May 8, 2012 | Dr. Jennifer Ong is too nice to be a politician, yet that seems less an indictment of her and more about the loathsome occupation of an elected public official. Ong is petite and, dare say, breakable, with fine features and soulful eyes. The better to peer into her patient’s pupils during eye exams. “Better one? Better two?” she might ask with a soft voice that sounds vaguely like Sarah Palin. However, Ong is not from Alaska, but originally born in the Philippines and she is not a conservative, but a Democrat running this June for the California State Assembly in Hayward’s 20th District.
With one of the largest populations of Asian Americans in any assembly race in the state, her chances of finishing in the top two this June are formidable, strategist says. It also doesn’t hurt to be a full-fledged Tagalog-speaking Filipina with a Chinese surname, either. If elected she would make history as the first Filipino American member of the California Legislature. More so, Ong represents one of the most politically pragmatic candidates running for any office in the East Bay. It’s a trait that emanates from an immigrant story that may well resonate with voters in the district and likely give voters a reliable insight into how she might one day represent an area ridiculously downtrodden by the antics of termed out Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi.
COMING TO AMERICA
“I was a little geek,” Ong said last April at a coffee shop near her optometry practice in Alameda, which she purchased 12 years ago at age 30. She immigrated to the United States in 1981 at age 11. While her immersion in American culture was much smoother than that of her two older siblings, she arrived with certain preconceived ideas about life in the States. “I had heard that school was easy,” she said, which was a common rumor among Filipino youth back then. “but the children are not very well-behaved in school and have no respect for the teachers.” Ong’s fear may have also came from attending a Catholic school where “if the nun had to tells us twice, we would be crying.”
Once in the U.S., she attended Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro and, indeed, immediately skipped two grades, but with girls sporting big hair and the clownish makeup threatening each other in the hallways, her fear became reality. “It fulfilled everything I was told, that school would be easier and the children would be misbehaving.” Her troubles were compounded because she was painfully shy. “They wanted to have me checked out,” she said. “The good thing about being an introvert is you take time to listen and observe and when the time comes, then you share it because, at that point, you really have a lot to say.”
“Even when I asked my own uncle for water, I would start to cry and he was even my favorite uncle!” She didn’t speak up until after attending optometry school in 1995. “My whole family is still shocked to this day that I’m running for Assembly because they were used to this really shy person.” She also understands staying out of the limelight is a function of being new to this culture. “Immigrants tend to not want to make a fuss,” she says.
A great deal of Ong’s stump speech involves her immigrant tale and delves often into her mother selling hot dogs at the Oakland Coliseum and her dad working the produce aisle at Lucky. Even though, both of her parents were college educated in the Philippines and worked as accountants for the government, she say both were worked hard at their new jobs in America, but because of their union jobs, they were able to provide for their children’s health and welfare. As labor unions lose power, it’s something she says needs to regain strength. “I can be the example, that, no, you need to create good jobs with benefits,” says Ong, “otherwise we are not going to be self-sufficient.” If not, the phenomenon is sort of like a circular firing squad that eventually renders everyone wounded. That’s not to say, she isn’t advocating taking responsibility for your actions, either. You will be hard-pressed to hear Ong complain about the state of politics and the current crop of leaders. Instead, she says, doing so actually alienates the previous will of the voters. “When I hear people say they’re running for office because these people can’t run the country. I say, really? And who put them there? We’re part of the problem for who put them there.” The point is well made in a district that has been the epicenter of politicians behaving badly with Hayashi’s shoplifting and former Alameda County supervisor Nadia Lockyer’s drug and alcohol addition. Both were elected officials who once garnered vast majorities of the electorate’s support just two years ago.
CAPITOL HIGH SCHOOL
Old hands in Sacramento equate the capitol as being something akin to the worst aspects of high school. “Are you sure you want to come here,” Ong recounts a legislative aid once asking her. In a similar vein, just how a legislator will fit in with colleagues in Sacramento may be the most telling aspect of how well a future assembly member may succeed. Ong
RACISM WHETHER YOU KNOW IT OR NOT
Ong’s trio of go-to issues which include job creation, crime prevention and education will not be achieved by one lonesome assembly member, she concedes. “Right now we’re failing on all three, or, at least, we’re not as good as we once were. Some say they’re going to do all of this, but that’s not me. I’ve never done anything without anyone else. I’ve always been part of the team.” Yet, everything seems to double back to Ong’s early childhood experiences has heavily instructive to her conscience as a candidate. “The immigrant experience always gives you a unique experience. You can always say you’ve seen it worse.” Sometimes that experience comes in the form of racism, which too often sullies immigrant’s early years. In Ong’s case, it reveals a pragmatic approach to coping. “I don’t feel like I’ve been a victim of racism, but I’m sure I have,” she says. “I’ve been called a chink before, but it doesn’t bother me, because I’m thinking, I’m not Chinese, I’m Filipino.”
While traveling to Costa Rica on a mission to protect endangered sea turtles, she recalls, one particularly cranky older gentleman who complimented her for her ability to prepare a well-made bed. “Did you use to do that professionally or something?” he asked. “I thought, ‘oh my god, thank you.’ Like I’m that good that you would think I used to be a housekeeper. That’s how my brain works. I didn’t think anything of it. Either you gave me a compliment and don’t know it or you called me something that is so different than what I am, that I didn’t pay any attention to it.” Instead, she focused not on her own ego, but on what a negative reaction to the man’s comment reflected upon herself. “I tell people who asked me about the racism they have gone through and my first comment to them is, why did you understand it the wrong way? Why do you think so poorly of housekeepers that you’re immediate reaction is, they’re looking down on me by saying that to me?” Part of it is insecurity, she believes. “Ok, call me a chink. Ok, well I’m actually part Chinese, but, I’m also Filipino, so you got that wrong. You don’t know your geography.”
RESTORING THE AMERICAN DREAM
“That’s why we need to continue empowering all these people who can say I’m one of you now, but I used to be one of them back then, like my parents. And don’t forget, you probably had the same history. You’re just forgetting where you came from.”
Invariably, what Ong is really talking about is the American Dream. That uniquely American ideal means many things to many different people, but in her case, it means working hard, gaining respect and become part of the team. “It means getting your ass kicked,” I added.
“Yeah, that’s part of the American Dream,” she said. “You get your ass kicked and then you work your way up. C’mon! What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. In this country it works. In another country, yeah, it’ll probably kill you.”