Expert Profile ExpertProfile Yvonne Lau Professor, Ph.D., DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois
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President-elect Barack Obama's Chinese Connection: One “JIA

By Yvonne M. Lau


As a Chinese American educator and community advocate from Chicago, I'm proud that Americans have elected former U.S. Senator Barack Obama.  Though many reasons contributed to his winning election, I suggest that a key factor centers on his message of one America or one “JIA” (in Mandarin, family or home). His philosophy reflected in:  his book, The Audacity of Hope, speeches, and conversations with the public, resounds with recurring themes of diverse inclusiveness, universal values, and common interests amongst all Americans.

During President-elect Obama's seminal speech delivered at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I remember feeling a special exuberance when he acknowledged Asian Americans by uttering this now famous quotation:  “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America.”  Instead of pitting “us” against “them,” or Main Street versus Wall Street, Mr. Obama has invited all Americans to recognize our mutuality and need for broad-based coalition-building.

Chinese outside of the U.S. may find it hard to imagine, but for those of us native-born, American-raised or immigrants living in the U.S., too often we as Chinese Americans feel invisible in the U.S.  Racialized with other Asian Americans, traditional K-12 curriculum and textbooks exclude us, Hollywood stereotypes us, Fortune 500 boards - along with other major business & government enterprises -tokenize us, and public discourse discounts our voices.  Conflating Chinese Americans with Chinese nationals, the larger society still views most of us as “foreigners,” despite rising percentages of native-born. How many times have we been asked “where are you from” or “how did you learn to speak such good English?” Such questions imply that even American-born like us who “look Chinese” cannot truly “be Americans”; we must originate from somewhere in Asia and be forever foreign.

While I may reveal some political biases in being a “Barack fan,” my admiration for his visionary leadership dates back to 2003 when I first met with him to advocate for teacher certification for Chinese and “less commonly taught” (LCT) languages, and for integrating Asian American Studies into the Illinois School Codes. Known as the first Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parent in 1997 to ask former CEO, Paul Vallas, “Why don't we offer Chinese,” I have been lobbying for Chinese as a Second Language Programs for over a decade!

With co-founder Sandra Yamate, attorney and publisher of Polychrome Books, and pivotal support from community leader, Dr. Ann Lata Kalayil, we created Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) to address: curricular reform including the expansion of Asian world language programs and integration of Asian American Studies; under-representation of Asian American faculty and administrators; and meeting the needs of the widely divergent constituencies of Asian English Language Learners and Asian American students. We learned early on that growing LCT language programs like Chinese, depended on developing teacher certification programs and credentialing options, especially after No Child Left Behind's mandate for “highly qualified teachers.”

Since Ann had met State Senator Obama through her heavy involvement in political activism particularly in leading Chicago's South Asian American community, she introduced us, suggesting that he would be receptive to helping promote AACE's agenda. State Senator Obama immediately agreed with us at our first meeting on the need to “fast-track” and encourage the development of Chinese and other world language programs through strengthening some of the provisions for LCT languages in the Illinois statutes. I remember him conveying to us that because he grew up in Hawaii, he personally believed in the advantages of a multicultural curriculum and in the need for more American students to learn about Asia, Asian Americans, and study Asian languages.

Accompanied by Dr. Haiyan Fu, a well-known “master teacher,” author of Chinese Essentials, and developer of the model Chinese curriculum at CPS, we had a lively chat with Mr. Obama. He listened attentively as Fu Laoshi related that despite some progress towards teacher certification in Chinese - the first certification exam for Chinese was approved - pathways to teacher certification in LCT languages like Chinese and Arabic were still limited.

He also took the time to advise us about linking our issues whenever possible to other groups across races, ethnicities, and immigrant cohorts.  Little did I know that years later when he wrote about “race” in The Audacity of Hope, he would share similar advice about the power of building coalitions using “universal appeals around strategies that help all Americans…even if such strategies disproportionately help minorities.”

After our meeting, State Senator Obama acted quickly to introduce two bills, SB890 and SB891. Effective since January 1, 2004, SB890 mandates that “History of the U.S. shall be taught in all public schools and in all other educational institutions in this State…the teaching of history shall include a study of the role and contributions of African Americans and other ethnic groups including….Asian Americans.” For the first time in the Illinois legislation, Asian Americans were included in the curricula. In other words, Asian Americans now “belong” to the history of the U.S. instead of being “invisible.”  SB890 became Public Act 93-0406, legitimating Asian American curriculum in Illinois schools. I would speculate that few states in America include any study of Asian Americans in their education mandate.

The second bill, SB891, called for World Language Certificates in Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Urdu and Vietnamese. After review and debates however, the contents of SB891 were considered issues not requiring a bill given what already appeared in the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) code; it needed to be enforced fairly.  Lobbying for such a bill however, contributed to past efforts by AACE to ask Illinois legislators to prioritize teacher certification in the “critical languages” such as Chinese and Arabic. Consequently, State Senator Obama's introduction of this bill helped paved the way to ISBE Rule 25 in 2004, allowing education schools with existing foreign language certification programs to expedite such certification in these critical languages. DePaul University became the first school of education to establish language certification programs in Mandarin and Japanese in Illinois.

Fueled by this political history of state and local support for the teaching of critical languages - with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley being particularly enthusiastic about offering Chinese in every school - CPS has become the nation's largest Chinese World Language Program for K-12 public school districts.  Over 12,000 CPS students are enrolled in Chinese at 43 schools, taught by 53 full-time teachers.  With the recent news of President-elect Obama's appointment of the current CPS CEO, Arne Duncan, as Secretary of Education, perhaps a national mandate for prioritizing the development of Chinese world language programs will follow!

Although I have shared my own perspective and local anecdotal “slice of history” about President-elect Obama's support of teaching Chinese and multicultural education, I am excited about his vision of “one world” or “one jia.”  Again, from his last book, he recognizes that “…we rise and fall together…”  His strong belief in “common kinship” across nationality, race, class, religion, and other demographic variables, allows him to view countries like China as “extended family.” His personal and professional experiences have led him to proclaim passionately that there are more commonalities between us than differences.

While our nation may face many crises, both domestic and international, I believe that his multicultural sensibilities may guide him to adopting a “Chinese outlook.” Using the Chinese translation of crisis or “wei ji,” President-elect Obama will take on such “dangerous opportunities” with conviction of purpose and action. I expect that he will courageously take on such crises as opportunities to remind our nation and the world that we must “affirm our bonds with one another” and embrace our belonging to “one jia, one world.” 

[keywords: Barack Obama, Chinese, Chicago, Jia]


© Copyright 2009 by Yvonne M. Lau