Ed. Note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series, which highlights members of the Department of Commerce who are contributing to the president's vision of winning the future through their work.
Gary Locke is the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
As we continue to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, it is important for us to reflect on our past – the difficulties we had growing up in immigrant families, the accomplishments our community has achieved and the barriers we still need to knock down.
Being an Asian American now is certainly different from when I was growing up. In the Ozzie and Harriet era in which I was born, I thought I had to choose between being Chinese and being American. I remembered that most mornings, my grade school teacher would ask us what we had for breakfast. If we had eaten anything that was considered “un-American” – in my case, it was the rice porridge with fish and vegetables that my mother gave me – my teacher would slap our hands with a ruler.
When I was young, I constantly struggled between my desire to be more “American” and my parents’ attempt to make me more “Chinese”. It took the civil rights movement to teach me that I could be both Chinese and American. I could be Chinese-American. I could be myself. I could be loyal and patriotic to the Star-Spangled Banner and still eat with chopsticks.
As my identity evolved, so did America’s. Our country has begun to fully embrace the idea that our strength lies in our diversity: of people, culture and religion. Not only can we celebrate Asian American Heritage Month or Black History Month, the Irish can proudly wave their flags on St. Patrick’s Day and the Italians can do the same on Columbus Day. Minorities across the country are becoming leaders in their respective fields, contributing their hard work, creativity and ingenuity to strengthen America’s social and economic fabric. Taking the Chinese Americans as examples, we have achieved some impressive milestones across different industries, from the life-changing technology innovations of Jerry Yang to the beautiful artistry of I.M. Pei and Maya Lin.
Asian Americans should be justifiably proud of our accomplishments, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Although we have achieved significant impact, from business and art to media and academia, the same impact has not yet extended to politics. Asian Americans remain seriously underrepresented, from the U.S. Congress to statehouses across America. We need to be more active and more engaged in the national political dialogue. If we want action on the issues we care about, we’ve got to be at the table where the decisions are being made. That is the next frontier for Asian American advancement.