What is “Technically American”?

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No, that’s not a Jeopardy question.

According to CNBC sports reporter, Darren Rovell, there’s a distinction between “American” and “technically American”. Why? Because Rovell believes that naturalized immigrants aren’t really American.

Apparently, Meb Keflezighi, a marathon runner who immigrated and naturalized more than a decade ago, won the NYC marathon recently, prompting a newspaper headline to read “American Wins Men’s NYC Marathon For First Time Since ’82”. Rovell took exception to that headline because Keflezighi, who is an American citizen, simply isn’t American enough. He writes:

Keflezighi’s country of origin is Eritrea, a small country in Africa. He is an American citizen thanks to taking a test and living in our country.

Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.

No. No, he’s not.

Keflezighi isn’t “technically” American. He’s American. There are two ways to be American: 1) get lucky and be born on the right soil, or 2) state your allegiance and affiliation to America. Often, naturalized Americans have done more to establish their “American-ness” than those who are American by accident of birth. Which isn’t to say that naturalized Americans are more American than domestically-born Americans; being American isn’t a question of degrees. Instead, it’s simple math: one is or one isn’t American.

Rovell’s opinion piece reeks of the kind of xenophobia that remains all-too-common in parts of America, including here in Arizona where immigration is a local as well as a federal issue. The kind of nationalist zeal that would encourage distinction between “real Americans” and naturalized Americans is the same misguided bigotry that would defend racial profiling of illegal immigrants as “crime suppression”; they are both rooted in the pretense that “real Americans” are White Americans, and everyone else must be “ringers” (to borrow Rovell’s analogy). How often have brown-skinned Americans faced harassment here in Arizona at road-side stops by Border Patrol, while Whites drive casually through?

As the child of first-generation immigrants, I find it revolting that naturalized citizens still face suspicion and skepticism. Chinese immigrants are still stereotyped as perpetual foreigners despite having worked hard to naturalize, while no one questions the fealty of domestic-born American citizens. I can’t help but remember that less than 150 years ago, Asian immigrants of all ethnicities were denied the right to naturalize as Americans based exclusively on our race; are we really so far from that mentality even now? Americans are still perceived to be White, while people of colour have their nationality questioned or outright denied. Who can forget the infamous headline when Tara Lipinski beat fellow American Michelle Kwan to win an Olympic figure-skating gold? The MSNBC headline read: “American beats out Kwan” — implying that Kwan was not American, or at least not as American as Lipinski.

Just 24 hours after posting his anti-immigrant ranting, Rovell posted an apology. Sort of. He admitted he hadn’t fact-checked his piece, and that Keflezighi had been an American throughout his formative running experience.

But, he still insisted that we should only celebrate an American winning the NYC marathon when that American had been “brought up in the American system”.

All I was saying was that we should celebrate an American marathon champion who has completely been brought up through the American system.

This is where, I must admit, my critics made their best point. It turns out, Keflezighi moved to the United States in time to develop at every level in America. So Meb is in fact an American trained athlete and an American citizen and he should be celebrated as the American winner of the NYC Marathon. That makes a difference and makes him different from the “ringer” I accused him of being. Meb didn’t deserve that comparison and I apologize for that.

Sounds like it’s all “technically” a re-packaging of the same ‘ol xenophobia to me.

Asian American Candidates Win in Local Elections

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Although predictable to all but the most politically obtuse, John Liu made history yesterday when he overwhelmingly won the position of NYC comptroller. In doing so, Liu became the first Asian American to win a city-wide position in NYC. While this is a remarkable victory for Liu, it remains a sobering landmark moment, considering that the Asian American population in NYC has been around since the early nineteenth century.

Yet, I congratulate Liu in his victory: John Liu has been amongst the most vocal advocates, nationally, for the Asian American community, and he has worked tirelessly for his constituents in NYC as city councilman. However, his victory, and the election results in other races, also teaches us that Asian American candidates, like many other minority politicians, cannot win solely by relying on their ethnicity to carry them to victory.

Liu, as Calvin Prashad of APA for Progress points out, reached out to African-American and Latino community leaders as a city councilman and as a candidate for NYC comptroller. He became a popular political representative because he campaigned and worked across racial bounds, while simultaneously ensuring that each community felt they had an advocate in him. Liu was able to garner support from Asian American voters, locally and nationally, by using his clout as an elected representative to raise awareness regarding APIA community issues and concerns, but he did not marginalize himself as merely an Asian American candidate.

Similarly, Repubican Peter Koo overcame incumbent Democrat Yen Chou to win Liu’s old seat as city councilman in NYC’s 20th district. Prashad notes that incumbent Chou relied upon Chinese-American support in a district that includes Flushing, NY which has a large Asian population. Koo, however, counted Jewish and Korean business owners amongst his supporters, and was able to build a multi-racial and multi-ethnic voting base. Both Koo, and Margaret Chin who won a city council seat in NYC’s 1st district which encompasses Manhattan’s immense Chinatown, are prominent community leaders well-known, and well-respected, by their voting constituents.

In Virginia, Korean-American Democrat Mark Keam emerged victorious against Republican Jim Hyland to represent VA’s 35th District in the State House of Delegates. Although Keam’s district contains only approximately 10% Asian Americans, Keam won by 2 percentage points over his opponent, Keam was able to build a campaign that transcended racial lines in order to become the first Asian American elected to the Virginia State House.

Other Asian American candidates didn’t fare as well. Kevin Kim lost NYC’s 19th District to Republican Dan Halloran in part by attacking Halloran’s religious beliefs. And Sam Yoon’s campaign to be the first Asian American mayor in Boston fell flat yesterday, I believe in part because Yoon relied on schticky racial stunts to distinguish himself from the pack. At one campaign event, Yoon (who is Korean American) passed out fortune cookies to event attendees in a clear attempt to paint himself as the “ethnic” candidate.

Prashad of APA for Progress does a great job of enumerating the lessons learned from yesterday’s election results. In an act of blatant plagiarism, here’s my list for future Asian American candidates hoping to be elected to local office, some of which I draw from my own experiences (and mistakes) helping to run a local state representative race:

  • Be a community leader. Nothing beats widespread recognition as a community leader. If a diverse group of local names respect you, half your work is done — but that means that the time to get involved is now.
  • Tap the team. There are some really talented political activists within the Asian American community, and a widespread network of politicos who blog across the nation on APA political issues. These are also folks who are training the next generation of young campaign managers and lobbyists. Get these folks on your side — they can help with advice, fundraising, and just raising your profile.
  • Transcend the “ethnic” divide. It doesn’t matter what the demographics of  your district are, do not rely on an minority face and an ethnic name to carry you to victory. Voters (particularly minority voters) prefer candidates who prove themselves to be well-rounded, and who can advocate on behalf of a number of communities. Reach out to other community leaders and build a multi-racial coalition. If you don’t, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard to pander, and you run the risk of rendering yourself “out-of-touch” or even irrelevant. 
  • Don’t patronize the Asian American voter. Asian American voters are evenly spread between Democrats and Republicans, and we won’t be swayed merely by an Asian face. Shoot, Bob McDonnell, the new governor-elect of Virginia, courted the Asian American vote in the last several months, helping launch his campaign to victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds. Asian Americans are conscentious and educated voters — treat us like we are.
  • Pick a few resonating issues, and change the conversation. Don’t try to campaign on every issue under the sun (although you’d better be capable of doing so). Change the conversation to focus on a few key issues you are good at, and hammer those home with voters. Successful candidates are ones that are able to communicate their priorities to voters, and those priorities resonate.
  • Be money conscious. Don’t waste your campaign funds. If you know a guy who knows a guy who can do it just as well as a consultant for cheaper, pick your friend of a friend. Keep your materials professional looking, but the more money you save by doing things in-house, the more you have to spend reaching out to voters. 
  • Go high tech. Get a good, professional website, and make sure you use direct mailers and phone-banking to maximize your contact. Don’t shy away from radio, television, or even social networking like Facebook to spread the word about your race.
  • Don’t go negative. Nobody likes a negative campaigner, and nobody likes a negative race. It’s easy to get bogged down in bad feelings against your opponent, but you must make sure your campaign retains the moral high ground. Bottom line, just don’t do it.

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.

Hallowe’en ’09

Because there appears to be some interest in seeing the Hallowe’en mayhem my friends and I caused, here are a few pics:

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From left to right, we were playing Rob (or Henchman #2), Harley Quinn, Joker, and Bob (or Henchman #1). We’re posing in front of a cactus at the pre-party.

Here’s the posse near the end of the night (which is why our makeup is a little more messed up), posing at the big house party we attended.

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One of the better pics of just Joker and Harl:

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I don’t have pictures of the heist, unfortunately. The folks with the camera were too busy being held up to take pics. I’ll take some pics of the props we have left though, when I get home so you guys can see the loot bags, gas masks and Smile-X gas.

The other show we put on involved Bob (Henchman#1). Throughout the night, Joker would walk up to him and say “Bob. YOU… are my NUMBER ONE GUY”. (If you don’t get the reference, you’re too young).

Then, either he or I (as Harley) would attack Bob with a weapon (Joker with his gun, I with my knife) and kill him, much to the horror of nearby partygoers, none of whom were in on the action.

Here’s a picture after I’ve just gotten done stabbing the shit out of Bob, Henchman #1:

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At least I put the beer down to do it.

Here’s Bob bleeding out on the ground. We were always careful to kill Bob around different partygoers, so there were always horrified witnesses who hadn’t seen either Joker or I go homicidal. A couple of times, they reached for their phones, ready to call the cops on us. AWESOME!

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A few minutes later, Bob got up and we hugged it out.

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I was told by Electroman that I’m not allowed to give away the secret as to how we made the blood packs. But, sufficed to say, the technique needs to be patented.

And just for the fun of it, here’s me as Harley drinking shots off the ice luge.

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For those of you who don’t know what an ice luge is, it’s a giant block of ice carved into a ramp. At the top is a well where you pour a shot of alcohol. The alcohol slides down the slide into someone’s mouth at the bottom. For those of you contemplating buying one for your next party, be sure to have some grain alcohol handy so the luge can be sanitized between use.

And that was Hallowe’en ’09! I’ll ask around for pictures of the heist.

Anti-Interracial Marriage Judge Resigns

Hey, remember that justice of the peace who refused to preside over the civil union of an interracial couple who wanted to get married?

He resigned. Which, I think, means he got fired.

Good riddance.