State Senators and House representatives swore oaths to support, defend and obey the constitution during a ceremony Tuesday at the Oklahoma Capitol. A handful of racial minorities, including the state’s first Asian legislator, are present. But Senator and anesthesiologist Dr. Ervin Yen may not be a true symbol of change in Oklahoma’s cultural representation.
Yen now represents Senate District 40, an area that covers a lot of the northwest Oklahoma City metro and the Asian district. Just days after he defeated his Democratic opponent for the open state senate seat, Yen drove his giant white SUV around retrieving campaign signs still standing in people’s yards.
“I think I had two huge advantages,” Yen said. “One, being a physician, and as you can guess, most voters like physicians. Two, I've got a 45-years history in this district. We are within 2 miles of 3 homes that I've lived in for over 45 years.”
Yen was 4 years old when he moved from Taiwan to Oklahoma City with his Chinese parents. He’s the first Asian American elected to the state legislature. His win is a first, but Yen didn’t even realize cultural diversity and a lack of Asian legislators were talking points during his campaign. And he says it’s a little ironic, actually, because he’s afraid he’s lost a lot of his Asian culture.
“I have a few memories of Taiwan, but I sort of think of myself as white. I forget I'm Asian frequently. I certainly don't sound like an Asian. It’s too bad,” he said.
Yen has been in Oklahoma for more than 50 years. He can’t remember how to speak Chinese and, like many of his male legislative peers, he fell in love and married a woman from small-town Oklahoma.
University of Central Oklahoma history and geography professor Xiaobing Li watched Yen’s campaign closely. The two are the same age, both have Chinese heritage, and Li says the fact Yen doesn’t feel Asian isn’t exactly surprising.
“He’s been here so long. Pam is American, and the kids. When you have your lifestyle, your family established here, when you live an American lifestyle, you feel like American,” Li said.
It doesn’t make him any less Asian, Li says. Besides, he’s been waiting for an Asian Oklahoma lawmaker for a long time.
“After each middle term election, you see the other states, California, even Washington, Oregon, that have a governor who is Chinese. They have a US Ambassador to the Chinese. And now we have our own senator in our state. That means a lot,” he says.
“Firsts are always very important. And firsts are very important for many reasons,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, the co-principal investigator for the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project out of the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“You have someone who can give a voice and represent interests. It also can serve as a symbolic representation to others within the community and others in other groups.”
Hardy-Fanta studies the political involvement of minority groups. She says it’s important to look at something called a state’s proportional representation, which takes into account the demographics of each state’s population.
Small Step in the Right Direction
In Oklahoma, where Asians comprise two percent of the population, Hardy-Fanta says one Asian legislator is not enough. Oklahoma should have two or three.
But it’s a slow process. And Kenny Brown, a history professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, says you can’t even call Yen’s win a breakthrough for minorities.
“If you have an Asian population and you have an Asian person elected there, it's less of a big deal than if you have someone from a predominately white precinct electing an Asian American, and I think that's where you really get to a milestone,” Brown said.
During Yen’s campaign, his main opponent was another Asian-American man. Yen jokes – probably half seriously – that his name alone gave him an advantage with Asian voters.
“Let's say you didn't know who John Handy-Edwards was, and you didn't know who Ervin Yen was,” he said. “But you saw both signs, and you're Asian. Who do you think you're going to vote for?”
He says he cheated a bit. But Yen’s confident he would’ve won anyway.
Yen’s looking forward to getting to work at the Capitol, and he is planning to use his background to help Oklahomans… but he thinks it’s his medical background that will prove most useful.
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