WASHINGTON — Like many other young Asian-Americans, Margaret Chin was frustrated. Although recognizing that a rising number of issues were becoming increasingly important to her community, she knew that they weren't getting enough attention, let alone action.
"I realized we don't have enough representation," said Chin, who recently was elected to the New York State Democratic Committee. "We have ideas and proposals on issues like housing, education and jobs, but the only way to get them out is to get in and push them."
Asian-American political activists across the country say Chin is one of a growing number of Asian-Americans who, following the examples of blacks and Latinos before them, are changing the political landscape of America.
Galvanized by a range of issues, including violence against Asian-Americans, bilingualism and their opposition to what they call anti-Asian trade legislation, Asian-Americans--who typically have been reluctant to engage in aggressive politics--are asserting themselves politically with unprecedented vigor.
Change in Stereotypes
In a historical context, this is no small change. Over the years, the stereotypes of Asian-Americans have undergone an unlikely transformation: from negative portrayals of "inscrutable Orientals" to positive images of an ambitious, hard-working ethnic group.
But underlying the apparent metamorphosis has been a consistent theme, one that led to a widespread description of Japanese-Americans during World War II as "the quiet Americans." Even now, for all their widely recognized economic prosperity and cultural assimilation, Asian-Americans still are viewed as a people without a voice.
No one is more aware of this than Chin, who got into politics because she believes that, without an active public voice, Asian-Americans would continue to be subjected to the perpetual stereotyping that has followed them for more than a century.
Volunteer for Cuomo
So Chin, 33, who came to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 9, worked as a volunteer in campaigns for New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Walter F. Mondale. Chin, director of an adult education program in New York, now says she is "getting my feet wet, learning" on the state Democratic committee.
However, Asian-Americans lack the numerical clout of Latino and black voters. Moreover, although many Asian-Americans assert that the Democratic Party is their natural ally, some still resent the party's 1985 decision to dismantle its system of special-interest caucuses, including those representing black, Latino, women and Asian-American voters.
Nevertheless, Asian-American activists say their time has come. "The light bulb has turned on," said Ginger Lew, chairman of the National Democratic Council of Asian & Pacific Americans. "We are experiencing a political maturation that parallels our generational maturity."
Reasons for Past Inactivity
Experts on Asian-American politics say there are several reasons for past political inactivity. Among them:
--The period of adjustment that all immigrants experience. Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), a second-generation Japanese-American, said many Asian-Americans have been taught at home to "work hard, get a good education and prepare yourself for the future. This whole issue of being active in politics wasn't part of the equation."
--Discrimination. Japanese-Americans were locked in camps during World War II and, even after they were released, they and other Asian-Americans--like blacks and Latinos--had to fight bruising battles to become both voters and candidates.
--A cultural bias against politics. Thomas Hsieh, a San Francisco supervisor who was born in Beijing and came to this country in 1951, recalls family teaching that portrayed politics "as something not reliable, as something dirty."
Much has changed. Asian-Americans have made substantial economic gains, outlasted much discrimination and joined the political fray with verve. But, of course, an American history of dashed dreams and battered hopes makes Asian-Americans less than sanguine about political and social advances.
'Long Way to Go'
Noting that national political successes lag behind local ones, Mineta said: "We've made a lot of progress, but there's still a long way to go."
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), a third-generation Japanese-American, said that political activism will directly improve the lot of Asian-Americans as they elect members of their group and that, as political power increases, "you will see other politicians responding in a positive way."
Many Asian-American political activists say they are fighting the perception that they are not a minority in need of protections granted to other ethnic groups.
"Positive things are being used against us," said David Valderrma, a Probate Court judge in Prince George's County, Md., noting that Asians enjoy huge successes in education, for example, and now face a backlash from non-Asian students.
Concentrated Effort Urged