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Could Obama be the first Asian American president?

“White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, he displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

With these words in the New Yorker in 1998, Toni Morrison granted our 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton, a kind of cadet membership in the grand cultural narrative of black America. While her intent was never to make him out as a role model, her essay nevertheless reflected how implausible, how impossibly distant the idea of an African American occupant in the Oval Office seemed at the time.

Morrison couldn’t have known that, exactly a decade later, her assertion would be given the lie: We now face the very real prospect in Barack Obama of an “actual black person” being elected president — though one whose own cultural narrative is so unique and complicated that some would argue it has as many contrasts as commonalities with that of the average black American.

In fact, reading Obama’s absorbing 1995 memoir “Dreams from My Father,” it strikes me that the tropes that surround and define Obama can just as easily be read as those of another community entirely. Which raises the question: Could it be that our true first black president might also be our first Asian American president?

Fitting the curve

He was born and raised in Hawaii, the only majority-Asian state in the union; he spent four formative years in Jakarta, the home of his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro, where he attended local schools and learned passable Bahasa Indonesia. The family with whom he’s closest — half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng and her Chinese Canadian husband, Konrad Ng — are Asian American. So, too, are the most senior members of his congressional team — his Senate chief of staff Pete Rouse, whose mother is Japanese American, and his legislative director Chris Lu, whose parents hail from China.

Evidence for Obama’s affinity with the Asian American experience runs true even as one delves deeper into his history. “A lot of aspects of the senator’s story will be recognizable to many Asian Americans,” says Lu, a Harvard Law School classmate of the senator’s who joined the team in 2005. “He talks about feeling like somewhat of an outsider; about coming to terms with his self-identity; about figuring out how to reconcile the values from his unique heritage with those of larger U.S. society. These are tensions and conflicts that play out in the lives of all children of immigrants.”

And how he talks about those tensions could be rote recital from the Asian American literary canon. With minor search-and-replace, much of the first half of “Dreams” could have been excerpted from an Asian American coming-of-age work, like Gus Lee’s“China Boy,” Gene Yang’s “American Born Chinese,” or Michael Kang’s “The Motel.”

For instance, Obama recalls how, on his first day at school in Hawaii, his well-intentioned teacher made a point of complimenting him on his beautiful, alien name, waxing on about the fantastical magnificence of Kenya, and asking “what tribe” his father was from — thereby condemning young Barack (classmate: “I thought your name was Barry!”) to the status of outsider, foreigner, weirdo.

“I heard titters break across the room,” writes Obama. “I spent the rest of the day in a daze … The novelty of having me in the class quickly wore off for the other kids, although my sense that I didn’t belong continued to grow … Most of my classmates had been together since kindergarten; they lived in the same neighborhoods, in split-level homes with swimming pools; their fathers coached the same Little League teams; their mothers sponsored the bake sales. Nobody played soccer or badminton or chess, and I had no idea how to throw a football in a spiral or balance on a skateboard.”

And he talks about how, as he grew older, he began to realize that his pervasive sense of difference extended beyond the mere purgatory of elementary school. “TV, movies, the radio … Pop culture was color-coded, after all,” he writes. “I began to notice that Cosby never got the girl on ‘I Spy,’ that the black man on ‘Mission: Impossible’ spent all his time underground. I noticed that there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalog … and that Santa was a white man.”

By the time Obama talks about his remote father’s outsized academic expectations for him (“Have I told you that your brothers and sister have also excelled in their schooling? It’s in the blood, I think”; “Barry, you do not work as hard as you should … If the boy has done his work for tomorrow, he can begin on his next day’s assignments. Or the assignments he will have when he returns from the holidays”) and about his overprotective mother’s use of guilt as leverage (“A healthy dose of guilt never hurt anybody,” she tells him, “It’s what civilization was built on, guilt. A highly underrated emotion”) the Asian American reader’s feelings of deja vu will have slipped from amusing to uncanny.

Translating identity

But even if Obama’s personal narrative reads like it was written to an Asian American template, why should that matter? The fact is, understanding this dimension of his makeup offers critical insights to how his outlook and political sensibilities were forged, even providing explanation for some of his more controversial positions, such as his charge to black America about the crises of disengaged parenting and broken families.

“The senator often talks about the importance of education, the value of hard work, and the need for a sense of personal responsibility,” says Chris Lu. “That resonates with a lot of Asian Americans, who feel they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and understand the notion that what we accomplish in life is in large part a measure of who we are as people, and how hard we strive.”

To some African American leaders, notably the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Obama’s continued reminders of the duty of parents to their children and citizens to their society sound elitist and patronizing. To Asian Americans, they sound … well, they sound familiar. They’re at the core of the ethical foundation many of us have inherited, that fusion of post-Confucian philosophy and immigrant ethos the media often calls “Asian values.”Aspiration tempered with pragmatism. Strenuous effort and rigorous accountability as the bedrock of success. Moderation in all things, humility in times of triumph, patience in periods of tribulation.

This is a point often missed by those who have assessed Obama at face value, seeing in him a fiery street preacher or a bright-eyed idealist, an iconoclast or an ideologue, and expressed disillusionment with what they see as “triangulation” or “pandering” in some of his recent positions. The people who know him best say that the senator is nothing if not consistent — that throughout his career and campaign he has stayed true, if you will, to his Asian American roots.

The coat of many colors

Calling Obama the first Asian American president doesn’t obscure or invalidate his other identities — black, white, multiracial, transnational, pancultural. If anything, it simply highlights the fact that his diverse heritage uniquely invites those around him to project on him a full spectrum of hopes and dreams.

“He’s basically a human Rorschach test,” says Lu. “African Americans think, and rightfully so, that this is a guy who understands their experience. But it’s similar if you talk to Latinos and Asian Americans, or to our 22-year-old field organizers. People see in him the qualities they want to see.”

The important thing to note is that this isn’t a case of “either/or,” but “and.” Perhaps the way to read Obama was best pointed out by another black man of mixed heritage, another pioneer whose arrival on a heretofore lily-white landscape shook the firmament. If we are all Tiger Woods, there’s no reason we can’t all be Barack Obama. We are the world’s foremost Cablinasian nation, and in an increasingly flat and unbounded global landscape, this is not a weakness, but our greatest competitive strength.

“It’s amusing watching people come up with these caricatures suggesting he’s not American,” notes Lu. “He’s not only American, his story is the quintessential American story. It’s the story that our nation is all about.”

Read full story here. 

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November 3, 2008 - Posted by | **MAIN**, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I have no problem with Asian Americans finding common ground or having an infinity for Obama but I do have serious issues with this article. It was beyond offensive especially towards the end.

    Comment by rhondacoca | January 16, 2009


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