When they first came to America, my parents, now Asian Americans, lived in a cramped apartment, first in New York, and then in Boston. My father likes to recount stories of how he would have to make multiple treks in the middle of New England snowstorms to buy diapers because they didn’t have enough money for bus fare.
My father doesn’t talk much about life before America. He grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. At 17, he promised himself that he would leave for America. After seven years of waiting, at the age of 24, with little English and with $500, he finally arrived. My father says he came to America for freedom. The truth of it is that he came to America for my freedom and dreams more so than his own.
I didn’t grow to appreciate my parents’ story until I went off to college. I sought to understand the human experience through the sciences: What sorts of synaptic pathways underlie perception? What are the biological underpinnings of pain? How do we dream?
Going to school in DC, however, meant that I also became familiar with the ways in which dreams could be promised, dashed, and realized through policy, rather than biology. Some of my friends were DREAMers, and their parents’ stories echoed my father’s: They came to America so that their children –my friends –could escape the cycles of poverty, war, and violence, and pursue their dreams.
How many of their parents worked alongside my father when he first arrived? For every immigrant family who has ‘made it’ in America –clawed their way to paying for their children’s education, skipping meals so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry, opening up their own small business–how many haven’t?
This election is critical because it sets a precedent: Do we want America to live up to our dreams and the dreams of our parents, our grandparents, our foremothers and forefathers? What would it mean if America were to suddenly turn away from the rest of the world, to allow the exclusion and phobia of the very people who believe in this idea of America?
Pollsters, political think tanks, and CNN commentators alike have often cited the AAPI vote as the critical swing vote in this upcoming election. Now, more than ever before, we have a say in how our parents and peers are treated by our immigration, education, health, and housing systems.
Our participation in this election can lead to better health care policies, which can provide more support for our AAPI sisters and brothers, who rarely pursue and receive mental health treatment, even when so many consider suicide before attempting it. Our civic engagement –through voting, signing petitions, contacting our representatives –can lead to education policies that reach beyond the model minority myth and lift up our underserved communities: colleges where less than 15% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders graduate, high schools where less than half of our Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese brothers and sisters don’t go on obtain a bachelor’s degree.
The AAPI millennial vote can provide a voice for our grandparents, aunties, and uncles, who live in affordable housing in Chinatowns that are experiencing re-zoning and who face the possibility of losing their homes in cities like New York, San Francisco, and our capital.
The history and achievements of AAPIs may not always be taught in schools. Too often, we grow up without learning about the legacies of cases like United States v. Wong Kim Ark or Hirabayashi v. United States. History classes rarely mention the murder of Vincent Chin, the California Alien Land Law of 1913, or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 –one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in American history. Names like Greta Garbo continue to permeate collective consciousness, but Anna May Wong is forgotten.
Voting means that we will not allow ourselves be forgotten. We will not be silenced or ignored. By voting, we ensure that our voices can shape a future that does not overlook our families and communities.
Celeste Chen is a second-year graduate student studying public policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. She grew up in Quincy, MA. She is passionate about science and emerging technology policy, and hopes to be as strong and aspiring as Mama and Papa Chen when she is older.