LOS ANGELES - From body surfing to hip-hop music, a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang can feel more like a rock concert than a political event.
Yang is one of more than a dozen people running as a Democrat for a chance at the White House in the 2020 election. Though not one of the top contenders, he is just the third Asian American to run for president and is a standout within that community. He has made far more headway in the polls and campaign fundraising than most observers initially assumed he would, and he has appeared in all of the Democratic presidential debates.
“I hope they [Asian Americans] think I’m representing the community in a way that makes them proud,” Yang said after a campaign rally in Los Angeles Sept. 30.
“Honestly I didn’t think this would happen for like another 10, 20 years. It’s insane to me because you know we don’t have as much representation in the West as we’d like. So, this is like a giant, giant step,” said Korean American student Austin Koh, who attended Yang’s Los Angeles rally.
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Yang, 44, is an entrepreneur born in New York of parents from Taiwan. The lawyer and philanthropist founded Venture for America, a nonprofit group that helped struggling cities create jobs. While the crowd at the rally spanned a variety of ethnicities, there was an undeniable showing of Asian Americans from different backgrounds.
Yang supporter Hong Alyce Van was born in a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Her parents are from Vietnam. She described herself as politically disengaged, until now. She made her first political donation to the Yang campaign, and it also was the first political rally she had ever attended.
“You know I have a son. I want my kids to look up and think that there is no bamboo ceiling. You know and that’s something that I’ve struggled with my whole life,” Van said.
“For any Asian-American or any minority to run for office or to be the first Asian American president, I think it’s impressive in that it tells the youth of America that you could be anything and become the president,” said David Tsai, Yang’s high school classmate and fellow Taiwanese American.
Sitting in an office at his law firm in San Francisco recently, Tsai recalled Yang as someone who stood out from the crowd when attending a boarding school with a dress code.
“It was hard not to miss him. Sometimes he would show up, we’re supposed to be in a sports coat, he’d be in a trench coat,” Tsai said.
Just as in high school, Yang is trying some non-traditional approaches in his political campaign, showing up for nationally televised debates and appearances without a tie and skillfully using social media to get his message out to the public. He also is proposing an unconventional economic policy called the Freedom Dividend, a universal basic income of $1,000 a month for all adults paid for, he says, by companies that benefit from automation, which Yang said will be replacing jobs.
“We put the dividends in our hands, and we will begin to trickle up our economy from our people, our families and our communities,” said Yang in front of a crowd of his supporters, which he called the Yang Gang.
“The $1,000 is going to balance out the economy for a lot of people. Especially in the U.S. right now, a lot of people are surviving. You have to work two jobs, three jobs to survive,” said Yang supporter Winson Trang, who is Vietnamese Chinese American.
“I wouldn’t have to work a side job while I’m going to school,” Koh said.
Model minority stereotype or not
Not all Asian Americans approve of how Yang is portraying himself. At the Los Angeles rally, Yang described himself as “the ideal candidate for that job, because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”
“I am very concerned because I think that unfortunately we live in a country that will extrapolate from one single person the entire group,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, sociology professor at Biola University in California.
“He will use typical model minority stereotypes that Asian Americans are trying to distance themselves from,” said Yuen, who explained that the model minority only describes a small group of Asian Americans who have a higher socio-economic background and are better educated. She said many other Asian Americans come from less advantaged backgrounds.
In other ways, however, Yuan said Yang is going against stereotypes, including the use of profanity during his rally.
“By cursing, he definitely is going against the kind of very docile Asian that doesn’t want to make waves,” Yuan said.
With numerous candidates running against U.S. President Donald Trump, Yang is considered a long shot, though that is not discouraging his supporters. He has appeared in all three Democratic debates so far and has qualified to appear in the next two, including one Tuesday in Westerville, Ohio.
“People said the same thing about Donald Trump three years ago. He was a long shot. Look what happened now. He’s sitting in the White House,” Trang said.