By Claire Del Prete
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I sat down with my mother, Rachelle Chong, in the home she raised me in in San Francisco, California. My mother has always been my greatest inspiration – for her trailblazing career as a Chinese American woman, her vast intelligence, and how she raised my sister and me, two mixed-race kids with a deep love and appreciation for our Chinese heritage.
Can you tell me about your heritage? What is your identity within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community?
I am a third and fourth generation Chinese American, born in a Chinese-American community in Stockton, but I now live in San Francisco. Stockton has a large Chinese community. My mother's family, the Ah Tyes, are a large clan there, and I grew up with a strong Chinese American heritage. Our Chinese American United Methodist Church, in which my extended family is very active, played a key role in that identity. It was not until I attended UC Berkeley, however, that I studied Asian American history and became more attuned to the political and social issues of Asian Americans. When I went to DC, I became active with the Asian American community on national policy issues, including attempts to bring more Asian Americans into national appointee ranks.
Talk to me about your career – what inspired you to work in your field, your successes, your challenges, and how your identity has affected your profession.
I was very lucky to be chosen as both the first Asian American Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission in 1994 and the California Public Utilities Commission in 2006.
I was plucked out of a telecom law practice with a large San Francisco law firm to be an FCC Commissioner when I was 34 years old by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. This was an amazing opportunity for me to impact important broadcast, telecom, and Internet policy during the passage of the 1996 Telecom Act and the beginning of wireless spectrum auctions. While being the youngest FCC Commissioner and the only one from the West Coast, I was tech-savvy and inspired by VP Gore's vision of an "Information Superhighway" that would deliver tele-education and tele-medicine applications to all. My enriching experience at the FCC led to my nomination by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to become a California PUC Commissioner in 2006 after I wrapped up a mommy break for my twin daughters, born in 1998. This was a challenging job which required me to learn many new industries such as energy, water, natural gas, and transportation regulation.
I have always felt a duty to represent Asian Americans and other minority communities in my public service. As examples of some initiatives I championed was in-language utility notices at the CPUC, establishing a consumer telecom information website in multiple languages on how to navigate the competitive telecom marketplace, adding wireless devices to the deaf and disabled telecom program, and ensuring broadband infrastructure to all communities (including minority communities). I have supported strong supplier diversity programs for utilities to encourage them to buy goods and services from suppliers who are minority-owned, women-owned, etc.
On a personal level, I enjoy mentoring women and minorities to enter the telecom/Internet/energy space. It's part of the giving back that I enjoy. For many years, I was active in telecom associations and always enjoyed mentoring the next generation.
You and I recently discussed how important it is to see representation of Asian narratives in media. Can you talk about one of your favorite works?
It is so important to have Asian role models everywhere. As a young high school student, I was a strong writer, and I aspired to be a broadcaster or journalist. An early role model for me was Connie Chung. Her prominent job as a national network broadcaster helped me explain to my parents why I wanted to major in journalism.
Later, I loved the 1993 movie "Joy Luck Club" because it showed a real Chinese American family in a realistic way, and not using the typical Hollywood stereotypes of martial arts, dragon lady, or gangsters. A little known fact is that I auditioned for the Joy Luck Club cast for a role at the dinner table as a girlfriend of one of the family's sons, and while called back, I did not make the final cast.
What is one of your favorite ways to celebrate your culture with others?
In our family, there is a focus on Chinese food, both in terms of cooking it and enjoying it! It is a way to share my heritage with my daughters. I own something like five different woks and we enjoy cooking together and trying new Asian dishes together.
It's hard to talk about AAPI Heritage Month and not think about the rise in anti-Asian violence we've seen in recent years. How does this increase in racially-charged crimes make you feel?
I strongly denounce hate crimes against any minority, including Asians (both foreign born and American born). What has been upsetting to me during the pandemic was the targeting of Chinese Americans (and other Asians) by a few bad apples who are ignorant or bigoted persons. They would try and blame Asians for COVID-19 or insisting people "go back to where you came from." These incidents are serious and unnerving for the victims.
I have been proud of the authorities who chose to respond quickly to these hate crimes, and also of the many Asian organizations who quickly rose up to protest these actions and ask for protection. Too long Asian Americans have had to put up with feeling like we don't belong, because of our racial and ethnic backgrounds. It's time for that to end.
What does AAPI Heritage Month mean to you?
I always enjoy AAPI Heritage Month because it reminds me of my roots and what Asian Americans have achieved in this country overall. I have looked up to many Asian Americans in government that I have had the honor to work with and meet – people like Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Congresswoman Doris Matsui, former State of Washington Governor Gary Locke, Former CA Treasurer John Chiang, Former CA Controller Betty Yee, and CA State Treasurer Fiona Ma. As the month comes to a close, I want to finish by encouraging every member of the AAPI community to think about getting more involved or serving in government.