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Raising Their Voices

Asian-American communities work for more political visibility.

Michael Kwon has faced the immigrant experience first-hand. When he was 15, he moved to Arlington from Seoul, South Korea "without an English word to speak," he said, and relied mostly on friends’ help to translate for him.

Now an Annandale resident and member of the Korean-American Association of Northern Virginia (KAANV), Kwon said that one of the things he remembers most from his first years in the United States were his teachers at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington.

"They were very helpful," said Kwon. "All my teachers were like mentors. The teachers were the faces of America, and even though I didn’t understand English, I could feel compassion from the teachers."

Teaching and education were major topics at the Virginia Asian and Pacific American (APA) Candidates’ Forum Saturday, Sept. 10 at the Korean Presbyterian Church in Vienna. Attendees like Kwon listened and asked questions of the gathering of political candidates, many of whom emphasized education in their platforms.

Seventeen different APA organizations, including the Asian Pacific America Bar Association of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area; the Indian American Forum for Political Education; the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans and KAANV; teamed up to sponsor the forum so that Asian-American citizens could familiarize themselves with political candidates and in order for the candidates to hear their concerns.

"This is the Asian-American community’s first attempt to really let community members be excited and be informed so that they can take part in the whole local election in November," said organizer Julie Park.

The event was the first time such a forum was formed strictly by the Asian-American community, said organizer Eric Jensen. About 175 people attended the forum, said Park, along with 21 candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates as well as Leslie Byrne, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Audience questions to the candidates reflected the concerns of the Asian-American community, such as education, language barriers, small business, and governmental outreach to Asian-Americans.

Del. Steve Shannon (D-35) said that he knew what it was like to be in a country that spoke a different language, having once taught English in Hiroshima, Japan.

"For Asian-Americans, public education is a critical issue," he said. "So many see their kids come in and prosper because we made responsible decisions."

English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in Fairfax County need more money, said Shannon’s opponent, Republican Jim Hyland. "Of the children who receive ESL courses (in the state), 45 percent are based in Fairfax County alone," he said. "The government has fallen down on the job in terms of helping Fairfax County cope with that part of education."

Both candidates emphasized small businesses. Shannon described himself as a "pro-business Democrat," he said. Hyland said he wanted to focus on ways to "keep small businesses vital and not overwhelmed by trial lawyers, rules, regulations and complicated tax systems."

For Vienna resident Sunny Han, education and small business are important, but electing Asian-Americans to office is also a priority. "It is very important for the Asian-American community to be part of the electoral process," said Han, an international consultant and member of the Korean-American Coalition, D.C. Chapter.

Some members of the Asian-American community may face language barriers, said Han, but "they want to be a part of it, and this is a venue for us."

Han, a Republican, said she was disappointed by the lack of Republican candidates, though. Five Republican candidates for delegate attended, as opposed to 14 Democratic and two Independent Green candidates.

"Is the Republican Party wanting to reach out to the APA community?" she asked.

Monica Deshpande, who is studying neuroscience at the University of Maryland graduate school, appreciated the effort of the candidates and forum organizers. She said she would like to see more Indian Americans represented in the government.

"I hope this gets somewhere," said Deshpande. "I hope [Caucasian] Americans realize that we live in this country, we are working like everyone else. It’s not nice to look at us as outsiders, as non-Americans."

According to 2000 census estimates, Asian and Pacific Americans make up the largest minority population in Fairfax County at just over 13 percent. Asian-Americans hold 40,000 jobs in Fairfax County, said Jensen.

In Virginia, however, no state-elected officials are of Asian-American descent, said Jensen.

"Despite this participation, this is largely a silent community," said Jensen. "Participating by voting is very important. If you don’t vote, people don’t listen to you; people don’t respond to you."

"Overall, the attention the Asian-American community gets from the local government is very minimal," said Park. "Access to resources, opportunities for Asian-American community members are very limited. Virginia has one of the largest Asian-American populations, yet there is no office for Asian-American affairs, not even in Fairfax County."

"As an APA member myself, I have seen that not all of the 250,000 members come out to vote," said Ilryong Moon, vice-chair of the Fairfax County School Board. "Whether you vote Republican, Democratic, or whatever else, it is important for all of us to show political candidates that we do care about who we elect."

Offices that focus on Asian-American affairs do exist in the D.C. metropolitan area. In 1991, Maryland created the Governor’s Office on Asian Pacific American Affairs as part of the Department of Human Resources, whose current executive directors are Jason Myung-Ik Chung and Agnes Smith. Maryland also has a 17-member commission on APA affairs, chaired by Benjamin Wu.

The Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs (OAPIA) in Washington, D.C. was created in 1987 as part of the Executive Office of the Mayor, but in 2001 became a separate entity. Greg Chen is the executive director.

"It starts from something as small as (the APA Forum), but makes a big difference," said Park.