‘We are not a monolith’ say Asian American state leaders

Massachusetts state representatives Tackey Chan and Tram Nguyen on the importance of Asian American representation in state government.

Massachusetts state representatives Tackey Chan and Tram Nguyen discussed Asian American representation in state government, the challenges that come with the job, and why representation is crucial for good governance during a conversation hosted by Harvard Kennedy School’s Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia. The discussion was a part of the Rajawali Institute’s ongoing series addressing pressing political and policy challenges faced by AAPI communities.

The following excerpts, edited for clarity and length, are taken from Nguyen and Chan’s remarks:

Why Asian American representation in government is critical

“People deserve to see people who look like them. People deserve to have people with shared lived experience to work on these issues that matter, and I’m so encouraged to see how many more Asian Americans have run for office even within our commonwealth. I’m one of the first and I don’t want to be the last,” Nguyen said.

“It’s encouraging to see that we have come together more within the last two to three years, … to elevate some of these issues that we continue to face and not only that, but during the pandemic it was crucial for us to speak up. To talk about access to information and resources and how language access was an issue,” Nguyen noted.

“We are not a monolith” — Breaking the stereotypes 

“Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean I know every Asian culture, every Asian language, every Asian food. That’s one of those misconceptions that is felt about us…being an Asian politician is learning about other Asian issues,” said Chan on the complexities of serving as an Asian American politician in Massachusetts.

Having faced similar challenges, Nguyen shared her thoughts:

“People expect Asian Americans, especially Asian American women to be a certain way.  But after having a conversation with me, getting to know me as a person, it allows them to look past that stereotype. It might have started as I thought she’s going to be quiet, she’s this or that, but it became, she’s the person who came to my door, had a conversation with me. And I try to do that with a lot of my constituents. I try to meet them where they’re at, to have these conversations with them at town halls, at community events, giving them exposure to my life.”

“I want to build a pipeline. I don’t want to be the only one because when they see me and they see other women, Asian American elected officials, who are all different people, maybe then we can break out of that stereotype even more. There’s not only one way to be AAPI or to do the job.”

Unique campaign challenges 

Reflecting on her experience running for election as the first Vietnamese American woman in the Commonwealth, Nguyen noted, “We needed a strategy because there’s no playbook out there for people like us. And I think that is the problem that we need to continue to address.”

“The majority of us didn’t run in districts that looked like us. We had to convince them to go vote for us, we had to show that we were able to do the job,” said Chan, the first Asian American elected to the Massachusetts Legislature.

“The State House is the land of misfit toys” — Proposed policy changes

“I have this data disaggregation bill to require the state government to disaggregate the population when they conduct studies into individual ethnic groups or multiple ethnic groups to better unveil the needs of our communities. To move away from the model minority perception and to understand better how best to allocate resources and which groups are truly disenfranchised in specific areas,” said Chan discussing future policy amendments to help elevate diversity within the Asian American diaspora.

“I think in this moment in time, it is so important for us to elevate these stories that are often not told. Why aren’t these stories told in our history books? Why don’t we understand the contributions of different communities to the fabric of America? Why are most of our history books whitewashed? That’s why I have a bill right now to increase racially and culturally inclusive education so that all students can see themselves, see the contributions, and celebrate those accomplishments of people who look like them,” replied Nguyen.