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by EVELYN WONG
“An English teacher asked her class to punctuate the following: ‘A woman without her man is nothing.’
“The boys wrote: ‘A woman, without her man, is nothing.’
“The girls wrote: ‘A woman: without her, man is nothing.'”
I stared in shock as Brooke Koran, the candidate running for Governor, concluded her speech. The entire auditorium erupted with a pandemonium of cheers and applause, almost enough to shake the American flag off its stand. Hanging onto her every word, I was awed by her poised stance and her elegant manner of speaking. It was as if she had carefully woven each letter and syllable in her mind before they flowed out of her mouth in harmonious waves.
As a daughter of Vietnam War refugees, I had never felt exactly a part of the American political system—until now.
Growing up, my brother and I rarely engaged in discussions about politics with our parents. When we asked them about their viewpoints regarding previous elections, my mom and dad would always shrug, murmuring: “What does our opinion matter?”
Ironically, they had risked their lives to allow my brother and me to have a chance at achieving the “American Dream.” Separated from their friends and immediate family, they had abandoned their homeland during the war. My parents had dreamt of a world away from District 11 in Saigon, where an a la carte menu of invasions and gun firings presided. Throughout their young adulthood, they had been sustained by a single ambition: to escape to America and start a new life.
During my childhood, however, I had been raised with the idea that, as an immigrant family, our voices didn’t matter when it came to taxes, propositions or even elections. My brother and I were taught to abide by the rules and remain grateful for what we had, while our family tried its best to fit into the mold of society by merging with the rest of the crowd.
Now, sitting in a room with 550 driven and outspoken girls from all over California, I felt completely out of place. I had grown used to the tightly-knit community of Montebello, and this was exactly the place my parents had been warning me against my entire life.
These were students who had strong, well-formed opinions about their world, each with a different issue in mind and a plan for improving the current state of their city, county and state. They had arrived at Girls State with compelling ideas for new legislation, sharing their perspectives on the health care system, education and conservation; meanwhile, I was struggling to determine on which side of the dormitory my room was. (I had hauled my suitcase up two flights of stairs only to realize that I was on the wrong side of the building.)
While most girls were running for Governor or Lieutenant Governor, I was being introduced to a side of America previously foreign to me, though it had been under my nose my entire life. Through the one-week stay at Claremont McKenna College, I learned what it meant to undertake the responsibilities of an American citizen.
I realized that being a citizen does not make us entitled to the privileges we have taken for granted since birth. It begins with contributing to city efforts, either by decorating our dorms for the “City Expo” or voicing concerns at local City Council Meetings.
At the county level, it means knowing the effects of having “charter schools” as opposed to “public schools” and passing ordinances deemed beneficial to our residents. At the state level, it requires citizens to have informed opinions about statewide issues, electing the Governor and her office based not on her popularity but on the content of her speech and the efficacy of their proposals.
From the construction of our cities to Brook’s appointment as Governor—through the party platform meetings to the whistle stop tours by the candidates—Girls State brought 550 strangers into a cohesive unit of contributing members of their own utopian society.
We learned that we are not entitled to our opinions, but our informed opinions, as author Harlan Ellison once observed. We refused to let prejudice or others’ viewpoints sway our beliefs toward a particular candidate. We learned what it meant to take action in our real-life communities by igniting a flame and passing it on to the generation succeeding us. But, most importantly, we learned that every citizen, regardless of background, has a voice in democracy.
And come election time, I am prepared to make mine heard.