To Understand Voters, Understand Where They Grew Up

A few weeks ago, I communicated with a Chinese woman in Thailand who was shocked that most Chinese-Americans support Trump. I was shocked that she thought most Chinese-Americans support him, since I had presumed that a majority of Chinese-American voters would choose Biden.

Curious, I found this (pre-election) survey. Their results were that 56% of likely Chinese-American voters planned to vote for Biden, 20% for Trump, and 23% were undecided. I was right to guess that a majority of Chinese-American voters planned to vote for Biden, but that majority was smaller than I expected.

In my research, I found that Chinese-Americans who immigrated as adults were more likely to support Trump than American-born Chinese (ABCs) or Chinese-Americans who immigrated as children. This did not surprise me.

That woman explained that all the Chinese-Americans she knew through social media supported Trump, which is why she assumed that most Chinese-Americans supported him. She did not know whether they were immigrants or ABCs, but given that they communicated in Chinese, I think her contacts were likely immigrants.

Why are Chinese-American immigrants more likely than ABCs to vote for Trump?

First, a lot of Chinese-Americans are so opposed to affirmative action that the Republican Party can attract their votes. They see it as legalized discrimination against themselves and a threat to their children’s education.

But, in my opinion, the bigger reason so many Chinese-Americans who immigrated as adults voted for Trump is that think about politics in Chinese terms, not American terms.

Chinese people who love the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are unlikely to leave China. Therefore, immigrants are disproportionately people who despise the CCP. They are more conscious of the CCP and why they dislike them than American political dynamics. Many of them pay close attention to what’s going on in Hong Kong—some of them left Hong Kong themselves.

When these immigrants hear Trump bashing China, they don’t hear him bashing the Chinese people; they hear him bashing the CCP. They think he is the enemy of their enemy, and therefore their friend.

By contrast, ABCs and Chinese-Americans who immigrated as children grew up dealing with anti-Chinese racism. When they hear Trump bashing China, they are more likely to hear it as an attack against themselves.

That said, every voter’s thinking is unique, which becomes clear in interviews like these.

This makes sense to me because it does not apply only to Chinese-Americans; as far as I can tell, it applies to any ethnic group in the United States which has a large proportion of living immigrants.

Most ethnic groups’ opinions of the CCP aren’t so fervent. But they often have their own equivalents.

Take, for example, my mother. She has spent over half of her life in the USA, yet the politics of where she grew up, not American politics, shapes much her voting behavior. I don’t just see this in my mother; I can see the political divide among my cousins between those who immigrated as adults and those who immigrated as children or were born in the United States.

This article about Asian-American voters also shows this pattern. I quote:

Vietnam has had a long, contentious relationship with China, spanning thousands of years, before the French occupied the country in the late 1800s. Its history is lined with several periods of Chinese colonization. Animosity toward Beijing only persisted with a series of bloody border wars in the late 1970s. Today, tensions still reverberate throughout the region, even though relations between the two countries were normalized in 1991. Last year, a Chinese survey vessel engaged in a standoff with Vietnamese ships after it entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

“It’s kind of part of the Vietnamese identity to be anti-China only as a former annexed state of China,” Thi said. “This relationship continues with China’s conflicts with Vietnam over borders and fishing rights and various things. … And many people right now fear that China will swallow Vietnam unless a strong leader stands up to them.”

(By the way, I strongly recommend reading Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. I’m not Vietnamese, but if you changed some names and details, parts of her story sound like the stories of people from my family.)

Back in late 2016/early 2017, I read an article in which the journalist interviewed a Yemeni-American immigrant store owner who had voted for Trump. This surprised the journalist, considering Trump’s statements about both Muslims and immigrants. The store owner explained that he refused to vote for Hillary Clinton because of her ties to the Saudi regime. He hoped Trump might stop Saudi Arabia from attacking Yemen and imposing the artificial famine threatening Yemeni children, or at least withdraw American support from Saudi Arabia’s actions. To him, that was a more concrete threat than how Trump would treat American Muslims. Yemeni politics were more vivid for him than American politics. (As far as I know, Trump has done nothing to help Yemeni people who are likely to die of malnutrition because of Saudi Arabia’s blockade of food imports). I don’t know whether that store owner has raised children in the United States, but if so, my guess is that they were more likely to vote for Clinton.

My understanding of politics also comes from where I come from. When I lived in Taiwan, I couldn’t vote, but if I had, the political narratives I grew up with, which differ from Taiwanese political narratives, would have shaped my voting behavior. Some aspects of Taiwanese politics mystify people like me who grew up in the USA.

For example, when I lived in Taiwan, most indigenous people reliably voted for right-wing parties (this might have changed since I left Taiwan). In the United States, most indigenous voters are registered Democrats and much more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. According to American political paradigms, it does not make sense that indigenous people in Taiwan would overwhelmingly vote for right-wing parties. To make sense of that, I had to forget American politics and try seeing things from Taiwanese perspectives, especially indigenous peoples’ perspectives.

Taiwanese politicians also proposed making adult children legally obligated to financially support their elderly parents. This idea was unpopular in Taiwan, but the mere fact that politicians suggested such a thing blew my mind because it is so far outside the Overton window of American politics. Apparently, that’s within the Overton window of Taiwanese politics.

People who grow up in different places form different political narratives to guide their choices. Even within the same country, people’s political models differ. As someone who grew up in San Francisco, I have very different ideas about how politics work than my American relatives who have never lived in San Francisco. Heck, my ideas about how politics work are different even from San Franciscans who grew up elsewhere and moved here recently.

To understand voting behavior, especially the voting behavior of people who grew up outside of a particular country, consider the politics of where they reached political maturity.

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