Becoming American: With Observations on American Society and Politics



My father’s mother was the embodiment of our roots in Suzhou, where our family had lived since the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history 2500 years ago according to family lore. She was born in the waning days of China’s last dynasty and adhered to the traditional ways: she had bound feet as befit a highborn woman of that era, made food in the sweet Suzhou style, and refused to speak Mandarin, insisting that the world deal with her in the more refined (in her view) Suzhou dialect. She spent every day with me, taught me in a dialect which sounded almost alien from Mandarin, and tried to inculcate me with Suzhou traditions. My parents were born in the 1920s, lived through the Warlord Period, the War Against Japanese Aggression (World War 11 to Westerners), moved to Taiwan and from there, observed the Communist Revolution, Civil War, or Liberation, depending on your politics. We emigrated from Taiwan to America, where we obtained further education, became middle class, and where I eventually became a United States Congressman. For China, and for the Wu family, it had been an eventful century. This story is about America, a country where we found peace and built prosperous lives, and the adjustments I made to become American.


I intend this book to be a collection of stories useful to my children so that they can avoid the errors I made and make mistakes of their own, but I am writing it primarily for an audience in China not familiar with America and its ways. The book will address my personal experiences immigrating to and assimilating in American society-becoming American. I will also make general observations about American politics, society and institutions based on my experiences in running for office and serving in the US Congress. I am writing in the hope that my book will promote knowledge in China of this complex and confusing country. Many Americans believe that to know us is to love us, but that is not true-Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, studied for two years at Harvard, and many of the terrorists plaguing us today spent time in the US. I do not expect to solve specific Sino-American problems, but I hope that a better mutual understanding will make each of us more predictable to the other, and in this way avoid major crises between the two great powers of this century. Also, my writing may permit the Chinese people to consider carefully those things that have worked for America, to apply what is applicable to their own country and true to its unique history and culture, and thereby to create a China that today exists only in their dreams.


Originally, I had intended to retrace the path of Alexis de Tocqueville when he explained American democracy and society to a French audience 180 years ago. After I brought the earliest version of my work to publishers in China, their uniform reaction was that they were less interested in a grand work like de Tocqueville’s and more in a book about my personal experiences in American politics, something that they viewed as unique. I am the first Chinese-American to be elected to the US House of Representatives in the 240 year history of the United States. They were also interested in how I adjusted to American society, whether I am comfortable and accepted here. The publishers made my book much easier to write because its subject matter became something I know well—my life. As for my prior ambitions to write a 21st century update of de Tocqueville’s encyclopedic work, the only remnants of those efforts are in this Preface, which covers only a few topics with the barest of brush strokes.


Immigration and Assimilation


For those who live outside the three major Anglo-colonial countries where immigrants are common (Australia, Canada, and the United States) the relative ease of adjustment to America and acceptance of immigrants here seems strange because it is uncommon in nations other than these three. When I studied in Vienna during college, it surprised me that a German immigrant who moves from Bavaria (the area of Germany immediately adjacent and most similar to Austria) will forever be considered German, not Austrian. No amount of eagerness to be accepted, or careful study of the minute differences in language and culture, will overcome the accident of birth on the German side of a border that has shifted between the two countries in modern history. In this sense, China is similar to Austria: one cannot become Chinese or Austrian in one generation, whereas immigrants to America can become American merely by having a desire to be one.


President Barack Obama has a Kenyan father. He is therefor truly African American. His family lived on welfare at times, yet he was able to attend the best schools in America on scholarship, became an attorney and law professor, rose quickly through the political ranks, and ended his improbable ascent as President of the United States. Foreigners may know his story, but not considered its full significance. It speaks forcefully to the possibilities open to immigrants (as well as anyone else) in America.


For each individual who ‘Americanizes,” the process is lengthy, complex, and unique. However, our stories have enough in common to permit meaningful generalizations. As for my story, Chinese tend to focus on my political life and ask numerous questions about how someone born in a foreign country, a very alien culture, and coming to America not speaking its dominant language could become a United States Congressman. Perhaps these questions arise in part because of the absence of public elections in China for its higher offices and the total impossibility that a foreign born person could achieve power in its government. In contrast, during the years that I served in the United States Congress, there were three foreign born congressmen whose constituents elected them to the highest legislative office in our country. Countless other foreign born men and women serve this country in its state and local governments. The sources of America’s open government and society are important reasons why I was able to become an American and then a congressman, and a part of the answer to the questions Chinese ask.




American Values, Society, and Politics


Americans of the early twenty first century frequently speak of American exceptionalism, by which they mean that we are unique, and sotto voce, that we are superior. Addressing only the claim that we are unique, I suggest that these Americans are largely wrong. Canada and Australia are mirror images of the United States. All three are children of a common parent-Great Britain-and share its legal and cultural values. All three have relatively low population density, a huge land mass, abundant natural resources, no difficulty feeding their own population, and are protected by broad oceans and friendly neighbors which, for most of their history, have created a sense of safety and encouraged self absorption (any foreign invasions that occurred in their history were minor and mostly forgotten today). These nations also share relatively open immigration policies: 28% foreign born in Australia (as of 2014), 20.6% foreign born in Canada (as of 2013), and 13.7% foreign born in the U.S. (as of 2015). The percentage of foreign born people in all three countries was projected to increase. Foreigners are usually welcome because abundance and security foster a generosity of spirit, and this has in turn created heterogeneous populations and cultures. So while America may not be unique, each of the three large Anglo-colonial countries has its own variation of otherwise very similar legal, cultural, and political attributes.


The Rule of Law as a Central Value of America


At a town hall in China, a graduate student asked me, “What are the basic values of America?” After careful consideration, I said that our core value is belief in our Constitution. I explained that because Americans come from many different countries and cultures, modern America cannot depend on a common history and culture to hold it together, unlike other nations. What we have is a shared belief in our legal system. The American economy, society, and government depend upon this legal framework, and our belief in the rule of law and acceptance of the law and the Constitution as interpreted by the courts is the central value that holds our otherwise centripetal nation together. The student then asked whether I thought freedom is also a core value, and I wondered why I had not started with freedom as the core American value, as so many foreigners and Americans might. (((see also discussion in section……re de Tocqueville—his claim that society rather than law is more important to democracy is incorrect)))


On later reflection, I think that while freedom is a core American value, it is one shared by many countries, while putting a constitution in such a central role is uniquely American. Of our three close relatives, Australia and Canada created their constitutions relatively recently and Great Britain has none, but the people of all three nations enjoy freedoms familiar to Americans. Many nations now have constitutions, but the role of their constitutions seems different from ours. If you listen to any political talk show on radio or television in America where people call to express their opinions, there are constant references to constitutional rights—usually that they have been violated. Everything from freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom from the taking of private property without adequate compensation, among many other freedoms, are referred to by the callers as “my constitutional rights.” Therefore, while Americans have freedoms in common with other peoples, what separates Americans from them is that they view their freedoms as derived from their constitution ab initio rather than in the final analysis. Scratch an American and you have violated his constitutional rights. In most other countries, debates about freedom often are only tenuously connected with that country’s constitution, and in the case of Great Britain, pervasive freedom exists in the complete absence of a written constitution. There are also instances in which a country has a constitution that protects many freedoms in theory, but where freedoms do not exist in practice.


A Society of Immigration, Stabilization, and Growth


America always has been a society of immigration—every American is either an immigrant or descended from immigrants. The ancestors of Native Americans walked over an Ice Age land bridge from Asia to North America. Vikings tried to settle Newfoundland a thousand years ago and failed, but six hundred years later English, Dutch, French, and Spanish settlements survived. The Spanish had what is now the American south and southwest to themselves for a time, but the Dutch, French, and English dueled for supremacy in the Northeast for about two centuries before Britain established its supremacy, just before the American colonies declared their independence. After the early settlers came wave after wave of immigrants, the smaller ripples welcomed, the tsunami resented, resisted, legislated against, and even fought in the streets. After each wave came a period of assimilation-digestion by the society at large, if you will. America stabilized, and then the next wave would come. Our family was part of the latest wave—the one from Asia, but we had the good or bad fortune, depending on your perspective, of being an early part of that wave, and arriving at a time when the percentage of foreign born in America was at a historic low.


From its earliest days, America has also been a society of growth, which deeply shaped its psyche. Not only has its population grown from immigration and native birth, its land area has expanded into an underexploited continent with rich resources. These two factors, coupled with hard work and innovation, built an economy that grew with few interruptions for over two centuries. Americans assume that there will be progress and that their lives will get better. Growth and improvement are a way of life and always will be—it is a birthright of being American. This state of mind has social implications: the problems of today will be solved by the growth or innovations of tomorrow; any social injustice can be righted by having more to share by all rather than by painful redistribution; social frictions are decreased because there’s always a solution around the corner. Americans live on hope as much as actual progress. As someone who immigrated to this country of freedom and prosperity as a child and who later became a technology lawyer specializing in forming new companies and creating new jobs, the psychology, economic outlook, and politics of hope are at the core of my being.


The Politics of Adjustment


Constant change brought by immigration, expansion, and growth has created a unique political culture that selects for individuals who can adjust quickly, and a system of governance that both accommodates change and maintains stability. Senator Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 advocating the segregation of black and white Americans. He ran for reelection to the Senate in the 1980’s kissing black babies while campaigning. Crass politics? Perhaps, but also a recognition of, and I would argue, support for a new era in American racial politics. Similarly, my election as the first Chinese American member of the House of Representatives and Gary Locke’s election as Governor of Washington in 1997-98 shows how American society and government adapt and change. It may have taken 220 years, but it did happen, and Chinese–American reluctance to enter politics was the largest factor in how long it took.


Few systems of government have accommodated and survived as much change as the American, and few have lasted as long in the modern era. The basic constitutional framework is stable and sparse. Congress embellishes it through legislation. Judicial interpretation of those laws applies them to specific situations. Interpretation of statutes to fit specific circumstances creates flexibility, while the constitutional framework supplies a stable backbone. This combination has been remarkably successful in adopting new laws and finding new leadership when necessary, and rejecting most bad laws and potentially awful leaders. Since America declared independence in 1776, we have avoided electing to the presidency a “bad emperor,” to use Professor Francis Fukuyama’s term. We shall see whether Donald Trump wins the 2016 election, but even if he wins, one bad emperor every 240 years is not a bad record for any system of government.




I am writing a long note about race in America because many Chinese audiences (and some Chinese-American ones too) assume that race has been a central issue in my life, and perhaps in American life in general. Sadly, race remains an issue in American politics and society, but my personal experiences usually have been positive. Chinese and Chinese-American audiences frequently ask whether I was subject to discrimination in my personal life, whether my former constituents discriminated against me when they voted, and whether my colleagues in Congress were prejudiced. While my experiences are not sui generis, they do typify situations and times like mine. I grew up in 1960s America. There were few large groups of minorities other than African Americans, who were subject to social prejudice and discrimination, sometimes enforced by state and local laws. Other racial groups were small and individuals were more curiosities than threats. The percentage of foreign-born in America was at a historic low. Our numbers were small enough that we were forced to mix by sheer numbers. What I write here apply to those times and ethnic groups-they do not apply to the conditions faced by African American and Hispanic Americans today, which I am poorly placed to tell. I think that for these two groups, discrimination exists and is strong.


More importantly for the purposes of this book, there is a political divide in attitudes about race in America. Conservatives believe that little discrimination exists and that affirmative action to overcome it has become overblown to the point of reverse discrimination (against white Americans). Liberals believe that strong discrimination still exists and that more affirmative action is needed. This divide is mirrored in attenuated form in the Asian American community: young people tend to be more liberal and therefor share the beliefs of liberals in general; older Asian Americans tend to be more conservative and therefor share the beliefs of conservatives in general. While this divide in the Asian American community should not be overplayed, the belief systems of conservative and liberal Asian Americans call for racial policies that are quite different. There is a third group—recent Asian immigrants who want to get their children into schools like Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. Among these parents, there is a pervasive belief that elite schools discriminate against their children in favor of Caucasians, African Americans and Hispanics in order to “build” a balanced student population, one that requires Asian American students to have higher grades and test scores in order to gain admission, and that there may be a cap on the percentage of Asian Americans at each school (Stanford, Harvard, and Yale each have 20%, a suspicious consistency).


As for our family, we lived in white neighborhoods and became comfortable with our neighbors-they did not discriminate by race and neither did we. I quickly learned their values, culture and even the regional rhythms and accents of their language. Later in life, I would marry a Caucasian woman. At my schools, you could not find enough fellow Asian students to “hang out” together as a group, and I became part of the majority rather than a separate minority. That is not true today. As America’s fastest growing minority in percentage terms, Asian-American families can now choose to live in predominantly Asian American neighborhoods. Asian American children can choose to play with other Asian American kids on recess, or to sit together at lunch. I think this is more a matter of cultural comfort and personal preference rather than racial prejudice by either ethnic group, but it is nonetheless unfortunate. In exchange for whatever temporary comfort gained, both sides lose an opportunity to learn about a different culture, broaden one’s horizons, and become at ease with people who are different.


When I ran for Congress in Oregon, I don’t think voters were prejudiced, or more precisely, that the minor racial prejudice against me was roughly balanced by the minor racial prejudice working in my favor. I was given a poll taken for an Asian-American candidate in a different state. It showed that about three percent of voters were biased against Asian-American candidates because of race and three percent were biased in favor of Asian-American candidates. I think the reasons found by the poll are fascinating. On the positive side, voters thought that Asians value hard work, academic achievement, and defer short term gratification in favor of long term goals. On the negative side, they thought Asians are insular, don’t “share our values” (a polling term subject to elastic interpretation), and that Asian men, to use a gentle turn of phrase, are not sufficiently masculine. As for my personal experiences, during 14 years of voter contact which included two years of campaigning before I was in office knocking on doors, meeting people on commuter trains and busses (by the way, people are much happier going home than going to work), shaking hands at high school football games, marching in parades, and walking around county fairs, there was not one racially biased comment made to me or that I could hear.


Two caveats: first, racial tolerance may vary by geography. A poll taken by an Asian American organization found a higher level of prejudice against Asian Americans in the southeast region of the United States. Polling for prejudice against other racial groups find similar geographic disparities: more prejudice against minorities in the Southeast States of the Old Confederacy.


I think that being in a small minority helps. That is, I ran for Congress in Oregon, where there are very few Asians or Asian Americans. It may be counterintuitive, but I think that helped rather than hurt. I was easily notable (stood out from the norm, which is helpful in American politics) without being threatening. However, if you are in a larger minority, there may be more resistance to your candidacy. A law school friend of mine is active in Southern California Hispanic politics. I asked him why there is discrimination against Hispanic candidates today while there was little or none when we grew up in Southern California two decades earlier. His opinion was that until the Hispanic voting population exceeds 30-35%, there is little chance for a Hispanic candidate to be elected because the white majority won’t vote for a Hispanic candidate-they feel threatened by the ethnic change they see happening around them. After that threshold is exceeded, a minority candidate can form coalitions with other groups, whether minorities or liberals, and build a winning majority.


My theory to explain these seemingly disparate electoral phenomena is that winning elections in America is easier as a member of a very small minority, or in a jurisdiction with a majority-minority population, or in a jurisdiction with a minority plurality large enough for the minorities to form a majority in coalition with other minority groups. To borrow a descriptive phrase from financing high tech startup companies, there is a “Valley of Death” between low voter registration percentages and high voter registration percentages. Gary Locke, elected governor of Washington State where there are few Asian-Americans, and I, elected from neighboring Oregon where there are even fewer, were on one side of the Valley of Death. Congressman Mike Honda, elected from a Congressional District where there is a plurality of Asian American voters that can form a majority in concert with other minorities, is on the other side of the divide.


As for discrimination by or between members of Congress based on race, it would be political suicide for two independent reasons. In twenty first century America, racism has become unacceptable, and even prejudiced people know to keep racist opinions to themselves. The polling which found higher rates of racism in the southeast states used sophisticated methods to “trick the interviewee” to admit hidden racism. Racism is viewed as a personal failing to be kept private and, not an attribute to be made public. A racist congressional candidate would be ripped to shreds by the press, and voters would be reluctant to admit that they support such a candidate. Within the halls of Congress, any racism would result in the immediate ostracism of the offender and total loss of political effectiveness, in part because of concern about political consequences by the other members of Congress and in part, I would like to believe, because we are electing men and women of better character. The 2002 resignation of Trent Lott from his Senate leadership position because he questioned whether Strom Thurman’s segregationist 1948 presidential campaign was truly racist (rather than based on southern history and culture) illustrates these factors at work.


In this first section of my book, I shall share my personal experiences in becoming American. I hope that journey will illuminate important aspects of American society. The second section of this book will focus directly on my political life in order to explain American politics and government as I see them.