When Dr. Richard Pan was growing up, a career in politics wasn’t considered a viable option for Asian American kids.
Pan said his parents – like many immigrants – pushed their children into careers in medicine, engineering and other fields that depend on technical skills. His Taiwanese parents preached that another great leveler was financial success in business, Pan said.
“They said, ‘They may not like the way you look or act, but if they need your skills, they will hire you,’ ” Pan remembered.
So Pan, 49, became a doctor first, a politician later and now a Democratic state senator representing Sacramento. On Sunday, Pan joined a host of other Asian American public servants at the 14th annual Voters Education Forum at California State University, Sacramento, sponsored by APAPA, the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association.
It’s been a long time coming, Pan said, but barriers blocking Asian Americans from public life are gradually coming down.
“It took 150 years after hundreds of Chinese immigrants died building the transcontinental railroad for an Asian American to finally represent Sacramento in the Legislature,” he said.
The forum’s program was a testament to Asian American political successes. Panelists included state Treasurer John Chiang; Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance; Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco; Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar; Elk Grove City Councilman Steve Ly; and 32-year-old Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Cupertino.
“If you believe in something, do it,” said Ly, the first Hmong elected official in Sacramento County, to an audience of about 600 people.
Despite making up 14 percent of California’s population, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans comprise about 8 percent of legislators, or nine members.
“Asian American participation in government continues to lag behind in California,” said Henry Chang, APAPA’s Greater Sacramento Chapter president.
Only 37 percent of eligible Asian American voters turned out in November 2014, which may have contributed to the low representation. “If we want our government to be accountable to the people, we have to participate,” Chang said. “If you haven’t been around politics, it can be daunting, especially for minorities who may be immigrants or children of immigrants.”
Founded in 2001 by immigrant and entrepreneur C.C. Yin, APAPA – which is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates – now has over 10,000 members and 16 chapters across the U.S. Yin said he would love to see an Asian American elected president, but realizes that immigrant families must first start seeing civic engagement as a noble calling.
“We have to take total responsibility – we can’t blame the government, the elected officials or the past for our problems,” Yin said.
Asian American numbers are predicted to surpass Latinos’ in the U.S. by 2055, according to the Pew Research Center, which will raise the demand for a new generation of political leaders, such as Low, who first ran for office and lost at 20.
“I’m a bad Chinese son because I’m not a lawyer or a doctor and we like to have a good public face – we don’t like to talk about failure,” Low said. Still, he said, Asian Americans have to be willing to take risks and put themselves out there.
Ling Ling Chang, 39, said that as a Chinese American female Republican state legislator, she’s broken several barriers. She counseled promising Asian American politicians: “Don’t do it for ego – do it because you want to make a difference.”
Before Pan ventured into politics, he said his mom asked him, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to make some enemies?”
He said some Asian immigrants fled regressive regimes back home and brought with them distrust of government officials “where if you had political enemies you might disappear or go to prison.” Their children have grown up in a democracy and share little such fear.
Still, there’s a need for organizations such as APAPA because the “model minority” stereotype cuts both ways, Pan said.
“Asians stereotypically work hard and are well represented in college, graduate school and even on faculties, but the stereotype is we’re not good ‘people people,’ we’re not good managers,” Pan said. “There’s not one Asian American dean at the nation’s 150 medical schools.”
If Asian Americans learn to work with people across race and ethnicity, “you will have the opportunity to be president of the United States,” Pan said.
He added that his own 9-year-old son William muses about becoming president one day. Pan hasn’t ruled it out, “but my wife might kill me,” he said.