My parents, immigrants from Zhongshan, China, worked long hours at low wages to achieve something like the “American Dream” for my sister and me. They did not have the time, nor did they think it was their place, to stand up for themselves or become involved in a community that felt foreign. But growing up in American schools, despite some kids who bullied and even called me “chink” on the playground, I always felt at home in this county.
My interest in government started in third grade, when I would listen with my father to cassette tapes he used to prepare for the citizenship test. By 19, that first taste of government had developed into an interest in public service. Last fall I helped run a San Gabriel Valley water district campaign. Going door to door in my mostly Asian American community, I was surprised by how many registered voters were uninformed about important issues.
I later learned that nationwide, Asian Americans tend to have the lowest voter turnout rate of all ethnicities. In 2008, voter turnout for Asians was 47 percent, while for Latinos it was 50 percent, blacks 65 percent, and whites 66 percent, according to a study from Pew Research Center. The reasons experts provide — coming from countries where government is feared, not being a citizen, and not feeling like the issues directly impact you — are all reasons I hear in my community.
But I also feel that attitudes seems to be changing with my generation. More Asian Americans are elected to office than ever before, including young people like myself. Asian Americans have taken important steps toward increasing political participation. In 2012, a record 30 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders campaigned for a seat in Congress. Congresswoman Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, told NPR, “It is so important to have people at the seat of the table where the decisions are being made that look like America.”
Interested in learning more about what makes the difference to get more people “at the table,” I went to visit some local leaders. “[Civic engagement] is still low compared to our population figures, but we’re starting to gradually ramp up,” Asian Pacific American Legal Center Director Stewart Kwoh told me in an interview in his downtown office.
Kwoh believes there are many younger people who want to get involved but need a vehicle to do so. “We do live in a democracy,” he said, “but the only way a democracy works is to have active participation from its residents.”
For Kwoh, the turning point came when he was at UCLA. He was planning on going to medical school, but got swept up into protests against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Members of his Asian American Student Alliance were arrested and when he went to help bail them out, his interest changed from the medical field to law. Since then, he has worked with Asian Americans to have their voice heard in the legal and political system.
A shift has happened, he says, from the issues that mobilized people in his generation, particularly war and civil rights. More Asian Americans are accomplished in education, business, and other professions, but challenges remain. He said there are still a great deal who are poor and face a lot of discrimination. “We don’t want a community to become so bifurcated and polarized,” Kwoh told me. “We want to make sure that everyone has a chance to succeed.”
Asian Americans are learning from the Latino experience, according to Mike Eng, former mayor of Monterey Park and state assemblyman — who also happens to be Judy Chu’s husband. He noted that the first Asian voter registration drive in Monterey Park was funded by civil rights leader Willie Velasquez.
Eng said people in the Latino community asked him, “How could you spend money on the Asian community?” At the time, Monterey Park was beginning to have a majority Asian population, and there was the feeling of competition for resources and political influence. Eng said he could never forget Velasquez’s answer: “There’s no such thing as competition because when we uplift an immigrant in one community we’re really telling immigrants everywhere that they could be successful.”
Despite the gains, I don’t think my parents will cast a ballot soon. My father appears interested — any time I catch him with the little free time he has, he’s sitting on his couch in the living room reading the Chinese newspaper. He is always up-to-date with local and national news, as well as world news, especially news in China. But I do not think he will vote because either he does not have time, or does not feel it is his place since he and my mother come from a country where they never had a chance to cast a ballot.
Other residents shared similar experiences in an Alhambra Source survey. “Immigrant parents are busy trying [to make] a living for their kids,” wrote one, whose parents are from China. “I believe they think civic engagement is a role for their children.”
Another with parents from China wrote “Immigrants to the U.S. who left countries with authoritarian regimes are conditioned to avoid government participation since they have had very little experience in the democratic process.”
But I see a different approach in my generation. In my group of close guy friends, all born in the U.S. to Asian parents, four out of the five of us registered to vote in 2012. I am the only one who is interested in actively participating in politics, but they still believe it is important to vote.
When I asked why, they shared the same sentiment as Stewart Kwoh. We are lucky to live in a democracy; we should not waste it or take it for granted. When people ask why I became so involved in local politics, I say it is because I am determined to be a voice for those like my parents who don’t speak up. We may not yet have a seat at the table, but at least we get to choose what’s for dinner.