How a Violent Act Led Me to Be a Story Digger

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Salad Days.”

It all started when I became editor-in-chief of the Asian American Quarterly (AQ) in my junior year of college.  Growing up in a mostly white suburb, I wasn’t used to hanging out in cultural organizations.  Assimilating and blending in with others was certainly the most preferred way to be.  In fact, I remember having such culture shock hanging out with my Korean American roommate and her Asian friends that I asked her if we could hang out with more white people.

Somehow though, the explorer in me had always sub-consciously been curious about my cultural heritage.  This is why I choose to do a research paper on Chinese immigration (I relate more to being Taiwanese American now) in my junior year of high school history and joined Asian American student organizations in college.

Even so, all of this was so new to me, and taking the lead at a magazine focused on Asian American issues introduced me to topics I never really thought about.  One in particular was brought about by my friend Mike, another editor of AQ.  While figuring out which articles to produce and how to edit them, we became embroiled in a heated discussion about discrimination against Asian Americans.  As an expert assimilator I had no idea what he was talking about, so I told him that I had never experienced discrimination, which completely shocked him.  Mike kept prodding me, trying to dissect it out of me – that I had been discriminated but just didn’t know it.

Being the explorer I naturally am, I wanted to find answers.  I wanted to know why Mike seemed to know something that I didn’t.   So, I decided to take a Student Organized Seminar called “The Asian American Experience.”  During one of these classes we watched a documentary about an incident almost ten years before called “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”

There on the screen I saw how a Chinese American was brutally beaten to death by auto workers in Michigan because of their racial prejudice.  This was during the 1980’s, the time when Japanese cars became popular and threatened American auto workers’ sense of job security.  When I heard one of the perpetrators say, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work” I felt my body tighten and I cringed in disbelief.  And then on top of it all, the judge only sentenced them to 3 months of probation and a $3000 fine  – for killing someone?!  When questioned about the sentence this is what he had to say, “Had it been a brutal murder, of course these fellas would be in jail now.”  What?!

It was then that something in my brain switched on.  My world permanently shifted – everything I had previously thought completely changed.  I became more aware of things people said and did.  I realized that when the white guy down the hall my freshmen year talked about wanting to date only Asian women, that was racial stereotyping.  When non-Asians asked me where I was from and I told them New York, their look of disappointment wasn’t that they didn’t like the state of New York.  It was because I didn’t answer the question they wanted to know, my ethnic heritage.  When people told me I spoke such good English, they weren’t complimenting my linguistic skills.  They were assuming English wasn’t my first language.

In fact, many Asian Americans have had a similar reaction as I did as seen in this clip of the documentary “Vincent Who?” which also talks a little about the historical context of how Asian Americans have been treated since the 1800s.

I couldn’t believe I never knew about such anti-Asian violence, that after splitting open Vincent Chin’s head with a baseball bat, after all the trials and retrials – that in the end, these two men would never serve a day in prison.  Unbelievable!! How could our justice system have failed so miserably?  This was 20 years ago when I discovered the story that changed my entire perspective on society and made me determined to learn as much as I could about this missing gap of knowledge.  Now I hope to tell people more about important stories like Vincent Chin’s through this blog!