Ed Le, Jean Quan, and Our Asian Generation

An APA GenY Perspective on the new Bay Area Mayors

by adrian lee

On Feb. 15th, former Cal Superstar and Superbowl XLV Defensive MVP Desmond Bishop tweeted about receiving an honorary certificate from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who designated Feb. 15th as Desmond Bishop Day in San Francisco. The
commendation of Bishop is yet another act of civility that has defined Lee’s reputation as the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Bay, Mayor Jean Quan cut her pay by 25 percent in her ongoing effort to fix Oakland’s budgetary woes. While it might seem like a political gesture to some, Mayor Quan’s act is impressive considering her
predecessor refused to cut his budget and even asked for a pay raise when hefirst entered office. Mayor Quan, the first female and first Asian American mayor of Oakland, came from humble beginnings eating only bok choy for most of her childhood in Livermore.

Both Mayors Lee and Quan are not just known around political circles in San Francisco and Oakland for breaking racial trends as the first Asian American mayor for their city. Mayor Lee, for instance, has already made it clear that he intends to tackle the $380 million deficit in San Francisco by holding accountable the city’s numerous non-profit organizations that receive a total of $500 million a year in funding. While it seems rather minuscule, C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle posed the question as to why San Francisco had not done this in the past.

“Many of the programs provide overlapping services, aren’t required to prove they are makingan impact, and don’t always need to account for how they’ve spent the city’s money,” Nevius wrote. “That’s unacceptable.”

Mayor Lee has also promised to focus his energy on improving businesses in San Francisco. On Feb. 24th, he walked with Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi around Japantown to explore possible options of helping revitalize businesses by engaging one-on-one with local business owners. True to his reputation as an engaging and civil Mayor, Lee has also made his schedule public, and his office in City Hall holds open and public office hours.

Meanwhile Mayor Quan has strived to improve relations with the Oakland Police Department in an effort to make Oakland safer. On her first day as Mayor, she met with officers one-on-one in order to gain a more personal understanding of the police force. She also assigned city technicians to focus solely on fixing broken police equipment. Aspart of her ultimate goal to fix Oakland’s budget, Mayor Quan’s long-term goal for the Police Department is to negotiate a cut in their pension plan in
exchange for a city parcel tax for more police funding.

Of course the story has been told countless times before – these mayors are different from the rest. But what personal implications do the two mayors’ achievements have on our generation? Lee and Quan represent a new age of politics for Asian Americans – people like our parents can realistically aspire to be politicians, and good ones at that.

Growing up in a Chinese American family, I saw my parents struggle with the same issues that Lee and Quan have experienced. Let’s start with Lee.

Other than sharing a surname, Mayor Lee and my father share the same economical sensibility. When Lee was announced
as Gavin Newsom’s successor, John Cote of the Chronicle contrasted how Newsom drove a nice luxury SUV while Lee drove an old Toyota Camry to work. Similarly to Mayor Lee, my father always drove a 2000 Corolla to work, parking alongside
his coworkers’ luxury cars in the building’s garage. And despite owning a Benz that just sits in the garage gathering dust, my father always preferred to drive the Corolla because of its superior gas millage. Rose Pak describes my father and Lee perfectly, as being “very frugal, bordering on cheap.”

My mother, on the other hand, shares a common background with Mayor Quan. According to an Oakland Tribune article,
during Mayor Quan’s childhood in Livermore, she lived in cramped homes, and every penny was sent to her older sister in China. Quan had to eat the same meal every day growing up in order to save money. Moreover she faced racial discrimination for being Chinese in a predominantly Caucasian area.

As the only daughter in a traditional Taishan family in Chinatown, my mother was in the same position as young Mayor Quan. My mother lived in a cramped apartment and slept on the living room couch, while her brothers slept in one room and her parents slept in another. Whenever my mother did leave Chinatown to help on the family farm, she faced discrimination on the basis of her ethnic background.

But unlike Mayor Quan, my mother was unable to receive a higher education due to the struggles of providing for a
family. My mother worked to provide for my father’s education and never spent money on herself. Meanwhile, Quan graduated from UC Berkeley and went on to fight for civil rights and an Ethnic Studies department at UC Berkeley and SF State.

While our generation may often laugh at how “Asian” our parents are, as exemplified by websites like “My Mom is a
Fob,” we sometimes forget to put the humor aside and look at the root cause of our parent’s supposedly peculiar characteristics – their sacrifice for our sakes. Our parents act the way they do in order to provide for our generation.

And while Lee and Quan are unique
for being the first Asian American mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, they too sacrifice a lot for our generation. Whether it is driving old, broken down cars or cutting their pay, Mayor Lee and Mayor Quan use their frugal, humble backgrounds to create a new culture in politics in cutting excessive spending on non-necessities. Like our parents, they continue to fight to provide benefits for all of us, especially the next generation. And while my father and mother might not be politicians themselves, they too share the same value of sacrificing for others to provide us with what they didn’t have.

Although Mayors Lee and Quan still have a long way to go in achieving all their goals, perhaps one day, we will celebrate their achievements with a special day designated to them.