[Photo from here.]
His last words were, “It’s not fair.”
I remember the first time I read the story about Vincent Chin. It was in Helen Zia’s book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. I was reading it for my senior thesis in seminary, which also became a huge factor in my writing Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology (Young Clergy Women Project) (The Young Clergy Women Project).
I was randomly sitting in a Panera. I can’t remember why. I might have gone to do laundry and wanted to sit somewhere cozy. I do remember that reading this story I started to weep right there. In public. Into my over-priced pastry. It was embarrassing but I really didn’t care. I just couldn’t hold it back – they were tears of grief and anger. How am I only now learning about this story? What else am I missing?
Why is he important? In an earlier post I linked to Frank H. Wu’s New York Times Op-Ed “Why Vincent Chin Matters” (he’s also the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White which was another book formative in my faith and identity development):
On June 23, 1982, in Detroit, a young man named Vincent Chin died. Four nights earlier, he had been enjoying his bachelor party with friends at a local bar when they were accosted by two white men, who blamed them for the success of Japan’s auto industry. “It’s because of you we’re out of work,” they were said to have shouted, adding a word that can’t be printed here. The men bludgeoned Mr. Chin, 27, with a baseball bat until his head cracked open.
The men — a Chrysler plant supervisor named Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz — never denied the acts, but they insisted that the matter was simply a bar brawl that had ended badly for one of the parties. In an agreement with prosecutors, they pleaded to manslaughter (down from second-degree murder) and were sentenced to three years of probation and fined $3,000.
It has been a long time since Vincent Chin. His murderer lives a quiet life in Nevada, never having served a day in jail. That continues to haunt me. But when we remember his story, we remember all our struggles, our losses, and our history together.
After 9/11 I started to hear how people I knew – the ones that looked foreign and alien – were being verbally assaulted by total strangers. Sentiments like “Go back to your own country!” were constantly thrown into their faces, and there was that look I started to see in people’s eyes when I was out with my parents. It was a look that hinted at the slight electricity in the air from the feeling of suspicion and distrust that was unspoken but clearly there. It was a look of “Why are you still here?”
My father was on some sort of blacklist for the TSA. We have no idea why his name was on this list but it might have had something to do with potential terrorist names, and that he happened to have the same name. For a while it made it difficult to get flights anywhere. I barely thought about it at the time because I was grieving the atrocity of 9/11 but later I kept thinking about it.
I kept thinking about how my parents and I immigrated to the US, a nation of immigrants, and became naturalized citizens. We became legitimate citizens of this country, and my parents had forfeited their previous citizenship. We became Americans.
They have lived here far longer than they have lived in South Korea. They’ve worked here, they’ve owned property here, they’ve owned businesses, they had one of their children here, they’ve paid taxes, and they’ve travelled and enjoyed the diverse geography and cultures of this country.
But they’ve never truly become or felt one of “us.” They’ve always felt like a “them.” A stranger. An outsider. Even maybe an enemy “out to steal American jobs.” They’ve never felt totally safe or comfortable. Even in the church community at regional meetings with other pastors and church leaders (yes, predominantly white) they often sit separate and by themselves. And no one ever talks to them.
I haven’t felt this extreme. That’s partly because of the 2nd generation experience. But I have felt an inkling. When I still get comments that my English is good or without an accent (who DOESN’T technically have an accent?!?!) or the question of how long I have been in this country or if I have dual citizenship … Until people stop asking when we think we will “go back to our own country,” I’m not sure they – we – will ever feel totally at home here.