Our Political Coming-out Party: Reflections on First Chinese Immigrant-Sponsored Candidate Forum in the National Capital Region

Saturday night, March 26, 2016, exactly one month before the Maryland primary election, over 350 people packed the Cabin John Middle School Cafeteria in Potomac, Maryland, to meet 10 candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties running for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat.

According to the candidates, it was the second largest event of the 17 forums they had participated in thus far.

Besides the amazing attendance on the night before Easter and the beginning of Spring Break, what made the event special was the fact that it was the National Capital Region Chinese immigrant community’s first candidate forum. It was our political “coming-out party,” signaling our growing maturity, power, and transition from being spectators to participants in civic and political affairs.

More than a candidate forum, the event was also a Politics 101 experience. Organizers and volunteers made a point of encouraging voters to sign up for a political party in order to be able to vote for major races in Maryland’s closed primary elections. With strong leadership by a team of Chinese American leaders from the Coordination Council of Chinese American Associations led by Dr. Ningping Feng with the wise counsel of Dr. Michael Lin, the entire event was superbly organized, well-publicized and flawlessly executed. Volunteers from the League of Women Voters helped interested attendees register to vote and explained the election process. Civil rights organizations like OCA-DC and the Asian Pacific American Public Affairs reached out to potential members. Just about all the local Chinese language media, both broadcast and print, were present. It was a moment not to be missed. The energy, excitement and pride permeated the space. The atmosphere felt both very Chinese, with familiar faces speaking Chinese language, and undeniably American. It just felt great to be there.

As moderator of this historic forum, I felt an enormous weight of responsibility to ask the right questions that would reflect issues of particular concerns to our Chinese community as well as our interests as local Marylanders and Americans. Based on the questions submitted online and my research and understanding of local political affairs, I developed a set of questions addressing the disadvantage of independent voters in Maryland’s closed primary election system which disproportionally affect Asian Americans; discriminatory college admission practices that hold Asian American students to a higher bar; racial profiling in espionage charges against Chinese American scientists, and how to ensure Maryland’s economic competitiveness and attractiveness to global talent.

Not surprisingly, some candidates struggled to answer these questions as most had not been introduced to those issues until the forum, but they all heard our voices through these questions and got a step closer to understanding our large and growing community. All candidates did their best to connect with the voters, which were highly interested and engaged throughout the forum.

To say the candidate forum was a morale booster would be an understatement. Something magical happened after the event. Many independent voters decided to register for political parties afterwards in order to be able to vote for the candidates they had just met in the Maryland primary election and persuaded their friends to do the same. In the past, I have written and spoken about voting and especially about the importance of registering for a political party in order to make one’s vote count more. But it was not until that candidate forum where real candidates were discussing real issues that our people got energized and actions followed.

That magical moment was a tipping point in the journey of Chinese Diaspora in the Washington, DC region, with each election cycle drawing out more first-time voters. Compared to Chinese Americans living in the New York or California areas, we are a much newer community and the vast majority of us are immigrants. From voting to campaign rallies and fundraisers to hosting candidate forums, we are making history one milestone at a time toward our social integration in the local community.

Weeks after the event, our community is still on a “high,” somewhat in disbelief that we actually pulled off such a fantastic feat and made a splash with only less than three weeks of preparation. We overcame many doubts and fears, including fear of a lack of interest from the candidates to connect with a community not known as reliable voters; fears about a lack of interest from our own community, which has a famous cultural disdain toward politics. But we charged forward because we owe it to ourselves and our children to not defer our integration to the next generation.

You don’t have to be born here to be American. You don’t have to speak perfect English to ask the right questions. As the best-educated Chinese immigrants in American history, we are uniquely qualified to accelerate social integration and leave our generation’s mark on the history of Chinese in America and of immigrants in the Washington, DC region.