Rep. Grace Meng on civic engagement, public service, and being Chinese American — The first Asian American congressperson from the East Coast speaks with the Asian Weekly

By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly

From left: Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, Rep. Grace Meng, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and CISC Board President Janet Ung (Photo from CISC)

Newly minted Rep. Grace Meng of New York City has helped create a lot of firsts. She managed the campaign of the first Asian American candidate to be elected to the New York State legislature. She became the first Asian American representative elected to Congress from the East Coast last November. On Saturday, Feb. 23, she made her first visit to Seattle to see what ways the federal government could help the community and to take ideas back to New York and Washington, D.C.

Born in Queens and representing an increasingly diverse district, Meng has had the challenge of growing between being Chinese and American and representing constituents who are both or more.

The Northwest Asian Weekly was able to sit down with Meng for a few moments during her trip to Seattle to speak about being Chinese American, the community in New York, and getting into politics.

NWAW: How did being born in and growing up in New York affect your relationship with your heritage? How is your relationship with your heritage now?

Meng: I think it’s great. Growing up, I always struggled with not wanting to learn and speak Chinese, even though my parents and grandparents forced me. But because I listened to them, I have a much easier time communicating with the previous generation. And so, I think that especially seeing younger people run for office and representing the older generation, it’s been very helpful to be able to communicate with them better.

NWAW: Would you identify yourself as mostly American, mostly Chinese, or a good mix between the two?

Meng: It’s definitely a mix. I often remind the Chinese community, the older generation, that they’re also American. I always say that Americans are not just blond hair, blue-eyed people — that they look Asian, but that they’re American also.

NWAW: You’re the first Asian American U.S. representative from the East Coast. Why do you think it’s taken so long for New York City, such a diverse city, to send an Asian American representative to Congress?

Meng: One reason why I’ve been visiting other states such as Washington is to get a glimpse and a better understanding of the Asian communities here.

In New York, a lot of the immigrants are newer immigrants. They’re not necessarily here to get a better education. They’re not necessarily professionals. They may have been professionals in their home country, but when they came here, they started from the bottom — restaurants, delis, gas stations, what have you. Language was definitely an obstacle for them. The last thing they’ll think about is entering into politics.

Also, in Asian households, my parents were never against it, but they never understood why all my friends had paid summer internships, while I had to work for free. It’s not necessarily encouraged.

NWAW: Would you say the Asian community there is less civically engaged?

Meng: Definitely. It’s gotten a little better now that there are more Asians running for office, so people are more interested when there’s an Asian candidate. But at the same time, we always tell them that you have to vote when there are no Asians running also.

NWAW: How did you get into public service?

Meng: When I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher or a lawyer. Eventually, I thought I wanted to work for a government agency or a nonprofit organization, but I never thought about running for office. Long story short, there was an opportunity I felt that at the time the assembly person that represented us wasn’t doing as good as a job as she should have been, so I ran against her and here we are.

NWAW: What would you tell a young person who is interested in getting into public service?

Meng: I would tell them to get involved, either politically or just in their community. A lot of young people have a misconception that if you want to get into politics, they’ll go to school and get into political science. But you really need a relationship with the community, helping the community and the local area. (end)

Charles Lam can be reached at charles@nwasianweekly.com.

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