BORN IN CHINA, RAISED IN TEXAS
I was born in mainland China, near Guangzhou, southern China. My parents are both U.S. citizens, actually, and my father had served in the U.S. army in Germany in World War II. My mother was born in Georgia, her family had a grocery store there. They were married in San Antonio, Texas but then returned to China after World War II. My father was studying under the GI Bill, and that's why I was born in China.
My family returned to the United States following the communist revolution, we moved to Houston when I was 3 years old. We lived in the east side, which was a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. My parents operated a grocery store, like many other Asian Americans did at that time.
It was difficult, because as a child, you don't want to be different from your peers. I had the racial taunts like, "Chink, Chink, Chinaman" or "Chino, Chino, Japones," in Spanish. I used to wish I was Hispanic just so I'd be like all the other kids in school. So, I didn't appreciate my ethnicity until I got older.
My grandfather lived with us and we certainly were aware of our Chinese background. We didn't speak much Chinese, but we always ate Chinese food. We attended a Chinese-Baptist church, which was really more like a community center.
On Sundays, Chinese families from around the city would gather together at the church and the kids would play together. We knew we were different, but we had a lot of friends in similar situations.
FROM ENGINEERING TO POLITICS
I started out trying to be an engineer because I thought that was what Asian males were supposed to do. My parents wanted me to go to college and become a professional person of some type. But I went into history and government because that's what I really enjoyed. I became a teacher in an inner-city school and that was pretty depressing.
I taught in a predominantly black school in Houston, in a very poor neighborhood and the people I saw really weren't motivated to succeed in school. I even went to night school to become a counselor. But I saw how slow it was to change people one at a time. So I decided to go to law school.
I was very active politically as far as supporting other people and eventually I got into immigration law. I felt that there was a disconnect between a lot of new immigrants and the government. Whether they're naturalized or have been here as permanent residents, people still thought of them as foreigners. They thought, "We'll just take care of our own business, we're not gonna impose upon the government to help us."
That's why I decided to run for office. I felt like if they saw somebody that they knew, they could say, "Oh yeah, Mr. Quan, he was my attorney before. I can go to him with problems." And that the people could say, "Yes! Asian Americans they have a role in this city."
ASIAN AMERICAN POLITICIAN IN A MULTICULTURAL CITY
Obviously, we cannot limit our scope just to the Asian American community. I make it a point to reach as many non-Asian American events as possible, too. I'm out in the Hispanic community, the African-American community.
As an Asian American, I'm hoping to build bridges between our different communities and get people to say, "Hey, it's ok to go to these other groups too." I want them to say, "You know, they care about us too, they don't just care about themselves." I think there has been a sense that we only take care of our own.
We've tried to work through confrontations between the Asian and the African American communities. We started the Northeast Houston Multicultural Coalition where merchants signed a code that said they would treat customers with respect. But by the same token, the African-American community was to try to build respect toward the merchants, because these are people that come to our community to provide services to us, they are our friends.
DON'T BELIEVE THE STEREOTYPES
We end up stereotyping ourselves and limiting ourselves as to what occupations, what fields that we can go into. I talked to you about wanting to become an engineer because I thought that was what Asian males do.
But there's nothing really to say that we can't do it, I want to encourage people to go for whatever they want to do. They can be the next Yo Yo Ma, or they can be the next Yao Ming. Of course, if you're 7 foot 6, that helps. But I think that Asian Americans are realizing that we can succeed in all types of fields, including politics.
Council Member Gordon Quan grew up in Houston's East End, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. After working as a teacher in an inner-city school, Quan became an attorney and practised immigration law for twenty years. His political career officially took off when he was elected to the Houston City Council in 2000. Quan was later unanimously approved by the Council to serve as Mayor Pro-Tem in 2002.