By June Shih
One thing I couldn’t get over last week as I watched and wept over the inauguration festivities were the people sitting directly behind Barack Obama. At the Inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, almost every time the camera cut over to show Obama singing along to the music, one could see a little Asian girl dozing open-mouthed just over his shoulder. It was Suhaila Ng, age 3, Obama’s 3/4 Asian niece, the daughter of his half-Indonesian half-sister and her Chinese-Canadian husband. There was Suhaila, totally knocked out and oblivious as her uncle sang along to Garth Brooks’ rendition of “American Pie.” There she was again, awake now, but looking like she wished she were at a Wiggles concert instead of watching Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen lead the crowd in “This Land is YourLand.”
The same thing happened at the Inauguration itself – every tight shot of Obama almost always included a shot of a Chinese guy, seated just behind Barack, hunched against the cold and squinting into the sunlight. I eventually figured out it was Konrad Ng, the Chinese-Canadian brother in law.
A wonderful realization dawned on me – America’s first family includes Asian people! Sure, they are in-laws and half-siblings, and Presidential siblings in the past have been objects of ridicule in the past- Neil Bush, Roger Clinton, Billy Carter… but somehow I doubt Maya, Konrad and Suhaila are going to be a source of embarrassment to the Obamas.
Does this mean Barack Obama is our first Asian-American President? Ten years ago, Toni Morrison famously anointed Bill Clinton our first black president – “Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
Certainly Obama is not more Asian than any actual Asian who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. (At least I hope so – Vincent Pan for President 2020!) But if you think about it, even besides the Asian kin, Obama does display many tropes of Asian-Americanness:
- Parent from poor country allowed into U.S. on a college student visa:
Obama’s father was the first African to attend the University of Hawaii and
later studied at Harvard.
- Spoke an Asian language and lived in Asia as a young kid. Obama lived in Indonesia and spoke Bahai from ages 6-10.
- Firsthand experience feeling like the Other: In his book, Obama writes of his mortification of arriving at school in his Indonesian sandals and old fashioned clothes. Also, survived school with a funny, hard to pronounce, non-Anglo name.
- Obsessed, just obsessed with racial identity as a teen and young man.
- Grew up eating Shave Ice.
- Listened to Erasure in college. OK – kidding.
So if Toni Morrison (who later qualified her statement) can call the pink-hued Bill Clinton our first black president, then maybe we can call mocha-colored Barack Obama our first Asian-American president.
Except he’s not. And while I have no doubt – based on his own childhood and upbringing in Hawaii – that he understands the Asian American experience much more deeply than any president before him, just like Bill Clinton understood black people better than any president before him, our 44th President is black and self-identifies as such. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is indeed a triumph of American democracy and the American Dream. It is a sign that, when presented with a brilliant, competent, well-intentioned and inspiring candidate, Americans are ready to elect someone who is not white. But are they ready to elect someone who is not American?
I doubt, that despite the fact that his blackness comes from a foreign father or that he has a non-Anglo name, Barack Obama has ever been considered by fellow Americans as less than American. Of the considerable and daunting challenges faced by African-Americans in this country, this is not one of them. But, though I believe this is becoming less true everyday, an Asian American’s single greatest barrier to American-hood is the sense that no matter how many generations our families may have lived here, we are still, because of the black hair, olive skin, and missing eyelids, foreign in the eyes of many fellow Americans -and people around the world. Still, having Asians in America’s first family is a welcome symbolic step. The journey ahead for us is undoubtedly different – and will be longer than Obama’s. But we are moving foward.
June Shih is a former speechwriter for Bill and Hillary Clinton and a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in East Asian Studies.