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.