The Others

Translating NYC's ethnic politics for Asians and Middle Easterners

Part of a candidate's reluctance to reach out, if there is any, might be the potential pitfalls of leaving familiar campaign territory. Walking into a room of Arab Christians and referring to them as Muslims, for example, is a huge no-no. So is saying "hello" in Mandarin when you're in Cantonese-dominated Chinatown. Even where the communities exist can be hard to keep straight. Abi-Habib jokes that when they want to do an Arab New York story, "all the media go down to Atlantic Avenue. But they're not anymore on Atlantic Avenue." Instead, they are in Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Astoria, and Highland Boulevard on Staten Island.

But while missteps still occur, there seems to be progress. "Elected officials and other entities are becoming more savvy about Asian Americans," says Liu, "and the fact that there's no one descriptor that can be applied to everybody who's Asian American, and even within the different ethnic groups there are some nuances."

For instance, Meng says candidates stress different themes depending on which part of the Chinese community they are addressing. "If they come to Flushing, they talk education," as well as business opportunities and street cleaning, he says. "They come to Chinatown, they start with immigration. Brooklyn? Immigrant issues." The reason, Meng says, is that the immigrants in Flushing typically arrived earlier than their Chinatown counterparts or they have the concerns of more established residents rather than newcomers.

Ripe for the picking: Chinatown bustles with
photo: Lauren Braun
Ripe for the picking: Chinatown bustles with

Of course, the communities themselves are always evolving. Liu says that many Asians who are citizens still don't bother to register or, if registered, to vote. But that might be changing. He sees Asian New Yorkers getting engaged in this year's campaign, mainly because politicians are bothering to engage them.

In a poll of Asian American voters in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens on Election Day 2004, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that 36 percent were first-time voters. AALDEF's Margaret Fung expects a big Asian turnout in 2005, thanks to the availability of bilingual voting information and the increasing prevalence of Democratic Party membership. The Democratic share has been increasing since AALDEF began polling in 1988, she says, reaching 60 percent in the 2004 poll. In a Democratic town like New York, that could translate into augmented influence for Asians.

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