This week’s “American Voices” essay is from Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco, the city’s first Asian-American mayor.
MAYOR ED LEE: When I was growing up, my father was a cook as many Chinese immigrant families are. My mom was a garment worker. We all lived in public housing.
I remember some Christmases where we didn’t get gifts. But what we did was, my brother and sister, we’d go down in the basement and we would have fun finding the most ridiculous gifts we could give to each other. And that’s how we kind of made do with not having a whole lot during those early years.
We were all very proud of our culture, but knowing, too, that there was friction. You know, people would use phrases and then would do things that you kind of felt uncomfortable with. And, then I’d ask, you know, why did my dad get sworn at by some customers? And my mom would say, hush, we don’t talk about that.
It’s a city that actually established laws that prevented Chinese who had immigrated here in the late 1800s and the early 1900s from becoming citizens, from owning property, from even leaving the boundaries of the Chinatown. Later on, in law school I read all the cases and realized that’s part of our American experience. It’s facing these laws but having the freedom to change them.
The people that come to this city have so much hope. Everybody really wants the city to succeed because of its diversity. In Chinese for example, it’s gum san – it’s the gold mountain city. It’s the place where generations of Chinese came to find gold, to find opportunity.
Within an hour of my swearing in, there’s an invitation from President Obama to come to the White House because President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China was being hosted at a state dinner. He let me know that it was special to have the first Chinese-American mayor in San Francisco come to the White House to celebrate. There are some mayors in this country who wait for years and never get that invitation.