light on the nation’s changing demographics.

Each census shows a greater variety in the list of America’s most common last names. The top names overall are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones. But not far behind is the most common Asian name — Lee — ranking 21st in the U.S. Nguyen ranks 38th.

Between 2000 and 2010, the most rapidly increasing surnames among the top 1,000 names were mostly Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means 111 percent more Zhangs, 93 percent more Lis, 66 percent more Lius and 63 percent more Khans. (Analysis from the 2020 Census is delayed by the pandemic, but the pattern is expected to continue.)

Asian woman in casual clothing standing in front of festival backdrop posing for picture (© Unique Nicole/Getty Images)
Van B. Nguyen, a Texas native and a Vietnamese American writer and director, attends the 38th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in California May 8. (© Unique Nicole/Getty Images)

Asian Americans, not including those of multiple races, made up 5.9% of the U.S. population in 2010 — up from 3.6% in 2000. Along with Zhang, Li, Liu and Khan, the surnames Wang, Huang, Lin, Singh, Chen, Patel and Wu were among the fastest growing from 2000 to 2010.

“We’re becoming a country much more racially diverse, especially among the younger population,” said William Frey, demographer and fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America.

Immigration accounts for some of the increased diversity since more Asians and Hispanics are immigrating to the U.S. than other groups, Frey said. Higher birth rates among Asians and Hispanics (relative to non-Hispanic whites) also means the younger generation in particular is more diverse, Frey said.

“We have a young population that adds energy to our labor force,” Frey said. “They are children and grandchildren of immigrants. … open and receptive to the global connections we need.”

Immigrants, and the diverse populations who descend from them, are part of the American story, said Peter A. Morrison, a former Rand demographer and now head of Morrison & Associates.

His home on Nantucket in Massachusetts has a vibrant community of Nepalese, while the Dallas area of Texas has many Indians working in tech fields, and Mississippi has descendants of Chinese immigrants who opened grocery stores to cater to Blacks during the slavery era, Morrison says.

“You get a constantly evolving set of origins that feed our population with people with one common denominator — the ambition to leave their place of origin and seek a better life somewhere else,” Morrison said.