This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action
Written by Jess Fong
Michelle Wu is no stranger to being “first.” She is the first child of an Asian American immigrant family. She graduated first in her class—valedictorian—in high school. She was the first Asian American woman to serve on the Boston City Council, and later became the first woman of color to serve as President of the City Council.
Michelle Wu speaking at city council. Source: Elise Amendola / AP
Next week, Michelle Wu is looking to add several more firsts to this list. In November, Michelle will be on the ballot for mayor of Boston. If she wins, she will become the first woman, the first Asian American, in fact the first non-white person to be the city’s mayor. Attached to each of these firsts are stories familiar to Asian Americans, to immigrants, to people with children, to working families, to small business owners. More than anything else, they are stories familiar to me–another daughter of Asian American immigrants.
Born in Chicago to immigrant parents, Michelle’s childhood was, in many ways, similar to that of most Asian American children. She spoke Chinese at home and acted as her parents’ interpreter and translator in schools and government offices. She liked to snack on dried seaweed. She did not have any politicians in her family. The expectation for her and her sisters is a familiar one: study hard, get a good job, make good money. In her own words, “politics was not supposed to be in the cards.”
In 2003, Michelle moved to Boston to attend Harvard. After graduation, she worked briefly as a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, before leaving her job to return to Chicago. Her mother was struggling with mental illness, and Michelle moved home to take care of her mother and raise her younger sisters. During that time, she ran her own business to financially support the family. A few years later, Michelle returned to Boston, and Harvard, for law school. Throughout law school, she continued to take care of her mother and sisters, including attending parent council meetings. My own mother would always tell me ”家家有本难念的经“ (“every family has its hard story to tell”). Implicit in her words were lessons–don’t judge, and family is important. If there is an image for this phrase, the Wu family is it. And if there is an image for the implicit lessons–strength and filial piety–Michelle is also it.
Michelle Wu at dimsum with her son. Source: Pat Greenhouse / Boston Globe
When Michelle finished her JD, she tried another first–she became the first in her family to enter politics. And in 2013, she became the first Asian American woman elected to Boston’s City Council. By that point, Michelle knew what it was like to be a caretaker, a parent, a small business owner, and knew firsthand the challenges of facing a government system that was not designed to work for everyone. As councilwoman, Michelle passed a paid parental leave ordinance so parents, particularly working parents, could spend time with their families. She introduced policies to streamline licensing and permit processes for small businesses, and protect them from pressures from large retail chains. She has fought to expand access to healthcare, including to mental health services. And with this year’s mayoral campaign, it seems like she is only getting started.
Portrait from Michelle's campaign. Source: www.michelleforboston.com
Michelle’s mayoral platform includes ambitious reforms guaranteeing early childhood education and childcare, instating rent control, stabilizing the housing market, and introducing fare-free public transit, to name a few. These are not “handouts” or “poor people policies.” Anyone who has had to move to a new city, take care of family, commute to work, perhaps all at the same time, recognizes how important these policies are. As a former consultant, and a future corporate attorney, working in a major city, the policies that Michelle is advocating for would do wonders for my standard of living. I want efficient and affordable public transit to get to school, to work, to yum cha with family and nights out with friends. If I have children, I want a place to put them, a place where they can learn and socialize and grow. And while I have insurance through my firm, I have experienced what it is like to not know if you can go to the doctor, and I do not want to ever experience that again. I want to not sink a ridiculous amount of my paycheck into rent. People need to be able to learn, to work, to enjoy things, to live without worrying about the next tuition payment, the next month’s rent, the next day’s dinner. It is not unreasonable to want these things. It is not unreasonable to believe we deserve these things. What is a government good for, if not to ensure a good life for its people?
While only time will tell if Michelle Wu is able to accomplish her agenda, she can only begin if she is given a chance to try. After all, the city of Boston probably once thought it unreasonable to have a non-white, non-male mayor. Now, they may be looking at a first—the first Asian American woman to become mayor of Boston.
When I look at Michelle Wu, her life, her trajectory, I see a lot of my life reflected in her story. As the first child, first daughter of Chinese immigrants, I understand the pressure we are under to succeed, to make good on our parents’ sacrifice in this country. I am no stranger to translating documents for my mom. Some of the earliest emails I ever wrote were for her—she would tell me what she wanted in Chinese, and a little middle-school me would put it into English. To this day, my mom still sends me long texts in Chinese, and I respond with the equivalent translation in English. In fact, most of my contract drafting experience comes not from law school or my internships, but from drafting documents for my mom, based on what she wants in Chinese.
Like Michelle, I also worked as a management consultant after college. Like Michelle, I went to law school. Like Michelle, I still speak to my family in Chinese, and remain relatively fluent in the language. And while I do not share her experience with family illness and having to care for younger siblings, my own family has had its share of difficulties. 家家有本难念的经; every family has its hard story to tell. I remember walking over an hour to the local Barnes and Noble once a week to tutor students so I could make some spending money. I remember my mother working long hours and late nights to build a business and become financially stable. I remember all the obstacles we ran into while building said business, some bureaucratic, some racist, some both. Looking back, I wonder how different things could have been for myself and my family if many of the policies that Michelle advocates for—stable housing, fare-free and effective transit, guaranteed healthcare, real small business support—were available to us.
Michelle Wu’s campaign is a first for me. It is the first time in my life that I see someone who has experienced the struggles and joys and highs and lows that I have experienced. And that alone makes me trust her, and hope there will be more politicians like her.