John Liu may represent the newest generation of Asian American politicians.
Liu, the first Asian American legislator elected in New York City, fielded questions from an audience of more than 40 people at a Davenport College Master’s Tea on Wednesday afternoon. Unlike most teas, in which guests answer questions at the end, Liu chose to conduct his talk as a question-and-answer session.
Elected in 2001 to represent District 20 in northeast Queens, Liu spoke at length about his path to politics. Although he was politically active in college, after graduating from Binghamton University with a degree in mathematical physics, he chose to pursue a management career at PricewaterhouseCoopers for about a decade.
But inflammatory remarks about Asian Americans by his political predecessor, Julia Harrison, spurred him to run for public office, he said.
“She described Asian immigrants as criminal smugglers and robbers,” Liu said. “For an elected official to say that about the community she represented was unbelievable.”
In 1997, Liu decided to run against Harrison, but lost when another candidate split the vote. Four years later, however, he finally captured the District 20 council seat, becoming New York City’s first — and to date, only — Asian American councilman.
Immediately after entering the city council, Liu said, he encountered stereotypes and ignorant comments about Asian Americans. When a fellow councilmember asked him to “translate into Asian,” he held his tongue. But Liu’s efforts to raise awareness about the Asian American community has produced noticeable results, such as the recognition of the Lunar New Year and Diwali — the Indian New Year and “Festival of Light” — as holidays observed by the New York City government.
Even so, Liu said much remains to be accomplished.
“We should not just strive to achieve a basic understanding of the Asian American community,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to translate that basic understanding into not only respect, but eventually the allocation of resources for Asian Americans.”
Liu also stressed that the attitude toward running for political office in the Asian American community must also change. Although he joked that his parents asked him to finish college, marry, purchase a house and father a grandchild for them before running for councilman, he noted seriously that similar pressures do deter many Asian Americans from pursuing a career in politics.
“It’s time to change that kind of thinking within the Asian American community,” Liu said.
After the tea, many audience members expressed enthusiasm about Liu’s talk.
Heather Liu ’10, who is not related to the councilman, found him “confident, articulate, humorous, and engaging,” adding that she found his willingness to stand by his policies, even when controversial, admirable.
Geoffrey Liu ’11 — related to neither John nor Heather — appreciated that the councilman dispelled many stereotypes about Asian Americans.
“Often, people perceive Asian Americans as extremely poor communicators,” he said. “But Liu was not only eloquent, but also warm, and that raises the ceiling for Asian Americans.”
The tea was sponsored by the Chinese American Student Association.