Frank H Wu, Chair of C-100

Bridging the Divide Between Asian Immigrants and their American Children


by Paul Li and Aryani Ong

Living in Montgomery County, one of the most ethnically diverse places in America, we take many things for granted. We are proud of our ethnic cultural heritage, and in the same time, embrace our common American identity. Little we realize this is a luxury that was not enjoyed by our predecessors not too long ago.

Before 1980s, there were very few Asians living in America. In 1980, Asian Americans numbered 3.3 million, or 1.44% of the general population. By comparison, in 2014, they comprised 20.3 million, or 6.36% of the general population.

Growing up in that era, Asian Americans tried hard to be “Americans.” Families gave their children Angelo names, stopped speaking the language from their homeland, and adopted Western customs. Despite these efforts, they were still not fully accepted. The term “American” was reserved for Caucasians.

Aryani Ong, a former civil rights lawyer, told me her story growing up as a Chinese American back in the 1980s: “I recall wishing I was tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes like my best friend.”

For Asian boys, it was even tougher. Frank Wu, Distinguished Professor at UC-Hastings and Chairman of Committee of 100, recounted his experience of suffering verbal abuses in school: “When I told my teachers about the bullying, they were dismissive. Or just say, ‘sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.’ Seeing the teachers not intervening, the kids became more vicious. ”

He turned to his parents for help. They told him to fit in better. He thought that they were blaming him. But later, he realized that they had blamed themselves. They were ashamed of speaking with an accent and having a different custom. They felt it was their culture and custom that set them apart from being full Americans.

Murder of Vincent Chen

For much of the history of America, Asian Americans were an invisible people. Yes, they helped build the Transcontinental Railroads. But their contribution is only cursorily mentioned in history books. Asian Americans were not organized, even as they worked hard individually to integrate and win acceptance as Americans. But one event changed that.

On the night of June 19, 1982, a 27-year old Chinese American named Vincent Chin, who was about to be married, followed the American tradition to have a bachelor party before wedding. He went to a bar in the suburb of Detroit Michigan. Two recently laid off auto workers in the bar mistook him as Japanese and got into verbal altercation with him. The auto workers blamed Japanese for their job loss and took revenge on Chin. They chased him down in the street and beat him to the head with a baseball bat. Four days later, Chin died of severe head injuries. The two perpetrators were brought to the court. But the judge refused to recognize that the killing was racially motivated. Rather than sending the men to jail, the Judge issued a fine of $3,000 and sentenced them to three years of probation.

Such a blatant injustice enraged the Asian American community. It brought together a people who were known as quiet and mellow. Immigrants and native born, suburban and inner city residents, Chinese and Japanese, all came together. White and black activists joined them as well. They took to the streets. The local news reported the case as the “crime of the century.”

“No one had seen angry Asian Americans,” Frank Wu recalled. The Chin case was a revelation: the reason why he and Chin had been treated differently was not the fault of their immigrant parents. Nor should they blame themselves. Before the Chin case, “my parents assumed that if my brother and I had been born in the U.S., we wouldn’t face any of this [racism],” Frank Wu said. But now he realized it wasn’t true.

Farther away in Houston Texas, Aryani Ong saw the Chin case on TV. “I remember the shock I felt learning about the verdict. The message was so clear that even a middle school student like me understood: justice was different for us, who looked different.”

As she was feeling a sense of despair, she suddenly saw a young woman appeared on TV. She was Asian, an activist and spoke eloquently. Among older Caucasian men, she held her ground, speaking calmly, but firmly. She was Helen Zia, a lead community organizer.

Aryani had never seen such an Asian person on national TV, “To me, she represented a solution, a path, and a movement.” All of a sudden, she did not feel ashamed of being different and Chinese any more. She saw a hope for herself in this country that still regarded her as a foreigner.

The Chin case brought about change, not only in Asian American community, but also in the society as a whole. It catalyzed a civil rights movement among Asian Americans, which has led to tremendous social progress we are all enjoying today. As we celebrate the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, we should never forget the history.

Partnering with Wootton High School PTSA, Asian Parent Student Network, Calvin J Li Memorial Foundation presents a lecture by Frank H. Wu, Distinguished Professor of Law at UC-Hastings, Co-Chair of C-100, titled “Bridging the Divide between Asian Immigrants and Their American Children”.

This event occurred on May 23, 2017.