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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. 

November 3, 2008 Posted by | **MAIN**, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Growing Asian-American vote sheds passive past

By JESSE WASHINGTON – 

LORTON, Va. (AP) — For a long time, says Loc Pfeiffer, his fellow Asian-Americans were passive participants in American politics. But things are changing.

“Asians don’t like confrontation or being adversarial, but that’s politics,” says Pfeiffer, a 41-year-old lawyer who was 6 when his parents brought him to America from Vietnam.

“The more we’re raised and bred here, the less likely we are to be passive. So much of our culture, it’s a very, very obedient culture. … You don’t argue with the government. You don’t argue with Big Brother. There’s the assumption that you give up all your individual rights for the whole. Which is astounding to me, because I’m American now.”

An assertive Asian America matters, especially in places like Virginia and Nevada, swing states where Asians have been growing in numbers and influence.

With a booming population of highly educated, increasingly Americanized voters, this former “silent minority” is entering the most engaged and visible era of its political history.

The number of Asians in the United States has grown 25 percent in the last seven years, to 15 million, said Jane Junn, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. Educated people are more likely to vote, and 50 percent of the Asian population has a college degree, compared with 25 percent of the U.S. population, Junn said.

“There comes a point where there’s a critical mass,” said Junn, whose parents were born in Korea. “When you’re only one person out of 100, you’re very self-conscious about (becoming politically active). But there is power in numbers.”

Asian attitudes toward the two presidential candidates are as varied as the nations stretching from India to Malaysia to Japan, lumped into one racial category by the U.S. Census.

Yet some say Barack Obama’s rise from humble origins resonates with many Asians who value education and hard work as the keys to success and have been forced to fit their heritage into an American framework.

In a recent column for the San Francisco Chronicle, writer Jeff Yang was even inspired to riff on President Clinton’s honorary black membership and ask if Obama’s background — parental academic pressure, struggle for identity, guilt-wielding mother, Harvard education — would make him the first Asian-American president.

“So much of what we deal with is the notion of being outsiders, foreigners, of being outside the social dialogue of the United States,” Yang said in an interview. “You look at Obama and those are some of the same aspersions and slanders being cast at him. He’s kind of the closest thing we can have legally to an immigrant in the White House. He’s somebody who understands this journey that Asian-Americans and other immigrants have made.”

Obama also spent much of his youth in Hawaii, with its Asian-American majority, and in Indonesia. Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is the daughter of his white mother and an Indonesian businessman, and has helped reach out to the Asian-American community.

Yang added that his Taiwan-born parents, who had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, were seriously considering Obama.

News of Yang’s Obama proclamation inspired hearty laughter at the gathering of a half-dozen lawyers at the home of 65-year-old Paul Nguyen in Lorton. Although many had voted Republican in the past, all but one planned to vote for Obama.

When Nguyen said Asians had to learn the American political system and form a bloc to demand something in return for their votes, the conversation bubbled over:

“We never ask for anything. We always work for what we get.”

“We’re too diverse. You can’t bring the Filipinos, the Koreans, the Japanese, everybody all together.”

“We’re still in the infancy of our presence here.”

“Now we’re more active, more aware. Over the last 10 or 20 years it’s happened very slowly.”

In the past, Asians were largely overlooked during past presidential campaigns because of their widely varied nationalities and concentration in the reliably Democratic states of California and New York.

Now, both campaigns have national Asian outreach efforts. In Virginia, Obama’s campaign is focusing on sending language-specific volunteers to register voters from particular countries. The McCain campaign’s priority is securing the support of community leaders from the Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Filipino communities.

Although no Democratic presidential candidate has won Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, polls show Obama edging ahead. Meanwhile, the state’s Asian population has grown from 3.7 percent in 2000 to 4.8 percent in 2006, above the national average of 4.4 percent.

Virginia’s Asians are concentrated in the D.C. suburbs, where the Asian population reaches as high as 16 percent in Fairfax County, as well as the Norfolk area, where the naval operations have attracted Filipinos.

There are roughly 300,000 voting-age Asians in Virginia, and about 100,000 registered Asian voters, according to estimates from the Obama and McCain campaigns.

In 2006, after incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen was caught on tape using the slur “macaca” to describe an Indian from the opposing campaign, he lost to Democrat Jim Webb by 7,231 votes out of 2.37 million ballots cast. Seventy-six percent of the Asian vote went against Allen.

In the past, many Asians nationally have leaned Republican because of the party’s record of fighting Communism, support for small business owners, and emphasis on personal responsibility and family values.

A Vietnamese group from northern Virginia recently endorsed McCain at a rally attended by about 200 people. Some Asian supporters point to McCain’s military service, Vietnam imprisonment, an adopted daughter from Bangladesh, plus his support in the Senate for issues such as free trade and visa waivers.

Tuyet Duong, who has been canvassing undecided Vietnamese voters for the Obama campaign, said many people she talks to are voting based on the candidates’ life stories rather than the issues, and the fact that McCain fought in Vietnam strikes a powerful chord.

Yet Asian voters nationwide appear to be favoring Obama, the Democrat, in greater numbers than the 54 percent who voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

This could be explained by President Bush’s unpopularity, Obama’s recent rise in the polls amid the economic implosion, or the fact that Obama’s Senate chief of staff and legislative director are Asian. But it also has something to do with a new generation of Asian-Americans.

Two-thirds of U.S. Asians are foreign-born. Their American-born children are now thriving, many in professions like medicine, law and high-tech industries. English is the first language of this second generation. And they have landed squarely in the Obama sweet spot of young and educated supporters.

“I’ve lived my life trying to be kind of race-neutral,” said Michael Chang, 34, who was born in Washington, D.C. to Korean parents. After his father died when he was 10, Chang’s mother sent him to law school and his sister to two doctoral degrees, all on a legal secretary’s salary.

Chang, who is married to an Italian immigrant, plans to vote for Obama because he likes his stance on the issues and because he’s younger. He also believes that Obama’s background, coupled with his rejection of racial rhetoric, makes him more relatable for younger, mainstream Asians.

“I’m proud of my heritage, said Chang, “but I think of myself as American.”

http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gNzifIMl7RxOZEwr4sPdjq12RFHQD942EKV80

November 3, 2008 Posted by | **MAIN**, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment