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SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Public Affairs Office

Date: June 13, 2008
No: 08-14

SSC holds Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

NATICK, Mass. --   On May 27, Lisa Wong, mayor of Fitchburg, Mass., spoke to personnel at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (SSC) here, about herself, her background and how she became involved in politics as part of SSC's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Program.

"My entrance into politics was a surprise to many people," she said, "and one of the most surprised was my father. He still doesn't quite understand what I do. But if I look back on the history of my life, this was the obvious path for me."

Wong explained that she is the youngest of three siblings, and as such, she has a close relationship with her parents so she was the one her parents started to share stories about their past with.

She learned that her father grew up in a tiny fishing village and his father had died very young. There was no clean water, and no access to education - the most you could hope to get was a third-grade education. "He survived by running away," Wong said.

Her mother's parents fled China to Hong Kong where the entire family all lived together in one room, with no electricity and no running water. Although there was a big push for her mother to go to work in a factory to earn money for the family, her grandmother said the only way out of poverty was to get an education. Her mother was able to take a test and get into a prestigious British school. She learned items such as how to set a table, but also science and math. "This exposed her to other students, the greater world," Wong said.

Her mother went on to nursing school. While there, she never attended parties, however, her roommate convinced her to attend a party one night, and her mother met the man who would become Wong's father. He had moved to Hong Kong and opened a camera shop. The two were married and literally came to America with their suitcases and $100, saying "Who do we know?" and sleeping on friends' couches while learning the language. Her father worked as a waiter and her mother as a nurse, and eventually her father was able to open his own restaurant in Cambridge.

Wong said her parents ensured that their three children were able to go to college. However, she said what they did best was make sure the children had tools for their lives. They told us it was a big, wide world, she said, and we didn't need to be pigeon-holed to stereotypes.

"There are a lot of stereotypes," she continued, "I'm supposed to play violin, play piano, get straight 'A-plusses,' and become a doctor, engineer, or maybe a lawyer."

She did learn to grab onto every opportunity she could. After completing school, Wong traveled around the world for a year. "I couldn't wait to go out into the world. I basically took my high school backpack and tennis shoes and backpacked around the world...…biking, sleeping in fields, trying to find my place in the world."

During a stop in Nicaragua, Wong visited an island where, after climbing a volcano, she decided to skip on the beach. Being klutzy, she fell and hurt her ankle.

"There's no ice, no cell phone, just me on the beach, so I have to drag myself to the road."

A truck driver passing by gave her a ride to wait for the next fishing boat that could take her back to the mainland. As she returned to the mainland on the boat, she saw a long pier that she had to travel down. "It looked like it was 15 miles," she said.

On both sides of the pier were children and families on the beach and Wong thought, I'm going to have to crawl down the pier in front of all these people.

"I decided to hop on one foot," she said, thinking this would attract less attention. As she began hopping down the pier, she went about five feet and had to stop and rest before hopping again. People are noticing now, she said, and kids are coming up on the pier, trying to push me over, seeing if this is a game. Soon the children are hopping too.

"Every hop, one more person comes up to the pier and eventually the beaches clear out and everyone is up on the pier hopping with me, now helping me."

She said things became clear to her then. I enjoyed being on the pier with all the people, just interacting, and answering questions. I was completely enamored by the experience; it was wonderful that people were so curious that they wanted to join in, she continued. "It struck me how connected to each other we are and I wondered if I could recreate that feeling."

When she returned home, she began looking for a community development job. "I wanted to get people together to reach a goal," Wong said.

A community development opportunity came up in Fitchburg when General Electric (GE) Co., a major employer, closed down with only 24 hours notice.

A $30-million-dollar payroll and 600 jobs were lost. Local shops and restaurants closed. The city was devastated. When she was originally hired, it was for a three-month contract to work on an urban renewal plan.

"Within a month, I knew there was more to be done for this place," she said. "GEs were closing down all over the city, facilities left abandoned, but only when GE shut down did people start to take notice. I knew I needed to get as many people [as possible] hopping along with me."

Wong worked for the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority for five years, including two and a half as the agency's director.

She then decided she would run for mayor. "I wanted to get people re-energized. Get them off their butts, off the beaches and hopping." She said by finding out issues and common themes, she was able to defeat opponents with more resources.

Usually only about 2,200 people vote in Fitchburg's local election, and this year, they had approximately 6,000 people vote.

Wong has been in office for about five months now and says she is trying to get people to "check back in." I want to hear their thoughts, she said. "Even differing opinions, I want to hear."

She said she is trying to make Fitchburg a place that people would want to "live, work and play."

Col. Gregory Ulsh, garrison commander, said Wong's presentation was "fascinating and inspirational."

This page last updated on 10 May 2006.