This book is intended for a Chinese audience to tell the story of how I immigrated to America, assimilated into American society, and eventually became an American congressman. My political experiences hopefully will inform those in China who wish to consider different forms of governance.
Different Communities, Different Incomes, and Fairness in America
Palos Verdes is a suburb of Los Angeles perched on hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Lawyers, doctors, bankers, and other comfortably upper middle class to upper class families live on its winding streets in uniformly new (in 1964), well appointed homes, some with spectacular sunset views of the ocean. Westminster is classically working class Orange County. On the town seal, the phrase, “The Heart of Orange County” is emblazoned over a seemingly endless, flat suburb with a grid of streets stretching to the horizon. The homes were a mix of new and old, ranging from those in brand new, not yet completed housing tracts to well worn, “ranch houses” common in California. At the upper income end were the aerospace workers common in Southern California. At the lower end were the unemployed about to drop out of the middle class. There were no lawyers or bankers living there, but eventually one retired Army doctor moved into our area—temporarily.
Had I attended the public schools of Palos Verdes with their well heeled students, I would have gone on to the elite, private universities I later attended with less sense of indignation about economic inequality in America, and perhaps even with a sense of personal entitlement. Instead, graduating from Westminster High School and going on to Stanford made me acutely aware that America does not apportion opportunities equally, that the claim political conservatives make that there is equality of opportunity in America is based on either ignorance or deceit. At Stanford, I was surrounded by the children of the lawyers, doctors and bankers who lived in places like Palos Verdes. There were fewer students like me, students from Westminster and white, working class towns like Westminster. At my high school, there were many bright, hard working students who never considered attending college, students who may have worked hard in school, but also had to work after school to support their family, students who never aspired to go to college because their families had not gone and therefor didn’t value college, students who volunteered for the Marine Corps or Army because that’s what you did. Post high school, even during the years I aspired to be a scientist, I had a sense that something was wrong in America, that the claim about equality of opportunity was at best a national aspiration yet to be achieved, and at worst something that makes the privileged feel good about themselves, and makes the poor blame themselves rather than their society.
Because of my experiences in Westminster, I favor affirmative action, but based on income rather than race. I grew up in a community where the poor were white and I learned that life could be unfair to people of any color. Furthermore, the early exposure to inequality of opportunity became a major motivation for my later involvement in politics.
We purchased a brand new four bedroom, two story house in a not yet completed housing tract that was part of one of the perfectly gridded parts of Westminster. Every house had a yard, but the backyards were separated from each other by six foot tall cinder block walls, unlike the open backyards of our homes in Latham and Taiwan. Every family was new and had every incentive to get to know each other, but in all the years we were there (36 years in the case of my parents), we only became friends with our neighbor to the right and our neighbor directly across the street. This was not uncommon in the area, and as I grew older, I came to understand that the level of alienation in California suburbs is extremely high, and that they do not have the sense of community of small towns like 1960s Latham. When we moved to Westminster, no one came to greet us with the neighborhood welcome wagon as they had in Latham. Jobs, sunshine, and the prospect of a house with its own lawn drew people to suburban Orange County and to California, and the new freeway system connected the suburban homes to the jobs in far away Los Angeles. The result was urban sprawl, long commutes, and at least one parent absent for most of the day. The intimacy possible in an older America fell victim to this new arrangement.
Fourth grade, Differences in American and Chinese Educational Culture Part 3
Things were very different in school—all the students had just moved to the area and were eager to make new friends. In contrast to the long commute that adults had to make, I walked a half block to my elementary school. It had just opened the year that I enrolled as a fourth grader, and all my future friends would enroll when I did or the next year, which eased making friends. Everywhere in the new suburbs of Orange County, it was as if huge flocks of children were dropped into vast rookeries designed for the purpose of educating them, freeing their fathers for work and their mothers for the duration of the school day. I quickly made friends, but I was an odd duck in some respects. I performed better and better academically and stubbornly believed that good grades were the most important thing for enhancing my popularity, despite mounting evidence that this was not so in American schools. Every day for classroom show and tell, I brought in articles from the Los Angeles Times in order to discuss current events in the world. Other fourth, fifth, and sixth graders brought in items that were much more closely related to the life of an elementary school student. Despite my idiosyncrasies, I do not remember being ostracized—I must have had open-minded classmates
A trait that I ascribe to my Chinese cultural heritage was an unusually strong sense of social order. In my view, Chinese believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to organize society and for people to relate to each other, what some have called moral rectitude or right thinking. This runs deep in Chinese history, back to Confucius and earlier, and continues today through the Communist Party and Chairman Xi Jinping, who cites Confucian values to support Party policy. If democracy ever comes to China, that democracy will be very different from its western counterparts, it will be uniquely Chinese and must accommodate this penchant for order.
In school, the high value I placed on order manifested itself as a badge. I was elected the safety chief, responsible for enforcing rules, and I wore a gold plastic badge during recess. What rules my fellow students were to follow I didn’t know, but there must have been some rules, or perhaps like the Party, I was not constrained by any rules myself and simply told other kids to comply with my sense of right, which might change at my whim. My way of thinking was very different from the minimalist western approach to rules, which prohibits a limited set of activities and sets a standard below which the governed shall not sink. In my elementary school mind, school rules should be standards for right conduct and set a high aspiration toward which all are required to strive. Failure to do so was cause for sanction. This division between the western and eastern approach to order (I didn’t see it in such terms then) played out on the playground one day when I called a student to task for a now unremembered infraction. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hansen, whom I respected deeply, pulled me aside and asked me why I had done that, implying that I had been in the wrong. I gave her my best explanation, again unremembered, and she said something that I will remember to the day I die, “We don’t do it that way in America.” I was shocked. How could a great country live in a constant state of chaos, rudderless, with no guides for individual conduct, no shared central purpose? I put this challenge into a black box for later examination and did not fully come to terms with its contents until very near the end of my law school education.
Copyright David Wu 2017 All Rights Reserved