[The second post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guest posts, are very welcome!]
How another tragic case can reveal some of the worst and the best of Asian American identities and experiences in the early 21st century.
As I’ve highlighted before in this space, Asian Americans have had a meaningful and complex presence in our national community for at least 150 years; but nonetheless, this American community has significantly grown, statistically and in prominence, in recent decades. As recent analyses of the 2010 census reflect, the Asian American community is the fastest-growing American population thus far in the 21st century. Such statistical growths can be connected to two recent examples of prominent, successful Asian Americans: Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese American basketball player whose New York Knicks’ star turns dominated weeks of news cycles earlier this year (and appeared on two consecutive Sports Illustrated covers); and Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the Korean American physician, global health expert, and Dartmouth College president whom President Obama recently nominated to lead the World Bank when its current president’s term is over.
Yet the story of the last year’s other most prominent Asian American, Private Danny Chen, complicates that picture quite thoroughly. That linked New York magazine article does a great job highlighting the key stages of that story, from Chen’s parents’ immigrations from China to his childhood in New York’s Chinatown, his decision to enlist in the army to his deployment to Afghanistan, and, most significantly, the torments and tortures he apparently received on a daily basis from his superiors and fellow soldiers once there; tortures that were consistently and brutally tied to Chen’s racial identity (or rather to ridiculous stereotypes related to it) and that, once again apparently (since information has been at times painfully difficult for Chen’s family and advocates to learn), culminated in the particularly brutal hazing that led to his suicide on October 3rd of last year. Chen’s story certainly has to be contextualized on multiple levels, including in relationship to the war in Afghanistan, the presence of white supremacists and other divisive figures in the military, and national debates over bullying; yet there’s also no question, given what we know about the treatment of Chen, that he was hazed and, effectively, killed, due to his Chinese American heritage, and more exactly to how much that heritage seemed to separate him from his peers, to render him (despite his having volunteered for the US Army) somehow outside of this shared American community.
On the other hand, the fact that we know any of that, and moreover that a number of Chen’s superiors and peers are now in the process of being charged and brought to trial, is due quite directly to Asian American voices and communities. Chen’s family and friends had virtually no luck getting information about his experiences and death out of the military until the Organization of Chinese Americans—NY Chapter (OCA-NY) got involved; his story has since gained in national attention and awareness thanks in large part to numerous other Asian American organizations and communities; and some of our most eloquent and talented Asian American writers, scholars and social activists, and political leaders have dedicated significant efforts to engaging with and extending the story’s questions and meanings. What this tragedy has also made clear, that is, is that the Asian American community in the early 21st century is as multi-layered, multi-vocal, and nationally engaged as any; moreover, these voices and efforts, individually but even more so collectively, have constituted a deeply inspiring representation of American ideals (free speech, assembly and protest, democratic resistance to powerful narratives, and more) at their best.
Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? And any suggestions for the series?
UPDATE: A petition inspired by Chen's case, and shared with me by Jasmine Stephenson of ipetitions: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/zerotoleranceharassment/ .
3/27 Memory Day nominee: Patty Smith Hill, who built on her striking Reconstruction-era Kentucky childhood and became one of America’s and the world’s foremost educational reformers, and advocates for early childhood education and kindergarten (and who wrote the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”!).