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Remarks at Committee of 100 Annual Conference, New York, New York

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
Remarks at Committee of 100 Annual Conference, New York, New York

Thank you, Nelson [Dong], for that introduction.

It's so great to be back here to see old friends and to speak with a group that has done so much to bring China and the United States closer together, and to expand opportunities for Chinese Americans.

We meet here tonight in the middle of Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage month, which gives us a special chance to reflect on our community and its legacy.

As some of you may know, May was chosen as our Heritage Month because it coincides with two important milestones in Asian/Pacific American history:

  • The arrival to the U.S. of the first Japanese immigrants in 1843; and
  • The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 thanks to the Chinese laborers who helped build one of the greatest U.S. technological feats of the 19th century.

Today, and throughout this entire month, we commemorate the courage and contributions of the early Asian Pacific Americans, who:

  • Made the voyage to America;
  • Set up lives here against unbelievable odds; and
  • Planted the seed for generations to come.

My grandfather was one of those people. 

In the late 1890s, he left his home and friends in China and went to work as a houseboy in Olympia, Washington, in exchange for English lessons.

A hundred years later – just a mile from where my grandfather used to live – I was elected the Governor of the State of Washington, the first Asian-Pacific American Governor on the U.S. mainland.

It’s the type of amazing story that really could only be told in America. 

But in a lot of ways, my story is likely very similar to all of you and to many other Chinese Americans.

When I was growing up, my parents worked seven days a week, 365 days a year In a mom-and-pop grocery; and denied themselves even the smallest luxuries so that their children and their family could have a better life.

It certainly wasn’t easy.  They often faced rampant discrimination, and had to scrape and claw for everything they got.

But they persevered, secure in the belief that one day they could give their children the type of opportunities they never had. 

At times like these, we're reminded how much those who came before us gave up.  And we owe it to them to never forget where we came from.

I’d like to spend a few minutes speaking with you tonight about what it means to me to be a Chinese-American in 2011, and my hopes for the future of our community.   

I guess the place to start is that it sure feels a whole lot different being a Chinese-American today than it did when I was growing up. 

In the Ozzie and Harriet era in which I was born, I got the message that I had to choose between being Chinese and being American.

During the 50s, when I was in grade school, I vividly remember a teacher who believed it was her duty to literally beat the native culture out of her immigrant students. 

Most mornings, she’d ask us what we’d had for breakfast. 

And if we had eaten something she thought was un-American -- like the rice porridge with fish and vegetables that my mother gave me -- she would slap our hands with a ruler.  The Italian immigrant kids who drank coffee got the same treatment.

To her, being an American meant rejecting the culture of our parents and grandparents, and in this case that meant choosing bacon and eggs over rice porridge.

And the real tragedy was that many of us Asian-Americans believed her, and took her advice to heart.

I was convinced that to be an American -- to fit in -- meant your mother was supposed to look like Donna Reed and bake apple pies.

So to conform. I felt I had to reject the culture of my parents, a culture of which they were justifiably proud. 

While my teachers tried to Americanize me, my parents tried to pull me in the opposite direction. 

They didn't want me hanging out with American kids after school or playing sports or doing extracurricular activities. They wanted me home studying and when I wasn't doing that, they wanted me working in our grocery store.

This was the constant tension of my youth.

I am deeply grateful to my parents for forgiving all the ways in which I tried to reject them, and my own heritage and cultural roots. I know I caused them a lot of pain and grief when I was growing up.

It took the civil rights movement to teach me that I could be both Chinese and American:

I could be Chinese-American.

I could be myself. I could be as loyal and patriotic as anyone else, and still eat with chopsticks.

And of course, as I changed on the inside, America changed all around me.  The strength of our nation has always come from our diversity: of people, culture and religions. 

But it’s only recently that we've begun to fully embrace that idea; that there really doesn't have to be a tension between our ethnic heritage and our national heritage. 

We can celebrate Asian American or Black History Month.  The Irish can proudly wave their flags on St. Patrick's Day and the Italians can do the same on Columbus Day.

But what holds us together is our love for America and our appreciation of the mainstream American values that have a lot more in common with what my parents taught me, than I would have ever imagined when I was growing up:

  • The values that reject extremism and division, and embrace fairness and moral progress;
  • The values of building bridges, and working together across the lines of race and nationality to keep alive the constitutional promise of equality; and
  • The values of hard work, hope and opportunity

These are the values that have been embraced by the Committee of 100.  They are the values that have allowed all of you to achieve the type of success that would justifiably make our forebears so proud.

In so doing, you’ve become part of a multi-millennial history of Chinese accomplishment.

We can thank the ancient Chinese for countless inventions and innovations, including:

  • The abacus and the seismograph;
  • Silk and cast iron;
  • The compass and the clock;
  • Paper and the printing press; and
  • Acupuncture and herbal medicine. 

Today, we can see the indelible impact of Chinese-Americans in:

  • The beautiful artistry of I.M. Pei and Maya Lin;
  • The lifesaving AIDS treatments of David Ho;  
  • The life-changing technology innovations of Jerry Yang;
  • The skating of Michele Kwan; and
  • The music of Yo Yo Ma.

Later today, I'll be visiting the Museum of Chinese in America down on Centre Street to see firsthand the amazing contributions are people have made to this country.

The people in this room and throughout the Chinese-American community impact virtually every corner of American life, from business and the arts to media and academia.

And overall, we have an outsized impact that often greatly exceeds our numbers.

But that has not yet extended to politics.

Of course there are exceptions.  And I'd note that President Obama in particular – with three Asian-American cabinet secretaries and many others serving in senior posts throughout the administration – has made great efforts to include our community in government

But in statehouses across America, in Congress and in other areas of government leadership, Asian-Americans and Chinese Americans remain seriously underrepresented.

Consider the fact that although U.S. residents of Asian descent make up 5.6 percent of the population, they only account for 2 percent in the U.S. Congress.

It's a similar story with Chinese Americans.  There are 3.8 million Chinese Americans, but only three of them in Congress.

Here in New York, over 530,000 Chinese Americans have one representative in a 212-member state legislature.

Fifty or 60 years ago, we could chalk this up to discrimination, but I don't think that's the case today.

I believe that too many Chinese Americans continue to harbor the misguided belief that politics and government service is somehow less noble or useful than becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer.  Early in my life, that was certainly the opinion of my parents.

But the fact is that if the Asian and Chinese-American communities want action on the issues we care about, we’ve got to be at the table where decisions are being made.

This is a message everyone in this room can help spread.

We’ve got to help people understand the need for more talented and engaged Chinese American public servants. 

I believe this is the next great frontier for Chinese-American advancement.

And I hope that the Committee of 100 can help push this vital cause forward, because helping Chinese-Americans break through new barriers is what this organization is all about.

It wasn't long ago that no one could have imagined a Chinese-American becoming a senior leader in the U.S. military.

But Major General John Fugh -- who passed away last year -- erased that misperception once and for all.  He was the first Chinese-American to attain general officer status in the U.S. Army – and his life was a testament to the fact that we could love this country as much as anyone else. 

After his retirement, John Fugh brought that commitment to public service and to helping our community advance to the Committee of 100.

He was a trailblazer, and now we need a new generation of Chinese Americans to follow in his footsteps, to make sure that we are represented and heard in the halls of power.

It's our job to help empower this new generation.

Thank you again so much for having me.  And thank you all for the great work you do on behalf of Chinese- Americans all across this country.