What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity
When Michael Deng, a college freshman, joined an Asian-American fraternity, he was looking for a sense of belonging and identity. Two months later he was dead.
“Asian-American’’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America. Michael Deng and his fraternity brothers were from Chinese families and grew up in Queens, and they have nothing in common with me — someone who was born in Korea and grew up in Boston and North Carolina. We share stereotypes, mostly — tiger moms, music lessons and the unexamined march toward success, however it’s defined. My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.
Discrimination is what really binds Asian-Americans together. The early scholars of Asian-American studies came out of the ‘‘Third World Liberation Front’’ of the late ’60s, which pushed against the Eurocentric bent of the academy. When Asian-American-studies programs began spreading in California in the early ’70s, their curriculums grew out of personal narratives of oppression, solidarity forged through the exhumation of common hardships. ‘‘Roots: An Asian-American Reader,’’ one of the first textbooks offered to Asian-American-studies students at U.C.L.A., was published in 1971; the roots of the title referred not to some collective Asian heritage but, the editors wrote, to the ‘‘ ‘roots’ of the issues facing Asians in America.’’
The project of defining Asian-American identity was largely limited to Ivy League and West Coast universities until 1982, when Vincent Chin, who worked at an automotive engineering firm in Detroit, was beaten to death by assailants who blamed Japanese competition for the downturn in the American auto market. When Chin’s killers were sentenced to probation and fined $3,000, protesters marched in cities across the country, giving rise to a new Pan-Asian unity forged by the realization that if Chin, the son of Chinese immigrants, could be killed because of Japanese auto imports, the concept of an ‘‘Asian-American’’ identity had consequences.
‘‘His death was this great moment of realization,’’ Christine Choy, a Korean-American filmmaker and former member of the Black Panther Party, told me. ‘‘It galvanized a lot of people who said they can’t stand by anymore and let things go without any sort of legal or political representation.’’
‘‘Who Killed Vincent Chin?’’ a 1989 documentary directed by Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña, was shown in Asian-American-studies classes across the country. Over the next decade, a rhetoric took hold that argued for a collective identity rooted in both the death of Vincent Chin and the debates over affirmative action, but it still felt strange to those who had grown up Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino. Whether expressed through scholarship or private, daily conversation, this vocabulary was imprecise and cloistered within the academy. By the early ’90s, when the Los Angeles riots thrust Asian-Americans onto the national stage, the brio of ‘‘Roots’’ had mostly been supplanted by a shy, scholarly neurosis that sought to figure out why Asian — particularly Korean — businesses had been targeted by rioters, but lacked the platform or the confidence to ask.
Sometime after midnight, the brothers gathered for the Glass Ceiling, one of the fraternity’s most hallowed rituals. Also known as the Gauntlet, or just the ‘‘G,’’ the ceremony varies from chapter to chapter, but it typically plays out in three stages: First, a pledge is blindfolded and separated from his assigned ‘‘Big,’’ an older fraternity brother, by a line of brothers whose arms are linked together. For the most part, this line signifies the barrier between glumly accepting America’s vision of emasculated, toadying Asian men and the great promise of success and masculine fulfillment. As his Big calls out his name, a pledge, or ‘‘Little,’’ crosses his arms across his chest and walks toward his Big’s voice. He soon runs into the line of brothers, who call him ‘‘chink,’’ ‘‘gook’’ and whatever other racial slurs they can muster. The verbal abuse lasts for 10 minutes or more. In the second stage, the pledge is instructed to push through the wall of brothers, who in turn shove him back toward his starting spot. The third stage isn’t much different from the second: The pledge is still wandering blindfolded toward his Big’s calls, but instead of being pushed, he is knocked to the ground or, in some chapters, even tackled. Once the pledge educator determines that the pledge has had enough, he calls for a halt and may ask, Why did you not ask your brothers for help?
I did not know to ask, the pledge responds.
Ask your brothers for their help, the pledge educator instructs.
The pledge asks for help. His brothers form a line behind him and, in solemn unison, guide him to his Big.
While all this is happening, the pledge is supposed to be thinking about his parents and the sacrifices they made as immigrants, the humiliations they faced and the oppressive invisibility of Asian lives in America. The pushing, the tackling and the racial abuse are meant to be the physical expression of their struggle. That final walk, in which the pledge is shepherded to his Big by all of the fraternity’s members, is intended to teach him that solidarity with his fellow Asians is his only hope of making it in a white world.
Asians are the loneliest Americans. The collective political consciousness of the ’80s has been replaced by the quiet, unaddressed isolation that comes with knowing that you can be born in this country, excel in its schools and find a comfortable place in its economy and still feel no stake in the national conversation. The current vision of solidarity among Asian-Americans is cartoonish and blurry and relegated to conversations at family picnics, in drunken exchanges over food that reminds everyone at the table of how their mom used to make it. Everything else is the confusion of never knowing what side to choose because choosing our own side has so rarely been an option. Asian pride is a laughable concept to most Americans. Racist incidents pass without prompting any real outcry, and claims of racism are quickly dismissed. A common past can be accessed only through dusty, dug-up things: the murder of Vincent Chin, Korematsu v. United States, the Bataan Death March and the illusion that we are going through all these things together. The Asian-American fraternity is not much more than a clumsy step toward finding an identity in a country where there are no more reference points for how we should act, how we should think about ourselves. But in its honest confrontation with being Asian and its refusal to fall into familiar silence, it can also be seen as a statement of self-worth. These young men, in their doomed way, were trying to amend the American dream that had brought their parents to this country with one caveat:
I will succeed, they say. But not without my brothers!
Until he pledged Pi Delta Psi, Wong said, he did not know how badly his people had suffered. He did not know about the death of Vincent Chin. He did not know about Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court case that upheld Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps. As he immersed himself in Pi Delta Psi’s misshapen yet still revelatory history of Asian-American oppression, he grew increasingly frustrated with the gaps in his New York City public-school education. Wong said the omissions were unfair. ‘‘I didn’t understand why we wouldn’t focus on a certain ethnic group or why we would ignore it,’’ Wong said. ‘‘Sometimes, it felt like things that happened to Asians were less important.’’