Taking on Capitol Hill (Part 1 of 3)

I’m not really an activist, but being a longtime resident of the Lower East Side, it’s almost impossible not to be involved in efforts to preserve the community. When my neighbors called and said that the Archdiocese was trying to demolish St. Brigid’s Church, I joined them on the streets and wept with them when the 150 year-old stained glass windows were destroyed. And the night before Esperanza Garden was demolished, I was there with my son, who played in the frog-shaped tree-house while protesters handcuffed themselves to cement. And when investors were brought to turn Charas community center into a luxury condo, I went with friends to foist information sheets at them and pelt their car with eggs.

But grassroots action by itself it isn’t enough to effect change. In order for a movement to overturn existing political structures, there also needs to be advocacy at the top. So when Eileen Lin and Chia-Chun Chung invited me to speak at the FAPA-YPG annual conference and then asked if I might want to join them on Capitol Hill afterwards, I thought I might take the opportunity to learn a little more about the other side of political action.

For those of you unfamiliar with the acronym, FAPA stands for Formosan Association for Public Affairs and YPG stands for Young Professionals Group, which is their second-generation affiliate, comprised mostly of Taiwanese-Americans in their 20s and 30s. The organization’s mission is to establish international support for democracy and self-determination in Taiwan.  Co-founded in1981 by Peng Ming Min whom I interviewed in my film,  FAPA is one of the oldest and certainly the largest Taiwan advocacy group – there are 55 chapters throughout the U.S., as well as chapters in Europe and Canada.

So I timed my trip to Taiwan to end a day before the FAPA conference and arrived in Arlington, VA on Saturday evening just before they broke everyone into two groups – one for those who knew Taiwan issues and one for people who were pretty new. I felt very new to the idea of going in front of public legislators (to be honest, it made me pretty darn nervous), but I do know the issues, so I found myself sitting next to Gerrit van der Wees, editor of Taiwan Communique, talking about Taiwan’s international relations.

It turned out that this was prep for canvassing DC to get people to sign a petition supporting normalization of US-Taiwan relations. Eileen and Janice Chen began mobilizing everyone to hit three neighborhoods – Eastern Market, Georgetown and Dupont. Isn’t it time for dinner? I thought. I was famished after being on a bus for five hours and looked around desperately for some sustenance.

The only other Taiwanese conference I had ever been to was the National Association for Taiwanese Women in America (NATWA), where one of the main activities seemed to be eating. I had hoped that there would be gigantic meals at this convention too, but clearly FAPA was less about food and more about action. As materials were distributed and New York was grouped with New Jersey and Pennsylvania to canvas Eastern Market, I discovered that I was standing next to an enormous bag of cheese and caramel popcorn. After eating three-quarters of the bag (sorry, whoever’s popcorn that was), I strangled all my self-doubts about stumping for Taiwan and gamely followed everyone to the metro.

Coming from the polyglot of nationalities that make up New York City, it always seems to me that DC is starkly divided between (relatively) poor blacks and (relatively) wealthy whites. At Eastern Market, I spoke with white people walking their dogs or carrying grocery bags, and looked for an opportune moment to interrupt the raucous conversation between the black people at the bus stop. There was one Filipino guy I talked to, who resisted signing the petition at first, but then came looking for me, saying that he disliked how China was also trying to annex islands in the Philippines.  Somehow our group managed to collect the most amount of signatures (it was all Michael Lee really), plus some of us got a bunch of cars to honk for Taiwan. Then we went to eat at a Mediterranean restaurant. Finally.

FAPA at Eastern Market. L-R in the foreground – Matt H. who became interested in Taiwan from watching a few films (see the arts do garner support!). Janice Chen, who along with Eileen Lee was one of the great organizers of the FAPA-YPG conference. Michael Lee who singlehandedly got like three pages of signatures.

How can you possibly say no to these girls?

A good laugh at Eastern Market.

On our way to a restaurant.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel and jet lag enveloped me like a noxious haze. I squeezed into the elevator with a dozen people, who seemed like they were ready for some fun, while I felt like I was being smothered by an invisible giant fuzzy pink blanket that smelled like mothballs and baby spit. “This is the party floor,” someone announced as they left. “This is the sleep floor,” I said as I stumbled out into the hallway.

(To be continued…)

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