Over breakfast two weeks ago during a family vacation in Hong Kong, my father was recounting his stories of growing up young and poor in Seattle, Washington. His family had so little money, he said, that he and his younger siblings would scavenge the basement for Christmas gifts to give to one another.
“You’d unwrap it, and it would be an old shoe – just the left one,” he told us between fits of laughter, “Then you’d open the second present, and it would be a shoelace. Now you had a whole set!”
Two weeks later – and it really was as sudden as it seems – our family sat in the front row of the rotunda in San Francisco’s City Hall, watching my father, Ed Lee, being sworn in as the city’s first Asian-American mayor.
None of us had really seen this coming. The past several days have been a whirlwind for my family, not to mention my father, who just a week and a half ago started receiving late-night calls about considering the nomination for a year-long post as the city’s interim mayor. The messy details of the nomination process have been well documented in the Bay Area media, and my family has been paying rapt attention to the coverage while simultaneously living in a somewhat surreal space. Ed Lee had been well known within City Hall for quite some time, but suddenly he was the center of attention in an outpouring of local articles and analyses, not to mention several fake Twitter accounts, a comical fascination with his mustache (“Fear the ‘stache!” is an odd new rallying cry) and a hilarious fan website attempting to create a new Chuck Norris meme out of him (“Ed Lee once wrestled a cable car with his mustache”; “Whispering ‘Ed Lee’ brings good luck”).
In that moment, watching the inaugural oath before thousands of people who came out to City Hall that afternoon, it was easy to see the unfolding of a familiar narrative, indisputably American at its core: A Chinese-American man, the fourth of six children of poor immigrant parents, works his way through college, law school and the inner machinery of local politics, all the way up to the highest political office in San Francisco. The unmistakable “American Dream” portrait that began with a poor family exchanging old shoes as gifts and wound up at the highest rank of an internationally recognized city is the very model on which so many of this country’s ideals rest. As I sat in the rotunda next to my 85-year-old grandmother, who raised six children as a garment worker, it was hard not to witness this seemingly sudden shift through generations without a sense of incredulity.
But my family has long understood that getting to this point was not just about working hard and overcoming daunting obstacles, but also about a constant and aggressive fight toward progress. In this country’s long and not always proud history of race, my father and I grew up in wildly different times and places. He went to college in a town with so few Asians that other students believed him when he joked that Bruce Lee was his brother. He protested in support of ethnic studies programs in universities and witnessed elderly tenants in Chinatown’s housing projects being denied basic amenities like hot water and electricity. He turned away from a top-tier academic program in international affairs because of the State Department’s unfavorable track record with promoting people of Asian descent. Instead, he spent more than a decade in a career as a civil rights lawyer, leading the first-ever tenant rent strike against the San Francisco Housing Authority and suing the government for discriminatory hiring against women and minorities in the city’s fire department.
I, on the other hand, attended schools where Asians made up more than half of the population. I have never once been directly called any racial epithets. In college, I had the luxury of enrolling in two ethnic studies courses, and I grew up under the watch of not one, but two Asian-American police chiefs in my hometown. I am certainly not blind to the persistent prejudice against immigrant and minority communities, but I can’t help but feel cushioned from the conditions of my father’s generation. I understand that the privileges I’ve experienced are a direct result of the struggles of him, his colleagues and all their predecessors.
Last week, the communities he has served for so many years seemed to embrace him wholeheartedly. While the city’s Board of Supervisors was still deliberating on the position, scores of Chinese-American seniors rallied at City Hall with orange stickers bearing his name and picture. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors meeting opened the floor to members of the community, several of whom wished him well in the new term. The scene is definitely worth a watch for a true portrait of San Francisco: Between the residents who came to voice some real local concerns were: a man proclaiming the End of Days; a performance in song by Walter, a weekly contributor who sang a rendition of “Red Red Wine” — “Stay close to me / It’s Mayor Lee”; a man carrying a cheerleader pom-pom with a Christmas stocking pinned to the back of his jacket; and a woman who urged the board to “please keep San Francisco sucka-free.”
Afterward, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to appoint my father. As he finished taking his oath before the crowd, Rose Pak, a Chinatown community leader and a powerhouse in San Francisco politics (and a family friend whom I had always known as “Auntie Rose”), shouted to the room, “We did it!”