When Ze Min Xiao — who was born in China but raised in American Samoa — arrived 22 years ago at the University of Utah, she says, “It was a culture shock because I had never been to a place like Utah before” with so few fellow Asians or other minorities.

“Every month, I rode a Greyhound bus to the San Francisco Bay Area to get my fix of Chinese food because they didn’t have good Chinese here,” she says. In trips to visit a grandmother in Hong Kong, she would stock up on Chinese candies or in trips to California would buy delicacies at Chinese grocery stores there because none of that was found in Utah.

Times have changed. Asians have become Utah’s fastest-growing minority population by percentage during the past decade, up 50%, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Thursday. All minorities here have boomed — accounting for two of every five people added to Utah’s population.

So now Ze, director of the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office for New Americans, has no problem finding good local Chinese restaurants, candy or specialized groceries.

“It’s all here,” she says. Not only is good general Chinese food found in Utah restaurants, “but you have all the regional cuisines. I grew up eating Cantonese food, but I also love Szechuan. I would order it in the past here and say, ‘No — that is not Szechuan.’ Now you get traditional Szechuan.”

(Photo courtesy of Salt Lake County) Ze Min Xiao, second from left, directs the Salt Lake County Mayor's Office of New Americans. She has seen much change in the 22 years she has lived in Utah as Asians now have the fastest growth rate among minorities in the state.

Census estimates, not just Chinese food offerings, show how Utah is slowly becoming more diverse, including:

• Two of every five people added to Utah’s population in the past decade were minorities, 174,678 compared with 267,389 whites. The growth rate for minorities was 32.5%, compared with 12% for whites. All major minority groups had faster growth rates than whites.

“We’re getting a wide range of race, ethnicities, nativities and languages,” says Pam Perlich, senior demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “We’re just becoming more multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic.”

• In 2010, minorities made up 19.6% of Utah’s population. By 2019, that grew to 22.2%, up 2.8 percentage points.

• The Asian population — Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese and more — grew by 50.3%, up by 40,289 people in the decade. The total 2018 Asian population in the state was 120,326 (about the size of Provo, the state’s third-largest city).

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

• Hispanics are still by far the largest minority group in the state, with 462,051 people in 2019. During the decade, the Latino population grew by 103,711, up 29%.

• Black residents also grew at a rapid rate, up 45.4% or 21,715 people during the decade to a total of 69,571 (about the population of Lehi). Ze, who works with refugee groups, says much of that growth likely was from refugees from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

• Pacific Islanders grew at a rate of 34.4% during the decade, up by 13,071 people. Their 2019 population was 51,065.

• American Indians and Alaska natives grew by 24.2%, or 13,071 people. Their total 2019 population was 73,697.

• Some counties are more diverse than others. San Juan County, home to part of the Navajo Nation, is the only “minority majority” county, where 55.7% of the population is minority. Salt Lake County is the next most diverse at 29.7%, followed by Weber at 24.4%. Morgan County is the least diverse at 5.8% minority.

(Photo courtesy of Salt Lake County) Photo from a Salt Lake County event stressing that it welcomes immigrants and refugees. Ze Min Xiao, the director of the Mayor's Office of New Americans, is second from the left

Ze has several ideas about why the Asian population had such a high growth rate during the decade — including attraction to Utah colleges and its high-tech industries, all allowed by immigration law changes in the 1960s.

She says that before the 1960s, discriminatory laws prevented Chinese people and other Asians who immigrated from being able to sponsor and bring relatives. “My great-grandfather actually went to work in the plantations in Hawaii in the 1890s and left his family behind. He was not able to sponsor his family to the United States because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.”

As Chinese immigration opened up in recent decades, she says, many went to gateway states such as California, Florida, New York and Texas — but eventually moved elsewhere because of the high cost of living there. “I have a lot of friends who lived in Texas and actually moved to Utah because of the cost of living.”

She says many middle-class Asians in places such as China, South Korea and Japan in recent years were able to afford sending children to Western universities, and many chose to come here. “In Utah,” Ze says, “you get a lot of international students.”

She adds that the growth of high-tech industries in places such as Silicon Slopes also are attracting many Asians, especially from India. Refugees from some Asian countries such as Bhutan and Myanmar have also helped increase the Asian population.

Perlich, the University of Utah demographer, says Utah is slowly starting to mirror the rest of America.

“Over this last decade until the most recent economic and health crisis, people who’ve moved here came for educational and economic and recreational opportunities, and they reflect the demographic of the larger nation,” she says. “We’ve been attracting people to our tech sectors, to our construction sectors.”

One reason that minorities are growing faster, she says, is that more of them tend to be young and have more children than whites. Also, those who migrated in large waves in the 1990s and had children then are now seeing their children have children.

“Fertility rates and births have been falling,” Perlich says. “But where we’ve had births, they are becoming more and more diverse.”

Estimates about the age of the national and state populations were also released on Thursday. They show that Utah still has the youngest median age of any state, but that is rising. It increased from 29.2 years old in 2010 to 31.3 in 2019, up 2.1 years in a decade.

The statewide share of the population age 65 or over increased by nearly 17,000 Utahns between 2018 and 2019 as baby boomers aged, resulting in 11.4% of the population being 65 or over in 2019. Since the 2010 census, that population increased by 47%. Still, Utah had the lowest percentage of population age 65 and older among the states.

Dropping fertility rates and births in recent years resulted the state’s population of children age 5 and under dropping by 6% over the decade. That is the only age group, by five-year increments, that saw a decline among both males and females in the decade.