You might say that we live in interesting times. This coming year will probably be an extremely interesting one, with a high stakes election campaign facing us along with the economic turmoil and instability that makes it increasingly difficult for anyone to plan for the future. So, given that it’s very hard to predict what might happen, let’s look at some of the things that have happened in 2011.
Even at the city government level, there are markers that make these times so different from the past. We now have an elected Chinese American mayor in San Francisco, and many Asian American names in offices along the West Coast. In fact, across the nation, the faces and names that have become familiar are associated with ethnic minorities, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian American, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, daughter of Indian immigrants, and many Hispanic and black politicians.
All of this indicates that ethnic and minority groups in America are becoming strong enough to nominate and elect representatives and show their faces in the media. This is good because more of these faces in the public eye means that the general public becomes more comfortable with the racial mix that is the United States, and that we are gradually seen less as strangers and “the other.” We’re part of this country, too.
I find the career of Ambassador to China Gary Locke particularly striking in its trajectory. Gary (and I feel sort of a familiarity with him because he got started in Seattle where I lived for a long time) was a presence at many gatherings of Asian Americans. During the long years of working on the redress campaign in Seattle, I would see him at the meetings and social gatherings promoting our efforts, and he was a strong supporter of many Asian American issues. He was very accessible. When he won the governor’s office in 1997, it was with help from many Asian Americans in Washington state, and we were overjoyed to have him as our leader.
He was active in promoting United States-China relations, leading delegations to China and including several highly publicized visits to the village of his ancestors and also that of his Chinese American wife, Mona. The thing about politics in Washington is that it’s a small state, and having Gary as governor felt like the Asian American boy next door had become a prominent and powerful representative.
I later learned that while governor, he was subjected to racial slurs, insults, threats, and received hundreds of threatening letters and e-mails, some even threatening to kill his children. So, it wasn’t all love and lightness and graciousness in the fact that an Asian American was elevated to such a high office. But then, I guess it isn’t shocking either, because we who are from ethnic backgrounds know that if we gain some prominence, we have to be prepared for the racists to come out and vent their poisons on us. We know in our bones that it comes with the territory.
But Gary has learned a lot in those jobs that he has held, and his understanding and connections with the Chinese have been recognized as very valuable, so President Obama gave him the job of Secretary of Commerce in his Cabinet. While Gary Locke has since been appointed as the United States Ambassador to China, succeeding Jon Huntsman, who became a Republican candidate for the presidency, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki remain in Obama’s Cabinet.
I can’t think of a more important and difficult job than being the representative of the United States to China. There have been articles on how his informal style and friendliness to common Chinese surprised and unsettled status conscious Chinese officials, but we who know Gary can see that he is still the guy we knew when he got his start in Washington state, and so he’s probably going to be terrific in his job, smart and sensible, negotiating delicate issues that will confront these two countries in the coming year. So, isn’t this a great story? Happy 2012.
Chizu Omori, of San Francisco, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.