Chinese-American political activists have long blamed on the community’s low voter turnout, but leaders said they saw changes in recent years.
When younger Chinese American were busy working in the city’s skyscrapers, the less-busy elderly who were identified as linguistic isolated turned out to be the major targets of political campaigners in the Greater Boston.
Nov.8 outside a polling station at 38 Oak Street, Chinatown, Yongtang Li, 76, tightly held his walker to stand and waited in line with other aged voters.
“Regardless of personal affairs, Mr. Clinton once helped to recover our economy. If Hillary headed to White House, his husband will go with her, right?” Li asked.
Li said, last time he voted as a U.S. citizen was years ago when he just gained the residential identity and could still read some English. “But just one year after the test, I forget everything,” Li said.
This year people reached out to Li and, for the first time, Massachusetts citizens are provided with bilingual ballots in the presidential election after Gov. Deval Patrick signed the related bill in July 2014.
What seriously language means?
Language barrier is a big deal for Chinese American.
Nearly half of Chinese Americans (46 percent) are defined by Census Bureau as having Limited English Proficiency, that is, to self-report speaking English less than “very well”. By comparison, 32 percent of Asian overall, 38 percent of Hispanics, and only three percent of blacks, two percent of whites self-reported so, according to the 2014 American Community Survey.
Also, 29 percent of Chinese-American households were linguistically isolated, with no one 14 or older able to speak English exclusively or “very well”. The figure is much higher than are all U.S. citizens (5 percent) and Asians overall (17 percent), according to a Census 2008-2012 survey.
But what lies beneath the language impact the community more profoundly: the community’s foreign-born origins and thus a lack of civic awareness, said Cliff Li, the executive director of National Committee of Asian-American Republicans.
He blamed these two factors for the community’s low civic participation.
In Boston, China along with Dominican Republic are the top two origin countries of the foreign-born, according to an analysis of 2007-2011 Census data.
Nationwide, over two-thirds of Chinese Americans were foreign-born (69 percent) and similar account for U.S. citizens (72 percent), according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s data in 2012.
Many of these Chinese immigrants believed “a model harmless citizen should hoe their own potatoes,” Li said. This more insular focus on their lives explains “why they can pay much attention to children’s education but rarely take part in political issues,” he said.
“Many see themselves as outsiders failed to fit in, but it is this conviction that made them more unrepresented in the politics,” Li said.
All these traits notably stand out among the aged Chinese American.
“Look around here,” Ren Ye said while standing in a Chinatown polling line, “all old people.”
“Total outsiders. Know little English.” Ye said, “They will vote as they were told. They need the faster runner to set the pace so that they can follow.”
How Chinese American taught to vote?
The Chinese Progressive Association, made up of low-income Chinese-speaking workers and elderly in Boston, is one of the many that try to take the lead in this race.
This October the Association held a bilingual voter education workshop at the Castle Square Community Center, where serves 500 low-and-moderate-income apartments of Asian, Latinos, and African Americans.
In the workshop, older Chinese American citizens figured prominently.
“Does anybody know who are the candidates this year?” a lecturer asked in Cantonese, receiving many confused faces and some whispers of “Hillary”.
Mark Liu, the operations program director of the Association, had to explain the presidential race. “There are four candidates this year for the presidency.” But silence prevailed until his words were translated.
“Some seniors can’t even match candidates’ faces with their names”, said Pansy Wang, who attended the workshop and worked in September’s primary election at the polling station in front of Community Center. She said few voted.
“Among the 500 households of the community center, only two came to vote,” she said. “I waited there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
Weeks before Election Day, Wang walked into the workshop Liu’s organization held, but this veteran of 15 elections was disappointed.
Main resources she got were handouts: A flyer in English listed the basic positions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, citing their famous/infamous quotes. Another paper that outlined the issues in the state’s ballot questions was written in Chinese but limited to three sentences.
“The workshop is less informative than what I received from the City Hall’s mailing envelope,” Wang said, “It doesn’t help me.”
When Wang raised her hand in the middle of the lecture, asking for more explanation about Question 4, the marijuana legalization proposal, an attendee sitting beside her murmured, “All you need is already on the handouts.”
The woman’s attitude angered Wang. “If she felt satisfied with what she learned in the lecture, she could keep silent. But to ask a question is my right,” she said.
Yet there were few questions. Much of the session seemed like a seminar on how attendees should vote.
After the 40-minute lecture, one member of the audience asked for a re-clarification on how to vote for Question 2, a bid to increase the number of charter school. The lecturers responded that public schools like the Josiah Quincy Elementary School, five minutes away from Chinatown, could be negatively affected if Question 2 took effect.
The handouts also recommended how to vote on the controversial issues such as the charter school’s expansion and the marijuana legalization.
Wang said she understood the organizers tried to make it easy and involved more people in, but “to have an inclination was not correct.”
Wang called much of the session “simplified” and “biased.”
Rising Areas and New Generation
But the issue of Chinese-American suffrage is shifting with a growing population in nearby cities such as Quincy, where people of Asian heritage account for a quarter of the population and a third of the students in public school.
The city has attracted a sizeable population of well-educated Chinese immigrant couples, looking for a good education for children and the convenience of a suburb. These families tend to identify more with their white, American neighbors than with Chinatown residents.
Frank Poon, president of Chinese American Citizen Right Alliance, is trying to tap that growing voter strength.
Poon held five workshops on October to roughly 220 to 250 registered voters. “I told them that you have the right to vote for any side, anyone, but what I encourage you to do is just to vote, to show the government we do care,” Poon said.
“The recent three years have seen a turning point in Chinese-American civil participation,” Poon and Cliff Li agreed.
What happened in Greater Boston, Li said, amid a shifting demographic of younger, college-educated immigrants more inclined to become U.S. citizens, is just an epitome of the country.
He said he felt optimistic about the community’s future civic performance.