ALTHOUGH Asian Americans are the fastest-growing part of the United States population, they remain relatively invisible. The number of Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent is still small (7.3 million in the 1990 census); they tend to congregate in ethnic enclaves; and they have not been politically assertive.

General awareness of the Asian population in the US too often has been filtered through stereotypes. The earliest stereotypes were demeaning - like that of the pigtailed Chinese laborer or laundry worker of the 19th century. Today, another stereotype, though more flattering, still deprives Asian Americans of their individuality and rich diversity: the image of the "model minority."

While many Asian Americans have succeeded in the US as entrepreneurs, professionals, and students, that's only part of the story. Asians frequently are victims of prejudice. And many Asians - especially refugees from Southeast Asia - live in poverty without sufficient access to social services.

In a special report today that begins on Page 9, the Monitor looks at some of America's Asian communities. As the US increasingly recognizes itself as a Pacific Rim country, other Americans need to become better acquainted with the Asians and Pacific Islanders who live among them.

This is the final installment of a series of special reports on America's largest minority groups. A report on black Americans appeared March 8, and a report on Hispanic Americans appeared May 21.

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