Thursday, January 22, 2009


On Saturday evening, we loaded up 2 cars with folks ranging from 13-45 years old and drove through the night to Washington DC. It snowed from Wisconsin to Maryland and we braved whiteouts in mountainous Pennsylvania, crawling at 25 mph, to finally get to my cousin’s house in Bethesda at noon on Sunday.

The 4 high school and college kids crammed into a guest room, tucked into sleeping bags. I slept on the living room floor, and Yvette and her son, Ramsey slept in another guest room.

During the 3-day whirlwind of inauguration and related events, we barely slept and barely ate. I barely did my yoga practice, early one morning before we left for the Civil Rights Prayer Breakfast. We had no time to read, no time for the kids to study for their upcoming final exams, no time to cook a decent meal, no time to check email. Meanwhile, my son Malachi got kicked off the Shorewood High School varsity basketball team for missing 2 practices, according to a text message from his coach.

Let me tell you, we sacrificed a lot to get to Washington for January 20, 2009. Why bother?

I’d never been tempted to attend an inauguration. I went to DC in January 2004 as a civic duty to protest the results of the election made controversial by Diebold et al, and to demonstrate with tens of thousands to declare, “Not my president! Not my war!” But I’d never gone to celebrate a presidency. When friends asked why I’d want to be at such a mob scene for a centrist politician, I answered that I just wanted to be there to breathe the air.

The buzz could be felt as far north as the swing state of Ohio. Stopping to buy gas around midnight outside Cleveland, I asked a woman in line, an African American in her 30s, if she was headed to inauguration. Now, I’m not the type to start up conversations with strangers in public places. I’ve watched my father-in-law chat up strangers in restaurants and such, and have attributed it to a certain level of coziness and familiarity, which comes with being a white man in a patriarchal white supremacy. But in that moment at the rest stop, I spontaneously reached out to this woman.

“Yeah, I’m headed down to DC,” she answered, with 5 children in her mini-van, ranging from 3 months to 7 years, driving by herself through the night to her mother’s in Baltimore while the kids slept.

I talked to other strangers at other rest stops, which became more crowded as we got closer to DC. We met folks from all the midwestern swing states, running on adrenaline just like us, to get a glimpse of the man we’d elected. We all shared a mission, as if we were all, hundreds of thousands of us, attending the same national convention. We shared an intimacy as well as a sense of national solidarity, honking at the cars with Obama signs in the windows and giving a thumbs-up on the highway.

I experienced a sense of belonging, which was new to me. As an immigrant, a person of color, and a woman, I’ve sometimes felt triply marginalized, a consummate outsider. This time, I felt I was attending my own party. No longer outside looking in, but an integral part of a national milestone.

In the car, we researched how many degrees of separation were between each of us and Obama, and learned that almost all of us knew someone who knew Obama, so only 1-3 degrees divided us. My brother was in his 7th grade class at Punahou, Yvette know someone who worked closely with him during the campaign, Cindy’s hairdresser’s friend coordinated locations for his campaign, and so forth. Somehow we all felt we had a piece of him, that he was our brother, our friend, our neighbor.

At inauguration itself, the moment that moved me to tears was not Obama’s speech, Alexander’s poem, nor Lowry’s prayer. The moment that moved me the most came at the least expected time. As the event was closing, Ramsey and I walked downhill into the crowd during the singing of the national anthem. I watched thousands of people with their hands on their hearts singing the song I typically ignore, the same way I try to tune out the flight attendant’s seat belt instructions so I can read my magazine. Who even likes the Star Spangled Banner, with its militaristic imagery and valorizing of battle? Plus, as an immigrant and Asian American I’ve always been “other,” never completely at home in the USA.

But looking into the faces of the multi-racial crowd, their eyes glued to the jumbo-tron, and lips moving in unison, I felt at that moment for the first time ever, that maybe this IS my nation, my home. It was frankly shocking to see Asian Americans so earnestly singing this vexing song, but I, too, as my tears flowed, engaged in that moment of belief that the promise of America just might include people like me. Can we be the land of the free?

Let’s get to work, friends.

More later….


Jacqueline said...

Peggy, Great to read your account. The Star Spangled Banner also made me cry. I was singing it with 50 or so people--mostly African American--packed into a tea shop owned by a couple of white ladies, who were letting us watch the ceremony on their Mac. I thought, "Hm, this is an odd form of enfranchisement!" We were on the wrong side of Pennsylvania Avenue, but it didn't matter.

Allegra Troiano said...

I was at the Hyatt party when it was announced that Obama had won. Next to me on my left was a Palestinian woman in a head scarf with her Syrian husband; on my right was a Pakistani; next to him was a gay college kid in a lime green zoot suit. Around me were African Americans crying in joy and in amazement, and at that moment, I, too, realized that I was proud to be an American, once again.
It's great that you made the trip to D.C with your kids!

peggy hong said...

hey jackie and allegra
thanks for your thoughts!
obama making patriots/matriots of us all
who woulda thunk
love to all

James W. said...


I hate to focus on one thought from your, but one passage troubles me.
"I’ve watched my father-in-law chat up strangers in restaurants and such, and have attributed it to a certain level of coziness and familiarity, which comes with being a white man in a patriarchal white supremacy." I'm not sure how to read your words. My white father did the same thing. I attribute it to his being a wonderful, open and warm human being. He loved people. So he talked to them. Nothing more to it than that.

I was also troubled with your recounting of your 2004 trip to DC. "The not my president. Not my war" words seem sad. I can accept the not my war part, but not my president? I did not vote for Barack Obama, but he is MY president. And while this election was not subject to court decisions, I would hope I would still see him as my president regardless of circumstances. I wish him nothing but success for his successes should also be ours as a nation. He is President of the United States of America, not President of the Democratic Party or a liberal agenda. People from the right and left have spent the past 16 years doing what they could to work against the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and George Bush. We succeeded. George Bush, deservedly I believe, will not be viewed highly by history. While Clinton will rise above that, I suspect that his presidency will be viewed as simply average.

Thanks for making me think. Jim

Jerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry said...

While walking on Main Street in Ontonagon, MI, I greeted three people getting out of their car. A fun short conversation followed. During which one of them commented on our dipped ice cream cones. I offered a taste and one said she just wanted a bit of the chocolate coating. She pinched a piece from my cone and they went on their way. My brother was bursting inside knowing his kids, all where present, had always disapproved to his practice of starting conversations with strangers.

This morning I said to my wife "Barack has turned the United stated into a small town overnight." The degrees of separation were shed.

Thank You for your account.

peggy hong said...

hi james w
thanks so much for your close reading and comments

there are many warm friendly asian folks in america just like your dad

however when i chat up strangers at truck stops i bet you i get a different response from folks than your dad did

i bet few people wondered whether your dad spoke english
or worried that he might have an accent they wouldn't understand
or wondered whether he was here legally or not
or whether he was needy or stranded or lost or confused

white people in america have a level of privilege people of color do not

white people are at home in america to a degree people of color are not

white people are perceived differently from people of color
often unconsciously

you might find this site interesting
one way to reveal our hidden biases

as for "not my president"
you may find that many people of color and immigrants have fraught and vexed relationships with america

for instance think of the africans forcibly brought here centuries ago
and the indigenous people massacred and occupied

certainly their progeny may have mixed feelings about america
especially if substandard conditions continue

the history of asian immigration in america is also complex and fraught
my parents had kind of a love/hate relationship with america as do i
growing up in racist communities and recognizing that racism and white privilege continue

to be honest
as an asian american i have often conversed with family and other people of color about these race matters
but have not been very open about these matters with white friends until this past year
inspired by the obama candidacy

"not my president" is an expression of alienation and disenfranchisement
this continues for some even under obama
we have to work hard to bring in those who feel voiceless silenced and isolated

remember only 60% of the electorate voted

we have very serious class issues as well as a huge education divide
too many people (esp black men) in prison etc

so i bemoan but i understand why some would feel "not my president"
you're right
it's sad

thanks for reading

peggy hong said...

great story