State Sen. Leland Yee speaks about Asian-American political prominence

State Sen. Leland Yee speaks to professor Grace Yoo's Asian American Studies 680 class on Tuesday in Burk Hall. Eric Soracco / staff photographer

The growing political prominence of Asian Americans in California and the diversity of thought within the community came to the forefront Feb. 22 when SF State Alumnus and State Sen. Leland Yee spoke in Burk Hall 237.

“You’re in a position of importance. We count,” Yee said to the students of Asian-American Studies 680, Community: Changes and Development. “People ask for our opinions. It is extremely diverse. It is not as simple as it used to be, we’re all individuals and we all have different ideas.”

Upon arriving in class, he spoke about a variety of issues involving the historically disenfranchised community, including the shark fin controversy and the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s decision to require its players to speak English in order to compete.

Yee earned a master’s degree from SF State before attending the University of Hawaii to attain a doctorate in child psychology.  He said he never planned on being a state senator and San Francisco mayoral candidate.

“I never thought I’d be a politician,” Yee said. “Life takes you in different directions.”

Nonetheless, Yee has made it his goal since he was first elected to the SF Board of Education in 1988 to ensure that all Asian Americans feel as if they have a voice in their government.

“He does understand the issues, I just respect his message,” said Professor Grace Yoo, who invited Yee to speak in front of her class. “The key thing is he is a voice.”

Yee said that it is important to stand up for what you believe in, but as Asian-American influence grows, the community will have to balance between its cultural values and what other communities find acceptable.

He cited the practice of finning and shark fin soup as the prime example of finding that balance. While finning is illegal in U.S. waters, it still occurs in international waters. Therefore, many environmentalists want to have a full ban on the sale of shark fins.

“The shark fin issue is important because it’s a cultural issue,” said 21-year-old Asian American studies major Kristine Xie.

This, obviously, would hurt those who obtain shark fins without finning – which involves cutting off the shark’s fin and dumping the body into the ocean – and hinder the Asian-American community from enjoying shark fin soup on special occasions.

“I take the position that I do not support a full ban because it is still a part of our culture,” Yee said, before illustrating his balance. “No one ought to be able to sell shark fins that use the finning  process. That’s inhumane.”

Fins acquired by using the whole shark should be legal, he said.

Yee was elected to the California State Senate in 2006 and represents parts of San Francisco and San Mateo County and is the first Chinese American state senator.

Despite his passion for Asian-American issues, some students would have liked to see more of an emphasis on San Francisco issues since he is running for mayor.

“Muni and education are more important issues,” said Kenneth Deng, a 22-year-old senior in the criminal justice department. “It was balanced, but I still need to get more information before I decide to vote for him.”

Toward the end of the class, which runs from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, Yee did speak about the role of higher education.

“In terms of student fees, I oppose increases,” Yee said. “The problem I have with our higher education is there are administrators earning $400-600 thousand per year.”

However, students brought up most of the topics concerning higher education, health care and other San Francisco-specific during a question and answer session.

Still, his presence on campus seemed to be positive for those in attendance.

“It’s good to have a voice and that the voice is still maintained,” said Joseph Domingo, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Asian American studies in fall 2010. “Asian Americans still have a voice in politics. If we didn’t, whose shoulders would we stand on? It’s vitally important.”

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  • So is he running for mayor of just the asian community or the entire city? With the words “majority” and “minority” meaning less every day with changing demographics do we still have to hear this same tired identity politics like it is 1965? Also why was Rose Pak allowed to say “white boy” in the 1990’s and allowed to stay in public life? Just try calling a non white adult male “boy” and see what happens.