About 80 people gathered last Sunday afternoon in the heart of Chinatown for a gentle “town-hall meeting” sponsored by the Asian American TV station in the Bay Area, KTSF-TV. Speakers debated their preferences for voting this November; the event was edited down to two 30-minute segments and broadcasted on Wednesday and Thursday this week.
I learned one thing new and confirmed a few other items at this event.
In the Chinese American context, “bilingual” does not necessarily mean Chinese and English, as the term is normally understood when applied to other ethnic groups. It simply means “Cantonese” and “Mandarin.” Fortunately, virtually everyone at the town hall meeting speaks English fluently.
It became apparent fairly quick that this mostly Chinese American audience reflects the general population in their reasons for supporting Senator Obama or Senator McCain. I may have missed some subtleties of the language, but by and large the reasons offered mirrored the talking points and stump speeches we have seen on the candidates’ websites and in the news.
Leanna Hong, an Army veteran from Sacramento who served from 1990 to 2001, gave her main reason for supporting Barack Obama: his proposal to cut tax for those earning under $250,000 a year.
For Judy Chang, a trainer in San Francisco, it was the promises of health insurance that attracted her to Obama, while Janette Zhou, from Redwood City, hoped that the Senator from Illinois will restore some of the international respect the U.S. had lost over the last eight year.
On the other side, Harry Shin, 51, a Korean American from San Rafael, who came to this country when he was 16, vociferously supported John McCain because his candidate distinguished himself in war. “We need hero,” said he. Even though he was born after the Korean War, Shin cited the last two wars that the U.S. fought in Asia as defining this country’s stand against Communism.
The parallel with the general public also extended to age, but with a twist: of the 25 members supporting Senator McCain, no one was under 30 years old; while on the other side, there were 5 people, or 20 percent, younger than 30. A note to KTSF and similar stations capitalizing on ethnic language programs: Perhaps it may be time that you consider English-language programs as well on your airwaves, or you may risk losing the new generation, who are more fluent in English and their mothers’ tongues, to mainstream media or the Internet.
Tuan Phan, 28, from San Jose, is typical of this age gap. Born and raised in Stockton before he moved to the Bay Area five years ago, Phan grew up in a Catholic, conservative refugee family. He suspected that his parents would support McCain, so to keep peace in the home, he would never broach the election topic at the dining table. Still, Phan came to the town-hall meeting to support Obama for his proposed investments in education and green technologies. To him, it showed that Obama was thinking beyond the immediate problems.
The contrast couldn’t have been starker between the two spokepersons: Otto Lee and CC Yin.
Yin, from Sacramento, is the founder and chair of the Asian Pacific Public Affairs Association. At 72, the same age as McCain, he trusted his candidate’s “proven leadership and ability to solve problems.”
Lee, a 40-year-old patent attorney, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and a candidate for the Board of Supervisors in Santa Clara County, placed his confidence in Obama on national security because “diplomacy is just as important, if not more, than military power” in dealing with the world. He quoted Sun Tzu to the effect that “the best general wins the war without firing a shot” and cited the Nixon-Kissinger dealing with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s as good example of negotiating with people who don’t agree with us and who have different agenda.
As I left the session, it dawned on me that besides all the rationales for choosing one side over the other, what is more imperative is the historic character of this year’s election.
In hindsight, it is obvious that the Confederacy should not have gone to war to defend the system of slavery; that the Supreme Court should not have affirmed the “separate but equal” doctrine; that Senator Strom Thurmond should not have opposed the Civil Rights Act; or that Senator John McCain should not have opposed making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday.
About three-quarters of all Asian Americans currently in the U.S. came after the 1965 Immigration Act. We owe a debt to that generation, and now it’s our turn to move the country one notch higher in human evolution. By a happy coincidence, and after two years of vetting, we also have a clearly superior candidate in Barack Obama, whom Colin Powell-who endorsed Obama last Sunday-calls “transformational” with the potential to be a great president.
We Asian and Pacific Islander Americans can join the rest of the nation in making history this year by electing the first non-white president. All of us who can vote in this election will some day have to answer our grandchildren’s question: “Did you vote for Barack Obama?”
Let’s be on the right side of history this time.
Vu-Duc Vuong is a teacher and writer in the Bay Area. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org