Cross-posted by Jay Chen (Board member, Hacienda-La Puente Unified School District), pictured here with Maya Soetoro-Ng, Konrad Ng, and Karen Chang.
I've always thought Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were quite lucky to have May as their designated month of celebration. The weather is great, students are excited about graduation, and taxes are finally out of the way. The plethora of activities that various organizations put together always makes May a festive time, and this year the community has even more to be proud of.
The beginning of this year's APA heritage month coincides with the end of President Obama's first 100 days in office, and these first 100 days have given the APA community much to celebrate. For the first time we have a President with deep, deep ties to the APA community, who has not hesitated to promote APAs to the highest levels of service in his administration.
Our current President basically grew up among Asians and Asian Americans. President Obama was born to a white Kansan mother and an African father in the Pacific island state of Hawaii, where Asians remain the majority race. From the ages of 6 to 10 he lived in Indonesia (the third-most populous country in Asia) with his mother and Indonesian step-father, before returning to Hawaii. From his mother's second marriage he has one sister, Maya Soetero-Ng, who is half Indonesian and who is married to Konrad Ng, a Chinese American by way of Canada.
President Obama's familiarity with the Asian community extends beyond the personal to the professional. As a legislator Barack Obama has had no qualms promoting Asian Americans to the highest levels of staff, responsibility, and trust. Chris Lu, a Harvard Law School classmate, served as Obama's Legislative Director and Acting Chief-of-Staff during Obama's time in the Senate. Eugene Kang was Obama's right-hand man and golfing buddy during the Presidential campaign, as well as the gate-keeper for his cell phone.
These individuals continue to serve the President and our nation in the White House; Lu is now the Cabinet Secretary in charge of coordinating President Obama's agenda among all of his Secretaries, and Kang is the Special Assistant to the President, screening and making the phone calls for the most powerful man on the planet when not advising him on his putting stance. They are joined in the cabinet by more APAs than have ever served in all past Presidential administrations combined. Whether purposeful or not, many of these appointments have been made with a flair and nod towards APA history.
General Eric Shinseki, also from Hawaii, remains the highest ranking Asian American in United States military history. However, he is probably more well known for estimating that a successful invasian of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops, an estimate that led to his sidelining by the George W. Bush administration but which ultimately would prove to be prescient. He is now the Secretary for Veterans Affairs, charged with improving the lives of injured veterans who suffered because his initial recommendations had been rejected.
The Secretary of Energy position is most well known among Asian Americans for being the post Governor Bill Richardson had when he falsely accused Dr. Wen Ho Lee of spying for the Chinese government, for no reason other than race. While the case was basically thrown out of court and an unprecedented apology was issued by the presiding judge and the New York Times, the racial profiling left an indelible image in the minds of Asian American scientists working for the United States. Who better to restore trust in the Energy Department than physicist Steven Chu, the first Chinese American to serve in the post and a Nobel Laureate in Physics?
As you might be able to tell, I am a fan of our President. But I can't say that I've agreed with every decision he has made. For obvious reasons, it was a disappointment when Bill Richardson was nominated for the position of Secretary of Commerce. To have someone in charge of the Census (which operates under the Commerce Department) who had shown such little sensitivity to the Asian Pacific American community was a troubling thought. But as luck would have it, Richardson pulled his own candidacy due to corruption allegations back in New Mexico and he was ultimately replaced with Gary Locke, the first Chinese American governor in United States history.
The list of talented Asian Americans serving the administration grows each day. While Sanjay Gupta declined a position as Surgeon General, Kal Penn has put acting on hold to join the White House Office of Public Liason. The brilliant Koh brothers have also joined; Harold Koh was previously the Dean of Yale Law School and now serves as Legal Advisor to the Secretary of State, while brother Howard Koh now serves as the Assistant Secretary for Health.
We definitely have much to be proud of this APA heritage month. While Bill Clinton may have beaten out Barack Obama in becoming our nation's first Black President (according to Toni Morrison), I think we can take pride that we are celebrating APA heritage month with what arguably could be considered our first Asian Pacific American administration.