I am a first-generation American of Chinese descent. Growing up in the ‘60s, I was taught the United States was a melting pot: everyone blended together into one people, one country. Later, recognizing that Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latino-Hispanic and other minorities have made their own unique contributions, the metaphor in civics classes became a salad bowl — each ingredient distinct yet part of the whole. Implicit was the ideal, embodied in our votes, that we each had our disparate say in the choice of leaders and the direction of the United States.
Individual votes, however, represent more than the individual. An under-appreciated value of the right to vote is the weight it can give to those without a voice.
Donald Trump has finally been indicted for his attempts to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. He's been accused of stealing our vote, but it's more than that — he was stealing our voice.
My Ye-Ye (paternal grandfather) came into the country under murky circumstances, smuggled with a friend across Lake Ontario from Canada. I often wonder, what did Ye-Ye think when he stepped off the boat onto our shore? He first hid in Unionville, Pennsylvania, then eventually settled in Columbus, Ohio, where he started a laundry. He brought his three sons over from China — but left his wife behind, possibly because of the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the “importation” of Asian women into the United States.
This was how my father, born in China, was nevertheless a U.S. citizen. His father — my grandfather — was a “paper son” who had purchased a false identity that included citizenship papers. Working hard in the laundry as he went to school, my father tried to blend in, later enlisting in the Army and, later still, marrying my mother and starting his own family.
But my father didn’t talk about politics. Or his past. As immigrants, the consequences for my parents were outsized. Did they fear deportation? Could they navigate American bureaucracy with few government services specialized for their needs? As the only Chinese family for miles, whom could they trust when they were different from everyone else? I don’t know because they never discussed these matters. That was their way, and the way of the other Chinese families we knew. Despite their honorable service in the U.S. Army, my father and one uncle, both engineers in aircraft companies under Federal contracts, faced losing their jobs on even the rumor of an illicit history.
Were he here to see this indictment of Trump, I suspect the years of being protectively apolitical would merely leave him bewildered.
For the previous generation of Chinese immigrants, those cautions linger. Keep your head down. Don’t rock the boat. Mind your own business. For them a massively corrupt government official is a familiar story, secondary to staying alive. During the Trump administration an older cousin once warned me not to criticize him too loudly — his own history and fear of persecution all too real.
When my father voted, I’m sure his choices were influenced by the desire to benefit all of us. Writ large, on the Democratic side, electoral preferences involve not just self-interest but concern for immigrants, especially those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as well as others excluded for lack of citizenship. Ours is a very large tribe, unruly and raucous, a Babel of voices all seeking to be heard.
Were he here to see this indictment of Trump, I suspect the years of being protectively apolitical would merely leave him bewildered. How could the presidency have fallen so far? he might have asked.
In the years before my father’s passing, I voted with care of him in mind. I voted with my mother and my children in mind. I voted so in some small way I could help shape a better life for those in my community who could not vote. Unscarred by a government that takes away rights (until now), perhaps I am naïve, and in that naivety I am outraged by Trump’s attempted theft of votes, not only for myself but also for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Trump’s indictment for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election is only a partial release from the anxiety that has been bubbling since the weekend before his 2017 inauguration, when my family and I attended a protest on Boston Common. Standing in solidarity with 175,000 others, by official estimate, what did we see that nearly half the country did not?
At that time I was taking my younger daughter to grade school in the morning, when kids from diverse backgrounds gathered with laughter and smiles as their caregivers said goodbye for the day. In the following months, how many parents like me and my wife fantasized about leaving the country? These children, whose only concern was the treat in their lunches, could not know our foreboding about the political ground shifting underfoot.
But the ground is shifting yet again — now, finally, in the direction of hope. Last Lunar New Year my family had dim sum in Chinatown, and while my daughters plucked dumplings with their chopsticks I had a vision of the future. A new generation is stepping up to be heard. We are about to send our older daughter to college, where they will study social justice — a natural continuation of their high school involvement in Make Us Visible, an organization striving to bring the Asian-American experience to curricula in K-12 classes.
Three generations removed from my Ye-Ye, who immigrated into the U.S. under cover of darkness, our older daughter will soon cast their first vote for a president. By voting and fighting to keep their right to vote, they will continue the effort to speak up for those who have no voice.
Even with the Trump indictment, there is no lack of others willing to subvert our elections. But an indictment, better yet a conviction, will remind us of Benjamin Franklin’s heed to be vigilant, when asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created: “A republic, if you can keep it.”