#badasians Interview: A Look Inside Andrew Yang's Presidential Campaign
We’re thrilled to have spoken to presidential candidate Andrew Yang as one of the first pieces for our digital content launch! We first knew Yang from his work with Venture for America, an entrepreneurship fellowship he founded in 2011 that brings startups to U.S. cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
Now, seven years later, the path that has taken him all across the country is pointing him to the White House. During his years with VFA, Yang discovered that technology is on track to eliminate one-third of American jobs, and now he is running on the platform of universal basic income—the idea that all adult Americans, regardless of status or location, should receive $1,000 a month, no strings attached.
Read on to find out why Yang thinks universal basic income could help put an end to racism, how he learned to bounce back from failure, why having kids has changed his view of tiger parenting, and more.
On his childhood:
Your parents immigrated from Taiwan and you were born in upstate New York. Do you feel like their immigrant mindset affected how you grew up, and your work ethic?
Of course. My father and mother met on campus at Berkeley in the late 60s, early 70s; my brother was born out in SF, and then my family moved east. My dad worked at GE in Schenectady where I was born.
I think many of my childhood experiences would be familiar to many immigrants, where there is this constant scrappiness and emphasis on saving money that it was always like, do you really need that? My parents would drive cars until they were long past looking good—or feeling good. I would eat a piece of chicken or fish and my parents would scoff at me and take whatever was left and break the bones open.
My parents did the same! They would be like, that’s not done yet.
Yeah, and suck the marrow out. [laughs]
There was also this sense of being somewhat out of place because I was one of the only Asian kids in my school. [There were] so many things I took for granted that later, I realized were distinct to the fact that I was a first generation born here.
Have you ever had an awakening, or an epiphany if you will, as it relates to race and identity?
I had a series, I suppose, of epiphanies. When I was a little kid, I dreamt of myself as a little white kid, with dark hair—how many Asians have had that experience?
I definitely have.
I think it’s different for Asian men and Asian women, Asian boys and Asian girls. And so being an Asian boy in an all white neighborhood, I felt this constant need or desire to prove my masculinity and toughness.
Doing well in school was not much of a challenge for me. The biggest challenges were not being a nerd, or trying to stand up for yourself, or trying to be considered cool. And so I exerted myself a lot in those directions, largely unsuccessfully in many circumstances.
I felt a lot of pressure to be tough. My father has a highly unusual background—he grew up on a peanut farm in Taiwan and then went to National Taiwan University to study physics, and then he came west and got his PhD at Berkeley. My father is bred as sort of a roughneck farmer, so he was always very scary to me and my brother, and always very tough. For a smart guy, my father comes across like a farmer. So I think that was another reason why I felt the need to be tough as a kid.
I also got into a lot of fights—I lost most of them. In large part because if someone were to say “chink” or “gook” or whatever, then I’d be like, “okay, I guess it’s time to fight again,” and then I’d fight and lose. And part of it was because I skipped a grade and was smaller than most of my classmates.
So I think that represents a lot of the experiences I think of [when I think about] developing a racial identity. It was just trying to be able to stand up for myself in a white neighborhood I was growing up in.
On Asians in politics:
I think that the Asian Americans who might disagree with me on certain points will still be excited about having a presidential candidate that can represent the community in an effective way.
Do you ever feel like [your background] shapes your political ambitions or the policies that you hope to shape?
Well, I think what’s interesting is that most immigrants don’t see politics as something they want to get into. For some very good reasons. [laughs] So I think that’s somewhat unusual. I think most first generation or second generation immigrants are told they should get an education, work very hard and then succeed financially—try to provide a better life for your kids. And that any widespread social impact or political leadership is not seen as stable or secure path.
Particularly for Asian Americans, there’s a culture around keeping your head down and just kicking butt and not talking too much about it. I think even as I’m now a declared presidential candidate, I still would much prefer to be getting things done than talking about getting things done.
As a public figure, do you feel you’re tasked with representing the views of the entire Asian American community?
I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m the first Asian American man to run for president as a Democrat. And I certainly feel an obligation to represent the community well. I don’t imagine that my points of view are going to match up universally to every Asian American because there’s such diversity in the community, but at the same time I think that the Asian Americans who might disagree with me on certain points will still be excited about having a presidential candidate that can represent the community in an effective way.
Yeah, I feel like so much of why we started Slant'd was because, growing up, we didn’t have that sort of resource. I grew up in Sacramento, in a community where there weren’t a lot of Asian people.
That’s one of the reasons that I love [the idea of Slant’d] so much. It’s beautiful, and for Asians to see themselves represented very positively in ways that aren't just the usual images, I think is really important. What’s interesting is that, in my opinion, Asian Americans are very artistic—my mother is an artist. But at the same time, I think arts are somewhat marginalized in our community because it’s considered a luxury and it’s not very lucrative.
Do you have any advice for other Asian Americans who want to get into politics?
The advice I would give would be to find something that you're excited or passionate about, and then champion it. I never imagined I’d be running for president. But I care very deeply about the future of this country, and the country my kids are going to grow up in.
So for me, running for president now seems very natural because I feel like I have a job to do, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. But I think it would be somewhat of a mistake for an Asian American to say, “oh, I’m going to get into politics and then I’m going to attach myself to this organization or these things.” You have to figure out things you care deeply about. And there are different paths to that. I think it’s as much about self-discovery.
I talked to Grace Meng, who didn’t think she was ever going to get into politics either. In her case, she worked on a campaign and found herself drawn in. So that would be another thing that might be useful—work on a campaign so you get a sense of it.
I'm running to solve a certain set of problems, and I believe I’m mature enough to separate out the political successes from the substance of my relationships. And I think that’s really exhausting for most people, and for Asians in particular, because we tend not to be super extroverted, and there’s a lot of relationship management in politics.
Lots of baby kissing and hand shaking.
Yeah, and I think I’m a normal Asian in that I’m somewhat introverted, and that socializing takes a bit of exertion, so for that reason I think we make for a particular type of politician. But I believe that the appetite and the need for politicians like us—who want to solve problems and, I’m generalizing here, care about policy and are more doers than talkers, or more workers than soundbite seekers—I think that there’s huge need for that in the U.S. right now.
You mentioned you were thinking of the other Asian American politicians you know—who comes to mind? Who do you think more people need to know about?
I think Grace Meng is awesome, and a phenomenal, true public servant. And servant leader. I also really like Ron Kim, who’s a state legislator here in New York, and very smart, very steady, high character. I think he’s got a phenomenal orientation and the sky’s the limit for him. And then Yuh-Line, I’m a big fan of hers. I met her and Ron at the same time—they’re both really impressive and smart public servants that are doing it for the right reasons.
On pursuing one’s dreams—and failing:
I read an article from a couple years ago that your confidence really took a hit when your first startup didn’t pan out—how did you bounce back from that, and how do you continue to bounce back from roadblocks and obstacles?
That’s one of the things I would like to share with more young Asian Americans—that we have such high standards for ourselves, that if you fail, then that could be disastrous. For me, that first big failure was a great experience, where you feel beaten up and you've lost people hundreds of thousands of dollars, and your parents are concerned about you and they’re still telling people you’re a lawyer even though you quit.
Failure can be very empowering—it hurts, but there’s such a thing as growth through adversity
But then over time, you realize that when people meet you, no one knows you’re a failure or knows your net worth is negative a hundred thousand [dollars]....you develop a sense of resilience. For years afterwards, I would tell myself, well, this can’t be as bad as when my company went under. And [I became] capable of many different things that I certainly wouldn’t have been capable of if I hadn’t experienced that failure.
Failure can be very empowering—it hurts, but there’s such a thing as growth through adversity, and I think that right now, many Asians in particular welcome a certain form of adversity, which is like, hey, you give me a lot of arduous work, I can do that. But that’s not the way really great things get done in the world, or even interesting things.
The adversity that I think entrepreneurs struggle with is something that I call “the grind and the void”. So I think Asian Americans are pretty good at “the grind”, where you can say hey, here’s a lot of work, go do it. The harder thing to do is “the void”, which is this nothingness around you, and there’s no positive reinforcement, there’s no direction, and then you have to say okay, what do I need here? And then you have to go out and get it, and either convince someone to give it to you, or build it yourself.
Most people—most Asians, I think—shy away from the void, because the void is deeply uncomfortable. It was only after my company failed that I became familiar with the void, and now I’m so comfortable with it that I kind of like it. If anything, now I get uncomfortable when my activities become too well defined.
On experiencing racism today:
As an adult and a public figure now, do you still encounter things like [racism]?
You know, I’d say that as the CEO of an education company or the founder of a nonprofit, I really did not. But now that I’m running for president, I sometimes pick it up. I don’t think most people have a problem with Asian leadership when it means, “Hey, can you be commercially successful? Sure, I have no problem with that! Can you be my professional service provider? Yeah!” But then if you say, “Can you become the leader of my society?” Then there is a struggle for some people.
And what’s interesting is: the struggle that I’m seeing is really among people who are elevated in society—very wealthy, powerful, white Americans. For them, it’s a bit of a struggle to think, “Oh, am I supposed to get on board with this Asian guy as the president and the head of the country?” I said to my wife that I think I’ve experienced more of that in the 6 months I’ve been running for president than I have in the last 10-12 years.
Do you feel like we’re backsliding, when you hear of all the things like Neo-Nazi rallies and racial unsettlement?
Well, because of the way I grew up, and maybe the way you grew up too, I’ve always just known and assumed that there’s a certain background level of racism all the time. It’s not like racists are something that people become. To me, everyone has racial ingroup-outgroup mindset, so when you see hate in various parts of the country, to me it’s not, “oh, we’re sliding backwards,” it’s, “what are the changing conditions that are making it such that racism is becoming more pronounced and action-oriented, as opposed to something that someone thinks in the privacy of their own home?” And it’s all tied together.
I actually get frustrated when people [simply] denounce hatred. It’s like, if that worked, then that would be fantastic. The harder thing is trying to figure out how to address the conditions that lead to it. Because if you progress towards something that’s approaching the best society we can possibly imagine, it’s not that we’ve gone inside people’s heads and somehow erased all racial preferences—that would be impossible and against human nature. It's more that people are all doing well enough so we can look at each other and respect each other's similarities and differences, and not be driven by baser impulses.
That’s one reason why this campaign and the drive for universal basic income, to me, it’s the most fundamental way to address racism. Because if you get everyone feeling like their future is secure and clear, and that resources are abundant, then they can look at someone from a different group and say hey, that person’s different from me, but that’s cool.
What are the changing conditions that are making it such that racism is becoming more pronounced and action-oriented, as opposed to something that someone thinks in the privacy of their own home?
On literally putting his money where his mouth is:
I saw that while you were in New Hampshire, you said that you would give $12,000 to a NH resident from your own pocket next year—what inspired you to make that move?
It started with a conversation with a friend of mine, an Asian woman, who bemoaned the fact that she gave Hillary Clinton [a large] donation, and Hillary spent a billion dollars on advertising, which went to media companies. And she was like, “Wouldn’t it have been better if they just spent money on something that actually made a difference in communities, like nonprofits?” And I said, “Yeah, I agree, that’s a terrible use of resources,” and then I thought, what would be the most thematically appropriate way to spend money that would actually do some good?
So we thought it would be to give someone universal basic income, because we believe very strongly that $1,000 a month could make a dramatic difference in the lives of many, many people. And the rules are such that you actually can’t do that out of campaign funds, so that became pretty clear that if we were to do it, it would be me personally doing it.
In my experience, there’s the abstraction of doing something and then there’s the reality, so if there’s a real and personal side of people where I, Andrew Yang, am going to give another human $12,000, that somehow becomes much more real than if I’m saying, “Hey, we should do this for everybody.” People need to see something real first, and so this is one way to do that.
On becoming a parent:
If you could give your younger self any advice, what would you say?
My main thing would be that things are going to work out. Because, as a young person, I had a tendency to beat myself up and become anxious about various things. And I took failures very hard.
But if you told me then that I'd be running for president today, and that I’d have a wife and two beautiful kids, and that I would have seen the things I’ve seen and done the things I’ve done, I would have been so thrilled as a young person. I wouldn’t have believed it, and I would have been very, very happy. [laughs] So what I would tell my younger self is that it’s all right—things are going to work out the way they’re supposed to work out.
Do you find that you are raising your kids with a tiger parent outlook?
Well, my older son is on the autism spectrum, which forced a degree of growth and flexibility in one's thinking. And that itself has been an adjustment for me, because maybe my instincts would have been more like, “yeah, kick butt, do this, do that,” but then, because he has a different profile, you care about different things, I suppose.
And I think that the experience is one of the things that drove me to run for president. I was quite cocky going in [to parenthood], where I was like, “there are two of us, we’re educated, we have resources, it’s gonna be a breeze. And when it was as hard as it was, I started realizing what it would be like for single moms, or kids of immigrant families that haven’t had the same advantages. It’s still heartbreaking to think about.
So if we can make that better through something like universal basic income, that would be transformative for tens of millions of families. One of the stats in my book is that 40% of American children today are born to single moms, up from 14% in the 1970s. One of the messages you’d want to leave is, you know, we’re Asians, we’re relatively new to this country, we’re gonna kick butt by doing well.
But this country is not doing well. It’s actually disintegrating in various dimensions, and that’s why we need to step up. Because Asian Americans will not be thriving in an America that’s disintegrating. And we have a role to play. We’re American, our children are going to be American and grow up here, and we have to step up and contribute and lead, because we’re gonna see problems that others do not.
You can learn more about Andrew Yang and his presidential campaign at: https://www.yang2020.com/
This interview has been edited and condensed.