SAN MARINO — To some political activists, the recent election of several Chinese Americans to San Gabriel Valley school boards reflects a coming of age in a community dominated by immigrants.
But to Rosa Tao Zee, whose win in one of those races made her the first Asian American elected to office in San Marino, victory came down to a less abstract formula: painstaking campaigning and a decade of community service that won her respect in a city known as an enclave of old wealth.
"I think probably half my votes came from the Chinese community, and half came from Anglo parents," said Zee, 44, a mother of two who taught for seven years in the Garvey Unified School District and has dedicated as many years to PTA service.
Zee, who owns an Arcadia flower shop and now volunteers as a part-time teacher, said she was swamped with calls from Asian and non-Asian supporters familiar with her career of public service. Born in China and raised in Taiwan before coming here in 1971, Zee said Asians and non-Asians alike recognize the need to bridge ethnic gaps in the city.
That need became clear to Zee during her campaign, as dozens of Asian parents came to hear her speak and ask questions--many quite basic--about the way public education works in America.
"I felt, from the questions that constantly came shooting at me, that they were hungry for answers. It's already been a bridge. The communication was just incredible," she said of her campaign.
The San Marino Unified School District is 57% Asian, according to figures compiled by the district last month. The figures indicate just how rapidly San Marino is changing: According to the 1990 U.S. Census, San Marino was 32% Asian, with the Chinese population at 25%.
As the city changes demographically, it is becoming more eager to tap the talents of newcomers, Zee said.
"I know there has always been resistance in San Marino. Way back, when some Jewish families moved in, there was resistance, so I knew it was a very conservative community," she said. "But in the time that I've been involved in the community, I gained respect, just for being me, not for being Asian."
Other evidence points to a growing openness in the upscale community.
While Zee is eager to serve all students, there is a growing realization in the community that school-age immigrants have special needs that could be best understood by an Asian American school board member.
"We all understand that most first-generation Asians here went through a period of adjustment which cannot really be described or appreciated by someone who doesn't go through this type of experience," said Dr. Allan K. Yung, who made an unsuccessful bid for a council seat in San Marino last year and is considering running again in April.
"(Zee's) election may help to speed up assimilation of the new students a lot faster and a lot smoother. This makes a better community relationship."
In years past, there was little social mixing between Anglos and Asians, but Yung said a joint effort by the city and the San Marino Chinese Club last month brought 300 people together in ethnically mixed groups of eight for dinner at households throughout the city.
Issues discussed included parachute kids--youths predominantly from Taiwan living without parental supervision in San Marino as they attend school--along with family life and even the awkward question of what to call each other. Yung said his group decided on Anglo American and Chinese American.
And for the first time in San Marino's history, a committee searching for a new school district superintendent includes Asian members, and the job description calls for someone adept at dealing with multicultural communities, said Yung, who is on the search committee.
"San Marino tends to be a conservative place and people who are conservative tend to resist change," said San Marino Mayor Eugene H. Dryden, who has lived in the community since 1936 and co-sponsored the "Dinners for Eight" with Yung.
As San Marino residents get to know their new neighbors, he said, they realize how much they have in common.
Chinese residents' "objectives are exactly the same long-term objectives as people who have lived here a long time. They want to preserve a residential town, with good schools and community participation," Dryden said. "And that community participation is something that's growing in the Chinese community now."
Key to the city's integration, Zee agreed, is a willingness on the part of Asian Americans to become involved and reach out for acceptance.
"As an Asian in this community, if you want to be treated equally, you have to break that barrier," she said. "It's scary. It's not easy. But I feel we just have to do it."