How Ted Lieu's Asian American upbringing led to his role as Twitter's political clapback king

July 22, 2020
In The News

Growing up, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said he was called a "chink." People threw eggs at his home, his family's tires were slashed, and peers would parody the Chinese language to him.

Lieu went on to join the Air Force in 1995 in part, he says, to further assert his Americanness after confronting racism in his younger years. Having immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when he was 3 years old, he says he also did it to give back to his country. Lieu served active duty both in the country and abroad, and says his time in the Air Force, where he remains a colonel in the reserves, was one of many experiences that fueled his desire to speak out in the memorable and impactful ways for which he has become recognized.

Lieu is now known for acts like calling out internet trolls for “stupid racist shit” comments about COVID-19. Or playing an audio of crying migrant children, who had been separated from their parents, on the House floor In response to Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018. The congressman, who’s currently running for re-election, cemented his status as a critic of xenophobia and racism in the political sphere. Supporters say Lieu’s voice is particularly critical at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the rise.

“If I'm not going to be doing things or speaking out, then I should give this job to someone else,” he said weeks before the lockdown took hold of the U.S.

For Lieu, the seeds of his bold conduct were planted in his youth, growing up in a working class, Asian American household, and contending with his identity as an immigrant kid. Born in Taiwan, he noted that he now reflects on his Asian American identity with a healthy dose of confidence, his heritage now a source of pride. However his younger years were dusted with uncomfortable experiences that didn’t always make the road to self-acceptance so seamless.

As he tells it, Lieu’s parents settled in Cleveland after looking at a map of the U.S. It was in that city where he would spend his formative years.

“We were poor,” he recalled of his family, who lived in the basement of a woman’s home in his earliest years stateside. “[My parents] did not speak English well and they went to flea markets to sell gifts to make ends meet.”

Lieu’s parents put in the hours, saving up enough money to open a gift store in a shopping plaza. As years passed, packed with long, seven-day workweeks, they were able to gradually expand to six stores, where he and his brother filled their time outside of school, watching over the shops. As he witnessed his mother and father put down roots for his family, doing well enough so they could afford a house of their own, he contended with the reality that the environment wasn’t always so welcoming to them. 

“Growing up where I did, there were times when I was made to feel like I did not belong. That I was a foreigner in my own country,” Lieu said.

An unfortunate byproduct of such experiences, he said, was the unease he felt when around his parents’ native tongue.

“I would, as a kid, feel embarrassed about my parents in public settings when they would speak Chinese. Now, I'm proud that they did that, they made me speak Chinese at home because now I can speak Chinese,” he said looking back.

Having stomached these disempowering experiences, Lieu said he reacted by demonstrating his loyalty as an American, perhaps looking to the Air Force for acceptance. The military proved a transformative experience for the young Lieu. He noted that it was where he felt seen for his missions and rank, his substance, rather than just his race. It was in the military, Lieu says, where he came into his own and felt humanized beyond two-dimensional Asian American labels. Even now, when Lieu crosses paths with others on an Air Force base, he himself assesses them by rank and service.

With a background in the armed forces and an upbringing in an Asian immigrant household, Lieu doesn’t necessarily match the profile of a typical internet resistance hero. Yet, his snappy criticisms of the Trump administration have drawn in more than 1.3 million followers.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy and political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, explained that Lieu is representative of a new generation of outspoken, activist-savvy Asian American politicians like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who’ve carved similar paths, gaining favor with younger generations and party support alike.

“Ted Lieu is emblematic of a new kind of AAPI representation, where he is able to carve out a particular brand that is based in part on his social media savvy and also from his background and expertise in national security,” Ramakrishnan said. “He has been able to leverage his experience to build a strong following among the Democratic base more generally, and not just among AAPIs or among residents in his district.”

Given the time spent away from his family and the sacrifices he’s needed to make as a public servant, Lieu said the position would only be worth it if he stayed true to his moral compass and “speak my mind and do the right thing.” And he has. After GOP congressman Devin Nunes, threatened to sue him earlier this year. Lieu wrote a letter back, telling his colleague to “shove it.” Even his recent campaign ad was a parody of Trump’s attempt to prove his good health at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally in which the president chugged a glass of water after critics had questioned his well-being. Indeed, Lieu’s been called “spicy” more than once, and it’s had nothing to do with his admitted habit of dumping spice onto his food.

Even so, his follower count confounds him.

“I find it bizarre that I have as many followers as I have because I’m not doing magic. I’m just telling you the truth,” Lieu said.

His followers have transcended the Asian American community and Lieu regularly backs legislation that benefits those outside of his own race. Ramakrishnan pointed out that though the racial climate in the U.S. makes it difficult to see Lieu as an elected official completely independent of his race, many view the politician as a “sharp-witted critic, of the Trump administration on matters related to national security and democratic rule.”

Even so, Lieu continues to find duty in representing Asian Americans. On Monday, he led a bipartisan letter from 150 members of Congress demanding Attorney General William Barr publicly condemn acts of anti-Asian bias stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past, he’s vocally pushed for an added layer of review when it comes to espionage cases so that Asian Americans scholar and scientists, like Sherry Chen and Xiaoxing Xi, are no longer wrongfully accused.

“It sort of occurred to me as I was working on this, that it's true that an Irish American member of Congress could have done exactly the same thing that I did. And other non-Asian members could have done the same thing, except no one did,” he said. “It actually took Asian American Congress [members] to get upset about an issue that was affecting the Asian American community, to then get changed.”

For Lieu, working on the espionage-related issue drove home why it’s “important that the American government is stronger if it looks more like the people it actually represents.”

As the three-term congressman gears up for re-election, Lieu gets introspective about his time serving constituents. He said his career has always been cause-driven and by continuing to keep his motivations front of mind, he’s got through any bad days.

“I believe I could never give back to America everything this amazing country has given to me.”