Proud San Matean: My story of belonging
I was born and raised a Red Sox Fan, and had a crush on Tony from Same Old Place Pizza – just like all the girls in the neighborhood. But being biracial in Boston in the 1980s, I often felt like an alien. Feeling like a foreigner in my hometown probably had something to do with the countless times that I was asked “What are you?” and “Where are you really from?”
In my day, racist comments were the norm. Before turning 18 years old, I was yelled at from moving cars, “Go back to China!,” called a “Chink,” complimented for my English, subjected to creepy “Asian girl” fetishes, and mocked in a “Chinese” accent. As a kid, my sense of self was shadowed by shame, embarrassment, and genuine confusion about why strangers hated me. And what could possibly make them so angry at my existence?
The harshness of the outside world was in stark contrast to my family life. We were a cross between the U.N. and The Brady Bunch, as a multicultural, blended family – with my Asian dad, Jewish mom, and Black god-mom. I’m the oldest of eight kids, with five adopted sisters from China. We were a loud, loving, and perfectly dysfunctional bunch – the epitome of a mosaic American family.
Race relations in New England was a “Black/White” issue. Asians weren’t even part of the vocabulary, and biracial kids, like me, were a rarity. It wasn’t until 2000 that “multi-racial” was an included category in the U.S. Census. So it wasn’t hard to leave the place that never quite felt like home. I went to school in New York, lived in China, traveled in South and Central America, and might just have continued wandering – until we found our “forever home” in the City of San Mateo.
Over 10 years ago, when my husband and I moved to San Mateo to start a family, it was truly the first place I felt an instant sense of belonging. At the time, I couldn’t have known all the things I’d come to love about San Mateo, but I did feel it. There’s the beautiful tapestry of Art Deco, Craftsman, and Spanish Revival architecture – not to mention 200 acres of open space. Authentic bratwurst, empanadas, Irish brew, Taiwanese stinky tofu — all on a single downtown block. San Mateo has a used book store, tech startups, the oldest Chinese Laundromat in the country, with a Chinese and Spanish immersion public school, all generations, faiths, and every stripe of the rainbow. I felt a kinesthetic sense of familiarity and, on my first visit, the decision was made that this is where we’d make our life.
Years later, I’d delve into San Mateo’s history as a community that strives to overcome racial discrimination by championing diversity as part of our core values. I came to appreciate how remarkable it is that San Mateo became sister cities with Toyonaka, Japan, only two decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent. For over half a century, our City nurtured this cultural-exchange program for our youth. It is widely considered to be one of San Mateo’s best traditions, and a powerful reminder of the potential of bridge building.
A lesser-known part of San Mateo’s history is the story of how the King Center in North Central got its name. In 1969, on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic assassination, the City Council unanimously agreed to dedicate the community center as a memorial to Dr. King. At the meeting, Council Member Murry read aloud a letter from Rev. Cooper of St. James AME Zion Church, expressing his hope that the recreation center would not be segregated, as that would be antithetical to Dr. King’s teachings. This was a symbolic victory that affirmed San Mateo’s commitment to inclusivity.
Naming and honoring our heroes took courage, much like when San Mateo was the only City in the country to hold a homecoming parade for returning Vietnam Veterans. In 1972, 8,000 spectators applauded the return of 113 members of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles.” San Mateans embraced and celebrated our war veterans, when across the states they received no welcome — or worse, as they were even shunned and stigmatized for their sacrifice.
During the COVID-19 health crisis, hateful rhetoric and dog-whistling is coming from the highest level of our federal government. Hate crimes and harassment are on the rise and many of our Asian community members have said they are afraid for themselves and their children. They ask, “What is San Mateo doing about the racism and xenophobia targeting Asians?”
San Mateo is joining with local leaders, including Congresswoman Jackie Speier, Assemblymember Pro Tem Kevin Mullin, Senator Jerry Hill, and Councilmembers across the County to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Asian/Pacific Islander community to unite against hate. San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals and the assistant District Attorney scrubbed racist graffiti from our public signs and pledged to prosecute hate crimes to the fullest extent of the law. San Mateans should feel assured that our Police Department will continue to closely monitor incidences of hate crimes and other violence and discrimination against Asian Americans and immigrants as the pandemic progresses. We also encourage reporting to the STOP AAPI HATE Project.
On Monday, our San Mateo City Council joined with other cities in the County to adopt a proclamation denouncing racism and xenophobia. It states, “The City of San Mateo is a diverse community – more than 20 percent of our population is of Asian or Pacific Islander descent – that draws its strength from its highly diverse population. The City of San Mateo routinely celebrates its cultural diversity and is now extremely concerned for the well-being of our residents that might be facing discrimination.”
There’s a saying, “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” All San Mateans deserve to have a sense of belonging and safety in our City. As Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Throughout our history, San Mateans have chosen to do right. That is who we are, and are always striving to be.
Amourence Lee is a member of the San Mateo City Council, board member of the San Mateo County API Caucus, and Honorary Chair of the Sister City Association.