Election 2004  
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The Parent Trap

Generational political splits in immigrant families are commonplace in America, and so are attempts by the second generation to nudge their parents in a more progressive direction.
 
 
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This summer, with the presidential election looming, my friend Ming escalated her efforts to convert her Republican parents to the Democratic camp. Ming, a New York-based English professor, decided to step up her campaign during a July visit to see her parents in Bellingham, Washington, during which she planned to engage them in persuasive rhetoric over the course of several days. She took great pains to prepare, and about a week before the trip, she began a series of conversations with her two younger brothers – a strategy summit via cell phone – to ensure that she would launch the most effective offensive possible.

On her second night in the Pacific Northwest, and according to plan, Ming took her parents to see "Fahrenheit 9/11." She hoped that the film would lead them to question the wisdom of President George W. Bush, but the outing did not have its intended affect. That evening, Ming's father, a semi-retired professor who has labored in a series of Chinese restaurants, opined that the movie was merely liberal propaganda. "Too many cheap shots at Bush," he said.

Undeterred, Ming has since encouraged her parents to watch more progressive documentaries, such as "Outfoxed," though ultimately, she's betting that she'll be victorious when she calls her mother a few days before the election and says, "If you love me, you won't vote for Bush" – it worked in 2000.

Ming is tireless in her efforts because she believes that there's a chance her parents will be swayed. As socially liberal Chinese immigrants who live in a college town surrounded by aging hippies and university professors, they are not stereotypical Republicans. After all, they support gay rights, dislike the idea of war, and as a result of their youngest son's stage productions, have a rare tolerance among immigrant parents for avant-garde theater. Their deep attachment to the Republican Party, in fact, seems more deeply rooted in historical nostalgia than actual policy; they began voting for GOP candidates when Richard Nixon visited China in 1972.

The generational political split within Ming's immigrant family is not merely an isolated incident. In communities that have traditionally aligned themselves with the Republican Party – the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban and Arab – some of the younger, born-here generation seem to have developed political ideas that diverge from their more conservative parents.

James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor who has studied voting behavior within immigrant communities, says he is not surprised. "My guess is that these second-generation types tend to be socialized by their environment," Gimpel says. "Young people tend to be more liberal than their parents, and the traditional theory is that ethnic solidarity [in voting] tends to wear thin as time goes on. There's a tendency for economic upward mobility to disrupt ethnic solidarity by the second or third generation."

Olivia Wang, a 28-year-old Chinese American attorney living in San Francisco, has certainly experienced this political split from her parents, who are Reagan devotees living in Henderson, Nevada. "For them, it's all about national security," explains Wang, who began identifying as a progressive in college. "They want a strong president and Bush is the guy because he talks like a cowboy. It's also complicated by the fact that they don't like Kerry because when my parents were living [in Massachusetts], Kerry, who was a local politician at the time, came to the Chinese community and made these promises that he didn't keep. They still feel burned 30 years later."

In a recent last-ditch effort to talk her parents out of voting for Bush, Wang – who says she will also ask her parents to cast a ballot for Kerry as a personal favor – sought the advice of friends via mass e-mail. "My dear old Chinese immigrant parents are staunch pro-Bush supporters in a swing state, and I need your help," the missive begins. "I have run out of ideas for how to talk to them about the upcoming election.... I have tried talking to them about gaps between 9/11, WMD, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. I have tried to get them to question how Bush's tactics have made us less 'safe.' I have tried telling them how a vote for Bush will negatively affect my life and my work. To no avail."

But in balmy south Florida, some 2,800 miles from the dry heat and gated communities of west Nevada, Jeffrey Garcia, 32, has had more success. A second-generation Cuban American and a registered Democrat, Garcia has convinced his mother, who has become disgruntled by Bush's policies on Cuba, to throw her vote toward Kerry in November. Garcia, who lives in Miami, is iconic of a new generation of Cuban Americans that is breaking from the community's longstanding tradition of Republicanism.

"There is clearly a big difference between the first- and second-generation Cuban American," says Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University in Miami. "It's still a dominant Republican community, but many more second-generation Cubans are Democrat."

This generational departure from the GOP is reflected in the March 2004 Cuba Poll by Florida International University (which Grenier worked on), which reports that only 42 percent of second-generation Cubans are registered Republicans, compared with a 74 to 80 percent rate among earlier generations.

"Cuban Americans joined the Republican Party during the Reagan Administration as a strategy to influence foreign policy on Cuba - Regan was the guy that would go against [communism]," Grenier says. "But second-generation Cubans are not in the same boat. Though they still have a strong sense of homeland, they don't see the Republican Party as the one that can best address the issue."

Grenier adds that it is likely that similar trends may take hold in the Vietnamese American community, which shares a similar history of forced migration as a result of communism in the home country. "It would not be unusual to see the second generation move away from the first generation in terms of political attitudes, particularly when those political attitudes are shaped by very specific historic moments and not general values," he says.

This seems to be the case for Aimee Phan, a 26-year-old Vietnamese American writer living in Las Vegas. "My dad is Republican because he is anti-communist," explains Phan, who has written a novel about Operation Babylift, which took place during the Vietnam War. "The older Vietnamese immigrants are anti-communist and they become Republicans because they think that it is a party that will be more vigilant against it."

But Phan says that it is her father, who lives in the conservative stronghold of Orange County, California, who is trying to sway her vote in this election, and not the other way around. "My vote counts a lot because I live in a swing state," Phan says. "That upsets my father. He says, 'If you love me, if you're a good child, you'd vote for Bush." (Phan says she adores her father, but she is not entertaining his request.)

But further to the east, in the heart of the Midwest, there are examples of shifting allegiances there, too – and particularly for the Arab Americans living in Michigan. Twenty-three-year-old Naleh Saleh, for one, says that all of her Arab American friends in Dearborn are pro-Kerry. But the first-generation immigrants – the majority of whom supported Bush in 2000 – have since come to agree with their children. "People of the older generation in past elections might have aligned themselves more conservatively, but Bush has pretty much pushed Arab Americans toward the other side," Saleh says. "A lot of Arab Americans tend to be small business owners and for economic reasons, they might have aligned themselves with the Republicans. But not any more, because of Bush's handling of foreign policy, and the way that he has eroded our civil rights."

Indeed, a number of polls report that Muslim Arabs living in the U.S. heavily favor Kerry, resulting from what the community perceives as a spate of anti-Arab policies enacted in response to September 11th. Some believe that these laws, such as the Patriot Act, have not only politicized the second generation, but have also effectively pushed them toward the left.

"September 11th has definitely radicalized younger Arab Americans," says Rayan Elamine of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination League in San Francisco. "Many young people have discovered their identity for the first time, or realized that they have been made to feel different as a result of the backlash of 9/11. The second generation is more involved with politics and cultural events, and they tend to be more left of center."

Back in drizzly, tree-lined Bellingham, Ming's parents have not come to as tidy of an agreement with their daughter. But she is ever hopeful. During a recent phone conversation, Ming's father told her he would not tell her how he was planning to vote, which she believes hints at his growing doubts about Bush.

But as persistent as she has been, Ming says she doesn't truly expect to overhaul her parents' politics any time soon, even though they are a reason that she is so passionately progressive. "The second generation grew up seeing their parents having a hard time, working at jobs that don't pay well, watching them get discriminated against," Ming reflects. "And they don't complain. You see that, and you feel that it's up to you to speak up."

This article was produced under the auspices of the George Washington Williams Fellowship of the Independent Press Association . Bernice Yeung is a
2004-2005 George Washington Williams Fellow.