On my last vacation I took a day to see my representatives at the state capitol. It sounded boring to my nieces, who hoped I would go to someplace like Disneyland, but I explained that it was an important part of being American, especially because our family comes from Laos. We can never take our rights for granted, and it is important to exercise our rights, especially the right to speak for ourselves.
It took many years for me to become comfortable with my own voice.
In Laos, our tradition is to listen to our elders and teachers, and not question them. It would be considered disrespectful or cause them to lose face in front of others. In the United States, it is important for students to ask questions, but it can be very intimidating for newcomers for whom English isn’t their first language. And I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to say something until I have all of the facts. So I often felt slow in conversations and discussions. But over time I learned the importance of speaking up for myself. And sometimes, we need to advocate for others who need us.
When I stood in my legislator’s office, I was nervous at first, and then realized I had every right to be there, and that he had sought office to be able to represent voices like mine. I respected that he couldn’t make any promises about how he might vote in the end, but I know that he’s taking my perspective into consideration.
As I read the news and see the issues coming up in the legislature, I know I’ll be writing him and my other representatives more regularly, because participation in a democracy isn’t just about getting out the vote, but being in regular communication with those you send to the capitol. Our legislators aren’t mind-readers, so it’s up to us to help keep them informed of our positions.
There are many other places our voices are needed, particularly in education.
From April 25-26th, I’ll be attending the Asian Pacific Americans in Highers Education Conference in San Francisco. This year’s theme is “Our Lives, Our Stories, Our Future.” Some of the topics they’ll be addressing include “Advancing Student Success among Asian Pacific Islanders and Their Peers,” and “Asian Pacific American Learning Communities: Creating a Statewide Presence.” Lao and other Southeast Asian American voices need to be at the table. We can’t afford for our communities to fall through the cracks because we didn’t show up.
One of these days, I’d love to hear from my nieces that they took a stand to add their voice to the democratic process. I want them to ask questions, and I want them to be able to see the adults in their lives are trying to set a good example.