Obama: One Year Later

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(Picture taken at Hotel Congress on November 4th, 2008 moments after Obama delivered his acceptance speech)

365 days ago, today, I was glued to my computer, wracked with anticipation over the 2008 general presidential election. Living in McCain country, I was largely insulated from the Obama-mania that swept the rest of the nation. I had worked for the Obama campaign; indeed, I was one of the founding members of Tucson Obama for America, before it became incorporated into the national campaign.

But, our supporters were still being harassed by local Republicans. McCain bumper stickers were abundant while Obama signs seemed to disappear from street corners almost as soon as they were erected. Obama was polling well, but I still had my doubts. Had the youth GOTV movement done enough? Were American voters ready to elect a president of colour? Would McCain pull the biggest upset in American political history, proving without a shadow of a doubt that there remains a glass ceiling for racial minorities seeking higher office?

But, as evening approached, it became clear: not only had Obama won, but he had won overwhelmingly. The energy and excitement produced a euphoric high in me: I rushed to Tucson’s Hotel Congress, where young and old Democrats were milling in the streets, celebrating the moments before the election was officially called for Obama. Four or five huge televisions had been set up, each showing the live election feed on different channels. Beer flowed into every glass, and the music blared until the wee hours of the morning.

I remember that I jumped out of the car before it had even been put into park, and ran towards the party entrance. Giddy with excitement, I found my friends and nearly tackled them to the ground. I couldn’t stop screaming —  “OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!” — to everyone I met. I called up a friend of mine (whom I had coerced to vote in his home state of New Jersey) on the cell and greeted him with a chorus of “OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!” in lieu of “hello”. I grinned from ear-to-ear all night, despite the outcome of several local elections (banning same-sex marriage, and the loss of a few contested seats to Republicans).

The adrenaline, the excitement, the optimism for the future I experienced was a feeling shared by a majority of the country that night. For young people like myself, Barack Obama represented overwhelming change for the White House. Obama not only promised to enact tangible change in foreign and domestic policy, he promised to change the tone and tenor of the debate. Gone would be the days of Bush era saber-rattling. 

But beyond the campaign promises — which were more numerous than one could count — Obama was a symbol. He was proof that young people and racial minorities could join together to make a difference against the established status quo. He was evidence that all the sweat, the sleepless nights, and the donated money had made an impact on our collective futures. He demonstrated the importance — the necessity, even — of getting folks to participate in the political process. There was no question this time: Obama was elected with a sweeping mandate, and finally there was light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel that had taken us eight years to traverse.

For Asian Americans, the 2008 presidential election was a watershed moment in our political history. Barack Obama was one of the few candidates on either side of the aisle to make real commitments and outreach efforts to the Asian American community. With a childhood wherein he was surrounded by Asian/Asian American faces, Barack Obama was as much our community’s candidate as any. Consequently, Asian Americans participated and voted in numbers far over-shadowing previous elections, and for one of the first times in recent memory, we were discussed as a viable voting community in national news. An APIA political machine first established during the 2004 Dean campaign re-mobilized for Obama, and produced an amazing relationship between the Obama campaign and the APIA community. Unlike in other communities, Obama’s campaign produced clear, in-depth plans about how the Obama administration planned to improve the livelihood and well-being of Asian Americans, both as first-generation immigrants and as a growing domestic constituency.

In return, countless Asian American celebrities, including Kal Penn, John Cho, and Kelly Hu, took time from their schedules to traverse the country as advocates for an Obama presidency. They spoke not just to other Asian Americans, but to voters at-large, making the case for Barack Obama. On the Internet, those of us lacking the notoriety of a Hollywood celebrity worked tirelessly to blog and organize local events for the Obama campaign. I remember, a few weeks before the election, standing back and marveling at just how powerful the APIA political community has demonstrated itself to be.

Since that night, the Obama bubble has taken a beating. The president’s approval rating has suffered a slow decline since his inauguration, and some setbacks and gaffes have marred the optimism that swept the nation on the eve of November 4th, 2008. But I, for one, remain optimistic. I refuse to give in to those who would turn the word “hope” into a dirty, taboo four-letter-word.

Contrary to the arguments of Obama’s detractors, supporters of the president aren’t idolators. We know we elected a man, not a messiah, to the presidency. I, for one, am patient with the president — he has made mistakes but I think even just changing the attitude of the White House is an amazing achievement. Consider: in Obama’s first year, the recession has taken a turn for the better, diplomatic relationships have been re-opened, and healthcare reform is experiencing a real, and viable, debate.  

Every administration includes its share of bumps along the way. But, I think we must hold on to the hope and optimism we felt a year ago. A year ago, racial minorities of every creed and shade came together to overturn the status quo and make a difference. A year ago, we refused to give up. A year ago, we elected the first person of colour as president. A year ago, we achieved victory and yet, even then, we did not stop working. A year ago, the idealists won out over the skeptics and cynics, and a year from now (or perhaps two, or three, or four) we will see even greater fruits from our endeavours. A year ago, we changed the world.

And, that is what the Obama presidency has and always will signify to me.

Homework Win!

Yeah, I know this should have been taken seriously by this student. Clearly, this was homework assigned as part of a unit on the Chinese immigrant experience during the late nineteenth century, which represents an important aspect of Asian American history.

At the same time, gold star for creativity:

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According to one of the comments, the translation is:

The life here is pretty bad. The work environment is inadequate, and there are no benefits. But don’t worry. Although everyday about 10 people get hurt, I’m very careful. 

I’ve opened a small shop, and business is slow. Even though I don’t understand English well, I can still somewhat understand what the white people are saying. 

Hopefully one day I’ll make something of myself. I will work hard and also take care of myself.  

How are you guys doing?  

Thinking of you guys, hopefully we can meet again.

The Growing Asian American Vote

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The LA Times has a story out today on a report released by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center detailing the Asian American vote in the 2008 presidential election. Gratifyingly, the report notes that the Asian American voter turnout in Los Angeles County has grown by an astounding 39% in California since 2000, showing the growing importance of the Asian American vote in the state.

For the countless organizations that are involved in improving voter turnout for APIAs, this is great news —  a validation of the countless hours spent canvassing and phonebanking Asian American voters to increase voter turnout. But it also underscores to me the importance of GOTV efforts — even with the massive increase in APIA voter turnout in L.A. County, the national voter turnout for APIAs remains 7% lower than the national average.

The 2008 election was also an energizing election; GOTV efforts must also focus now on ensuring that Asian American voters continue to vote — not just in national elections, but in local elections for propositions, city council, and state government.

The report has some interesting findings on top of its “take-home message” that APIA voter turnout has increased in L.A. county. Check out this graph showing voter trends within the APIA community and compared to all registered voters in the region. Unlike the voting population at-large, Asian American voters are predominantly foreign-born and skew older, suggesting that language, immigration, and other concerns that appeal to immigrant voters will have greater impact on our community. Indeed, APALC reports that over 90% of Asian American voters, regardless of country of origin, support improving English language training for immigrants.

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Yet, that foreign-born older voters favoured McCain over Obama — despite McCain’s chronic flip-flopping on immigration that would tend discourage immigrant interests. Could this be a manifestation of the poor outreach the Democratic Party has towards Asian immigrant voters?

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The report also has some interesting data regarding issues that the APIA community voted on. An astounding 90% of APIAs in L.A. county support universal healthcare. Yet, despite data indicating that most APIAs in L.A. county are Democrats, a majority also supported Prop 8 banning same-sex marriage.

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This support seemed to differ based on voter ethnicity and voter age. Not surprisingly, older voters (who tend to be more conservative) supported Prop 8. Yet, the ethnic data is more interesting: while Chinese Americans opposed Prop 8, Filipino and Korean Americans voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning same-sex marriage — perhaps this has to do with the strong Catholic faith in these ethnicities communities?

We must focus our energy on maintaining the increased voter activity amongst APIA voters: 2008 cannot be a flash-in-the-pan. Rather, APIA voters must continue to stay involved in local elections, deciding propositions, city council, school board and state government representatives. This means that GOTV campaigns are still critical for maintaining and increasing our voter turnout. More than ever, we need to ensure APIA voters get out to the polls by increasing voter education, helping them get to the polls, and ensuring that they have adequate language access to voting material. (Incidentally, APALC also reports that roughly 1/3 of Asian American voters experience limited English proficiency, and they also released a report showing that bilingual phone calls and mailers are highly effective in increasing APIA voter turnout.)

And why do we need to vote? Asian Americans have, too often, been discounted during campaign season because we are perceived as being too small a community to effect election outcomes. Yet, in L.A. County last year, a whopping 63% of Asian Americans voted for President Obama (although, to be fair, that number mirrors the county-wide support Obama won in the 2008 general). While Obama won L.A. County handily in the 2008 presidential election, if all 2932,000 Asian Americans who had voted for Obama voted for McCain in that election, Obama’s margin of victory over McCain would have shrunken. And certainly, had Obama carried enough Asian American votes in L.A. County in the Democratic primary, he might have won the region instead of Clinton.

With recognition that Asian Americans wield voting power comes national attention — and more importantly — campaign promises. Recognizing the importance of the APIA demographic, Obama made several campaign promises during his presidential campaign that have since paid off  for APIAs — he has appointed a surprising number of Asian Americans to his administration, and earlier this month he signed an executive order increasing federal resources addressing disparities within the Asian American community.

Long story short — in this pluralistic society, voter apathy is tempting. But, our community can’t afford to fall by the way-side. The Asian American community deserves political attention, and we can only get that by participating in the political process.

Let’s Have a Racist Hallowe’en

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Hallowe’en is my favourite annual holiday. Something about having a holiday that centers around creativity makes my heart go pitter-patter. Every year, I enjoy coming up with a novel Hallowe’en costume idea and making a one-of-a-kind costume, put together with thrift store finds or made with a hot glue gun and some fabric.

Yet, Hallowe’en is also the time when the racial stereotypes and political incorrectness come out and play. In the rush to find something “unusual” to be for Hallowe’en, too often folks fall back on a racist or offensive costume idea. The “it’s all in good fun” nature of Hallowe’en is somehow expected to excuse discriminatory and dehumanizing racism. And I think it taints a wonderful holiday.  

This past weekend, I went to a local store to help electroman put together his Hallowe’en costume. The particular store we were in was a large, well-known vintage store in Tucson, that sells clothes dating as far back as the 1900’s. Electroman was trying on items while I wandered the store searching for other choice finds.

On the other side of a rack of clothes I was examining, three tween girls were thumbing through some pre-made costumes. They were conversing about what they wanted to be for Hallowe’en; not an unusual conversation since everyone in the store was trying to put together a costume. Then, one girl turned to the others and said: “I should be an Asian for Hallowe’en”.

Excuse me?!?

How, exactly, can you be “Asian” for Hallowe’en? Do you smear yellow paint on your face, pull your eyes back in a Miley Cyrus “chinky eye”, dye your hair black, and greet everyone with a hearty “ni hao”? Do you wear one of the five thousand chi pao that vintage stores readily carry? And how is being “Asian” an appropriate thing to be for Hallowe’en? Are we some mythical creature like a ghost, a goblin, or a witch?

Could you imagine opening your door on Hallowe’en eve to see a group of kids trick-or-treating? “Oh, you must be a werewolf! And you’re Buzz Lightyear! And how about that? You’re a vampire. And you? Why how quaint, you’re a Japanese!”

I had heard the comment before I saw the girls. I wheeled around immediately, furious. But, by the time I turned, the girls were gone — they had disappeared into the crowds of people in the store and by the time I caught sight of them again, they were vanishing back into the streets of Tucson.

Frustrated, I returned to Electroman, and practically tossed clothes in his face. For the rest of the afternoon, I was seething that I hadn’t had the opportunity to confront the girls. I rehearsed in my mind the thousand and one scenarios in which I would have confronted the girls in a thousand and one different ways. In a few, I deliver a witty and sardonic one-liner before turning away in disgust. Or, I am calm, professorial, and I make the incident a “teaching moment”. In others, the girls get defensive and it all comes to blows. In still others, each girl runs away sobbing. Or, in my favourites, I handily launch each of the girls one-at-a-time through the display windows of the store; there’s blood and glass everywhere and I go to jail. Yet, I had no outlet with which to express my anger; the girls were gone and I was left the victim of hit-and-run racism.

They say that we live in a post-racial America. Yesterday, you sure could’ve fooled me.

Chris Lu Talks About Being Cabinet Secretary

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The Washington Post is running a series called “Voices of Power” wherein top White House staffers are interviewed about their positions in the Obama administration. Today, the Post published video and a transcript of their conversation with Chris Lu, who, as Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary, is one of the most prominent Asian Americans in the White House.

The full transcript is five pages long, but I found Lu’s comments about his identity as an Asian American in the White House intriguing:

You are among the most senior Asian-Americans in the administration and in the White House. What does that mean to you?

Mr. Lu: It means a lot to me. My parents were both born in China. They moved to Taiwan for grade school and high school. They both emigrated here in the late ’50s for college.

There is not a day that goes by that, as I park my car by the West Wing and walk into my office in the West Wing, that I don’t think about my parents and how fortunate I am and how this incredible opportunity that I have is not only the result of what I’ve accomplished, but all that they’ve accomplished, as well as all that other Asian-Americans before me.

This is a story that sounds so similar to my own, and to the stories of so many second-generation Chinese Americans. My parents, also from Taiwan, faced such hardship as first-generation immigrants, and only now am I starting to hear about the kind of discrimination they dealt with. At the risk of sounding all “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” —  it’s amazing to see how second-generation kids like Lu are elevated to such positions of influence. It’s a testament to how hard our parents worked to give us opportunities.

I also enjoyed reading about Lu’s first trip to China, which happened to be as part of an official White House delegation that included Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Like too many second-generation Asian Americans, Lu speaks minimal Chinese but he still found his ability to understand the language useful while in China.

Ms. Romano: The first time you actually set foot on Chinese soil was last summer; is that correct?

Mr. Lu: That’s right. This past summer

Ms. Romano: As a representative of this administration. What was that like?

Mr. Lu: It was incredible. [My parents] had both gone back to China numerous times. For a variety of reasons, I had just never had the time to go back.

And to get to go to China on your first trip as part of an official delegation was just really–I mean it–I was speechless.

And the funny thing, with each meeting, Secretary [Gary] Locke or Secretary [Steven] Chu would always ask me to say something. And I remember being completely tongue-tied in a meeting with the Chinese Premier, where Secretary Locke turned to me and said, “Mr. Premier, I want to introduce to you Chris Lu. This is his first trip to China. Chris, would you like to say something to the Premier?”

And all that came out of my mouth was, “Thank you. Thank you for having us here.”

Ms. Romano: And how did the Chinese react to you all?

Mr. Lu: I think they felt a–they felt a kinship to us. All three of us are Chinese-Americans. We all obviously represent the American government. That’s obviously our first priority. But they felt a kinship. The fact that to varying degrees we all understand some Chinese, we can all say some words of Chinese I think made the conversation and made the meetings a little bit more personal.

Ms. Romano: Do you think it mattered to them that the Administration sent over their top three Asian-Americans?

Mr. Lu: I do. Yeah, I do think it mattered. In Chinese culture, relationships are very important. And having Chinese-Americans come over as the representatives of the government I think was important.

I took Chinese classes on Saturday mornings for 13 years, and for most of that time, I hated it. It was something my mom made me do, and I couldn’t understand why I had to spend my days at a Chinese cultural center while all my friends got to sleep in and watch Saturday morning cartoons.

Only as I got older did I realize the value of learning about my language and my heritage. When I was fourteen or so, my mother gave my sister and I the choice to quit Chinese classes or to continue taking them until we graduated from high school. I volunteered to continue while my sister quit.

I can’t say I was ever the best student of Chinese school; many Saturday mornings I skipped or just refused to do my homework, and I barely passed the last class. But, because of my attendance in those classes, I can speak Mandarin passably, and I have nominal reading and writing skills.

But I didn’t truly appreciate the value of being able to speak Mandarin until I started interacting with more second- or third- generation Asian Americans who never were enrolled in Chinese classes. Many of them can only understand Chinese, but can’t speak it beyond a few words (mostly related to food). Most of them can’t write their names.

My mother always used to say that even though we were in North America, our faces looked Chinese; we will always be different and we can’t lose touch with what that means. Now that I am an adult, and living as an Asian person in America, I find myself truly respecting the unique language and culture that is, regardless of time and distance, a part of me.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying this: thanks, Mom, for making me go to Chinese school. I wish more second-generation Chinese American kids could speak Mandarin; at least so that folks like Chris Lu can go to China and actually hold a prolonged conversation with the Chinese premier when he gets a chance to meet him.