A Foot In 2 Worlds: Chinese Immigrant, U.S. Politician Maryland state delegate Lily Qi shares her path to becoming a first-generation Chinese-American lawmaker. Qi is from Shanghai.
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A Foot In 2 Worlds: Chinese Immigrant, U.S. Politician

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A Foot In 2 Worlds: Chinese Immigrant, U.S. Politician

A Foot In 2 Worlds: Chinese Immigrant, U.S. Politician

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a member of the Maryland state legislature who has lived under China's Communist rule. Her name is Lily Qi. Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition has been meeting with people like Qi who have a foot in both countries - the U.S. and China - and he is here with us now.

Steve, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, why did you decide to talk with people tied to both countries?

INSKEEP: Because these two countries are pulling apart. And we know the news about the trade war and national security strains, but we wanted to talk with people with ties on both sides of the Pacific, and that does include the Lily Qi. Her last name is spelled Q-I, by the way. And she came here about 30 years ago.

MARTIN: And she is a delegate in's Maryland State House. How did you meet up with her?

INSKEEP: I went to watch her shaking hands with some Maryland voters.

LILY QI: Hi. I'm delegate Lily Qi. Nice to meet you. Hi.

INSKEEP: She's in an old-style diner here, the Silver Diner, which is in Rockville, Md.

QI: I know it well and have enjoyed its many offerings...

INSKEEP: Oh, yes.

QI: ...On occasion.

INSKEEP: Classic place - coffee, bacon, eggs. There's a sign on the wall that reads American classics. Now, we were there at the tail end of this event that was held by another lawmaker. And Lily Qi was chatting with some Democratic activists.

QI: Some of the election laws I'm deeply passionate about, and the kind of hurdles that face the immigrant communities, especially.

INSKEEP: I want to give you a picture. She's in her 50s. She's wearing a lavender jacket. She's very stylish. And when she was done talking, we went and found a booth by a window.

I might order some food if that's OK.

And over spinach omelets, we discussed the district that she represents, which is just a short distance from here.

QI: Mine is mostly suburban and rural, interestingly. And it's such an irony because I grew up in Shanghai.

INSKEEP: And now you represent farmers.

QI: Yeah, exactly.

INSKEEP: She says her district outside Washington, D.C., also includes many Asian Americans who have not been deeply involved in politics.

QI: We are the missing voice that nobody is missing.

INSKEEP: Asian Americans, as we know, are really prominent beyond their numbers in technology...

QI: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...In certain businesses, in elite universities...

QI: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...But not in politics.

QI: Not in politics, and even among the American-born Asians, it's called the last frontier. Politics is the last frontier.

MARTIN: I like that phrase she used - the missing voice that nobody is missing.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MARTIN: But why would that be? I mean, why would Asian Americans be less involved in politics?

INSKEEP: She says, think about where Asian Americans come from or where their ancestors came from. A lot of people grew up in one-party authoritarian states like Communist China where they had every reason to stay away from politics if they could. And that was certainly her experience in China.

QI: I grew up in the '60s and '70s. It was during the height of the Cultural Revolution where everything was turned upside-down. Anyone with some degrees, with some foreign connections who are perceived as authorities or intellectuals would be denounced. You know, they want to cleanse your brain. Your brother and sister, family members, kids could turn on you. And it was a scary time.

INSKEEP: Now, by the 1980s, she says China was improving. But with that memory of bad times, she took an opportunity to get out. She applied and was accepted to an American college, which is now known as Manchester University in Indiana.

MARTIN: That was a pretty long way from China.

INSKEEP: A very long way in more ways than one.

QI: English is my second language. I had to use a Walkman. You know, I'm dating myself. You know, it's like the iPod of the '80s, right (laughter) - or iPhone of the '80s - to record lectures because I couldn't keep up.

MARTIN: Did she feel very disconnected from home?

INSKEEP: Yeah. And that became excruciating because her first year in Indiana was 1989, and in June of 1989, news started coming out of China of a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. So you can picture this. Lily Qi is in Indiana. She's watching TV to learn what's going on. But these are English language newscasts that she could just barely follow.

And there's no Internet, so you're not getting a Chinese news...

QI: It was just TV.

INSKEEP: ...Or something. Yeah.

QI: I shared the TV in an apartment that I shared with other people. And it was also in a very emotional time...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

QI: ...And stressful time. You just didn't know what was going on.

INSKEEP: Now, for Lily Qi, there was eventually a benefit because after Tiananmen, the United States made it easier for Chinese students in America like her to stay after graduation. And she did. She's a citizen now. She says she struggled for years in various jobs, but she eventually went to work for the state of Maryland and decided in 2018 that she wanted to run for office.

MARTIN: And was appealing to fellow Asian Americans part of her strategy?

INSKEEP: Absolutely, although she also worked to appeal to people with no Asian background at all.

QI: My campaign produced several videos in sequence to tell my story and teach people how to pronounce my last name. It's, you know, Xi, so we will say things like Xi's my choice, right...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

QI: ...In different languages, you know? Like, Qi is the energy.

INSKEEP: She won. I mean, Xi won, Michel...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...And was on the State House floor on the 30th anniversary of her arrival in the United States.

QI: So it was so sweet and surreal when I - I'm going to cry when I talk about - so on that day, I stood up on the House floor and talked about my journey. And it was amazing.

INSKEEP: On the 30th anniversary.

QI: On the 30th anniversary, I actually was a freshman delegate in the Maryland House of Delegates. I just could not believe how far I have traveled. This is an amazing country that allow people like me to not only become successful but also to pay back in such a significant way.

MARTIN: You know, that truly is a remarkable story.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I am curious about one thing. You can hear how - just how emotional and grateful she is for this opportunity.

INSKEEP: I can hear it in your voice...

MARTIN: But...

INSKEEP: And I feel it...

MARTIN: Yeah, it is.

INSKEEP: ...Listening to her. Yeah

MARTIN: Yeah. But now China is different, as she pointed out. There are a lot of people getting very rich, for example - a lot of billionaires. And I just wondered if she ever regrets leaving and choosing a different country.

INSKEEP: Well, she says some Chinese Americans do wonder if they could have had a better life. You know, they wouldn't have struggled with the language or the culture, and they wouldn't be facing suspicion now as these two countries face off. She's heard that kind of second-guessing, but I wanted to know about her.

Having seen China's rise, did you make the right choice?

QI: Knowing who I am, I love public policies. I wouldn't trade where I am with anything. I often say it to my people. You can be economically successful, you can be a professor or researcher, you can be a doctor or whatever in China or any other countries where there is enough, you know, freedom to allow you to be who you are. But only in America can you run for office and get elected by people who can't even pronounce your last name. This is amazing.

INSKEEP: And Lily Qi is focused on improving voter access for people who say they want to participate in the next election.

MARTIN: Steve, thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Glad to come by.

MARTIN: We're going to hear more about people with a foot in two worlds tomorrow with a look at that Chinese tech giant Huawei, now under pressure from the U.S. government. An American went to work for Huawei and lost friends. That's tomorrow on NPR's Morning Edition.

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