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The Asian Factor

I think I mentioned this before somewhere but among my asian friends in my local Creative Class suburb and working environment, Hillary Clinton is clearly the favorite. Now, a piece in the New Republic on Asian Alienation tries to make sense of this phenomenon. I’m glad someone is finally starting to pay attention to this but the author only has part of the story:

The most interesting theory I have heard for why Obama may have underperformed in Asian American communities came from Taeku Lee, the Berkeley political scientist. The Illinois senator has focused his campaign squarely on the theme of change, and on the promise of radically altering the status quo in Washington, D.C. Obama aides are not shy in arguing that their boss is leading a movement as much as an ordinary fight for the presidency. Rhetorically, at least, his campaign can seem almost radical. For ordinary Democrats fed up with eight years of the Bush administration, this has been his main selling point. But, in an interview yesterday, Lee gave a different and very interesting explanation for why Obama may have underperformed in Asian American communities. “Running on change is risky,” he explains. “It’s not the best way to sell your candidacy in some immigrant communities. Many people who just came to this country or who feel unsettled are looking to have their anxieties alleviated, looking for a sense of stability.” When I spoke with an aide to a California congressman whose district includes a large East Asian population, he agreed with the assessment. “Many of our voters think his pitch is too radical. They are ‘New Democrats’ for a reason.” It probably does not help Obama’s cause that many of the immigrants who came to America were fleeing “revolutionary” regimes.

There’s probably an element of truth to some of this. Many of my asian colleagues move pretty quickly to become American citizens and I think part of that reason is because they feel a sense of security here. They can have their opinions and they don’t have to look over their shoulders. They are building stable lives here and have a network of friends they can rely on. When they go back to China or India on vacation, they come back with stories about how good the food is but how cold the little houses are. The price of prescription drugs in India might be excellent for a visitor on a US salary, but the average worker in Hyderabad doesn’t make enough money to consider them less than expensive. The traffic is bad. Air pollution is bad. It’s nice to see family and friends but they seem happy to get back to their new lives here. It’s a nice place to visit but they wouldn’t want to live there.

But there are some interesting things about well educated asians that I think point to why they are voting for Clinton in overwhelming numbers. Here are my guesses:

  • Unlike my American colleagues, Asians are well-versed in politics. Indians in particular follow politics like sports. They love the horserace. They know all of the players and pay close attention to everything that is said. Chinese colleagues will corner me at lunch and make me tell them everything that’s going on.
  • Asians, even the ones who are citizens, are painfully critical of their fluency in English. Most of my colleagues are very understandable but there is an element of English that they are still struggling with. One of my French colleagues told me once that he switched to English to accomodate his American colleagues but at the end of the day, he was exhausted by the effort to translate everything and keep up. I think there is an element of this with Asians as well. So, they may rely more heavily on appearance and body language. I can’t tell you how many times they pointed out a little detail in a debate or campaign appearance that I completely missed. But because they are more consciously aware of these things, they are less swayed by clever spin and turns of phrase. Nothing gets by them.
  • They have a very strong work ethic. They’ve been through the wringer in their native country. When you have to compete against hundreds of millions of peers to get into the elite universities, to even get a shot of studying abroad, you know how important it is to work really hard towards your goals. Hillary is a worker and they might identify with that in her. She’s also a policy wonk and it’s very difficult to fake fluency in a particular area of expertise. They like Obama’s freshness and charisma, but they will side with the smart, hard-working girl. She put in the hours and it shows.
  • One of the biggest reasons why Hillary is a favorite among asians is because they have gotten beyond the gender factor. Many asian countries have elected female leaders such as Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, and know what personal risks they take to defy cultural expectations and take the reins of government. So, they are comfortable with a female leading a country. They think we are hypocrits.

So, there you have it. It doesn’t surprise me that Hillary won NJ, NY, MA and CA with their help. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a better than expected performance in VA or NC. A lot of asians in the biological sciences start their post-doc training at places like the NIH in Washington and NC has the Research Triangle where they may also be found in large numbers. They take their new citizenship rights very seriously and vote. So, maybe Virginia is going to be closer than the Obamaphiles think.