The writer with the Democratic candidate for the Hennepin county commissioner post, Blong Yang.

The act of voting is powerful, not only in changing the country and how it is being run, but also in bringing people together.

IT’S almost 8pm, the results will come in soon,” she said to me, anxiously, in that nasal American twang of hers. I have listened to variations of that accent in films for as long as I can remember, but it’s still so surreal to hear it in real life.

“We should go in,” she continued. I glanced down at her stick-on name tag which read “Tina”. I myself am wearing an identical one. There were at least 30 people in the house. People I have never met before in my life — and probably will never again.

It begun five days ago on a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis when the American man sitting next to me asked if I enjoyed my time in Amsterdam and I said no. It was just a six-hour layover and part of my 27-hour journey from Malaysia to Minnesota. I never left Schiphol Airport, I told him.

I then explained to the man that I am a journalist en route to attend the World Press Institute Fellowship which gathers 10 international journalists to the United States (US) every year, to learn more about press freedom and the complexities of American policymaking.

“Are you interested in politics then? The primaries are on this coming Tuesday,” he said. “And I am helping a Democratic candidate campaign. Maybe you would be interested in coming for the results’ party?”

The primaries, or the proper term, primary election, are the process by which the general public choose their candidate in an upcoming general election. The US is one of few countries to select candidates through
popular vote in a primary
election system, whereas in Malaysia, the area candidates are decided by the party leaders themselves.

The top two candidates of each position will then go on to compete in the mid-term elections in November where all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested. Territorial governorships across all 50 American states and smaller grassroots positions are also up for grabs.

Speaking of grassroots, that’s how I found myself in a home belonging to a supporter of Council Member Blong Yang. Blong is a first generation (or first and a quarter, as he explained it) American and is the Democratic candidate for the position of Hennepin County Commissioner.

Hennepin County is the most populous county in Minnesota and the 35th-most populous in the US with an estimated 1.7 million people. Given the size, it is not surprising to note that the county had been allocated an average budget of US$2.4 billion (RM9.85 billion) every four years.

A county commissioner serves both the executive and legislative duties, meaning they enact
local ordinances and administer them. The commission, which usually consists of three to five officials approve budgets, oversee spending and hire county employees.

“You must be the journalist,” said Blong, as he shook my hands, in that same nasal accent.

“Grab something to eat and maybe we can have a chat later.” I wondered when he picked up the accent as his website stated that Blong was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, shortly after his Laotian family fled Laos at the end of the Vietnam War. His heavily pregnant mother had to flee from being persecuted by the Laotian government for siding with the Americans. It wasn’t until 1980 that the Yangs made their way to the US.

As I made my way further into the house, quite possibly the first middle class American house I have ever been in, I was struck by how similar it was to my own Malaysian home. A large flat-screen television anchored the living room, decorative knick-knacks gathering dust on the table, unread books piled up high on the floor in a corner and family photos capturing personally significant moments.

We are all the same, despite the passports we carry.

Blong shook hands with everyone who came through the door, thanking them for not only voting, but also for supporting him. When I finally got him away from his close-knit supporters, Blong told me that the American Dream is still very much alive.

“Even in Donald Trump’s America?” I asked.

“Yes, even then. We live it every day. You see families that are immigrants that would arrive and live in public housing where they have to share 15 people to a home. These people eventually become homeowners and for us, that’s the American Dream,” said Blong.

“Trump doesn’t see that. He’s rich, he has always been rich. But for us regular folks, buying a home that won’t be destroyed because of wars or conflicts is the American Dream.”

Blong explained that this is not his first attempt at the county commissioner position; he had came close to it back in 2012. He made it in the primaries, but lost in the mid-terms.

“The primaries are important to our democracy and narrow down the number of candidates that are allowed to run.

“It’s unfortunate that
most people do not take the primaries seriously, because the micro dictates the macro,” said Blong.

As the night drew on and the results came piling in, Blong and his supporters crowded around a laptop on the kitchen island. Results for grassroots levels are not televised so everyone has to refer to the county website.

Of the five Democratic candidates gunning for the position of county commissioner, Blong was second highest at 7,593 votes.

“I guess you’re going to the mid-terms elections now, buddy!,” said Blong’s supporter, an older gentleman named Tom (no last name given), who looked alarmed when I said I was from Malaysia.

“That’s too close to Vietnam and I am never going there again. I had enough of that part of the world from 1965 to ‘69,” he said, in reference to the Vietnam War, of which many American men were drafted to.

Tom later shared that Blong had only campaigned for two months before the primaries, whereas the leading candidate, Irene Fernando had been campaigning for 18 months.

“So really, Blong has the upper hand in this. The American Dream is alive and well,” said Tom.

Tom’s joy was very much similar to what we as a nation experienced back in May, when Malaysia voted in a new government for the first time in 61 years. That sense of elation, knowing that your vote had made a difference, is amazing.

Fact of the matter is, the act of voting is powerful, not only in changing the country and how it is being run, but also in bringing people together.

Just like how it brought a Vietnam War veteran to a former Laotian refugee, it also
had brought Malaysians from
all races, religions and class
together to vote for Malaysia Baru.

Just like Blong’s supporters, we remain hopeful that those we have chosen to lead us will guide us to a better future, from grassroots levels and all the way to Putrajaya.

The writer, a New Straits Times journalist, is currently undergoing the World Press Institute (WPI) Fellowship in the United States. She is the first Malaysian WPI fellow in 34 years.

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