Essay written by Annie Tan, AAA OCM in ‘08, Event Advisor ‘09, Senior Advisor ‘10-11, and a 2011 alumni of Columbia College
In learning about Chinese-American history I first heard the name Vincent Chin. At the ripe age of thirteen and with no real political consciousness at the time, I watched a documentary on PBS called “Chinese in America.” I was near the end and came across a picture of a man who had been bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by some laid-off auto workers- they thought he was Japanese when he was actually Chinese. I would have skipped over it as just another fact of history when my mother happened to walkby—
"That’s your uncle," my mother said, uncle being the simplest English translation I can think of.
My mom didn’t say much more then—all I was left with was a name and a crime. I found out later that Vincent was the son of Lily Chin—Lily is my maternal grandmother’s sister, the second sister of at least nine siblings, making Vincent my mother’s first cousin. (Lots of family jargon, huh?) All over this country are dozens of Lily’s sisters’ children and grandchildren, including myself. We’re all in our tens, twenties, and thirties. And we’re all starting to become aware of the case, finally.
As an English-speaking “jook-sing” daughter of two Toisan-speaking Chinese immigrants, and with a large language gap, I’ll never know most of my family history. As time passes I become more afraid that I’ll never know where my families came from. But every few years I come back with a steadfast devotion- to learn about where my family has been, and especially to learn how my family was affected by the Vincent Chin case.
After realizing I didn’t have the Toisan or Cantonese vocabulary to ask about the case, I proceeded to Google around. Everything I found seemed to come from some secondary source- Ronald Takaki, Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams, etc. etc. I learned about the history of the case- the murder or “manslaughter,” the probation and fine, and all the subsequent trials. I also saw pictures, writings, and videos of how Lily wept, yelled, and fought for justice for her son. After the case was lost, Lily was shattered—she left the United States and went back to China, giving up on the United States. I must have read dozens, and then hundreds of articles as people began to spread the word about the case again.
I continued to dig for information through college, which was an identity-building experience that cemented my drive toward public service. I sobbed through my first viewing of “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” freshman year. Later that year I stood starstruck as I met Helen Zia—I was lucky enough to speak with her for a few minutes as she recalled her time with my family in my Chinatown apartment. She recalled a story of how one of my grandma’s (and Lily’s) sisters kept calling her child “Fat Boy, fat boy.” (That “fat boy” is now working for a tech company.) I’ll forever cherish that moment. In sophomore year Curtis Chin, a friend of Vincent, screened “Vincent Who?” at my school, where I got to hear from him and many other young APIAs what they thought about APIA politics moving forward. And in senior year our organization screened “Who Killed Vincent Chin” again with Christine Choy, the director. This all made it more real in my head—it happened, and all of these people were there. Now what about my family?
Of course, I found out little about the case from my family. We don’t talk about bad things, or anything in general that might bring back memories of shame, guilt, or embarrassment—bad karma, I think. We also lost the case, and won’t expect to see any of Ronald Ebens’ money in our lifetime—so why continue talking about it? At least, that’s why I think we don’t talk about it. To this day the closest connection I have to Lily is a picture I once saw of her with my grandmother and other sisters.
Even if my family doesn’t mention Lily or Vincent, Lily will forever remain a strong symbol of what I—and all of us—are capable of. I come from a family that doesn’t like to rock the boat- be quiet, work hard, follow the American way, and you’ll be successful, my mom would always push. I and my brothers were successful products of that model minority myth—I ended up at a top-tier university, they ended up at great engineering schools, and we all were awarded full-ride scholarships to attend. But this, to me, came at a cost of becoming comfortable in our political climate and not asking too many questions. Two things came out of the Vincent Chin case for me. One was a political consciousness—I wasn’t isolated from other Asians anymore, as I had the case to tie me back to the “Asian-American experience” and what we needed to raise awareness about. The second was that I had power—Lily and the hundreds of others who fought for Vincent and Asian-American rights taught me that I could and should fight.
Inadvertently the case also linked me back to where I and others belonged in the U.S. Two years ago I read one of Ronald Takaki’s books for an Asian-American Studies course—I found out that Vincent’s great-grandfather had worked on the Transcontinental Railroad, was driven out, and forced back to China. For years I had thought my family was part of a cycle of immigrants new to America and probably going to remain some “perpetual foreigners,” but in fact my family has had a history here from at least the 1800s. We often forget that Asians were also forgers of this nation- we have a stake here, too, and absolutely belong here, despite what racist slurs I’ve heard over the years. I am not a vulnerable geisha or flower lady, nor do I speak perfect Chinese, nor am I a KMT spy or respond to “Ching Chong” on the streets of Chinatown—I am a Chinese-Asian-American and demand respect, damn it.
I come back to the case probably twice or three times a year, and especially near the anniversary of Vincent’s death. The case reminds me that my problems as a young twenty-something are not really that important in the long haul, and that I am lucky to be alive. I remind myself as a young teacher that I need to teach my kids about more than just math and reading—I teach to help them make connections with the world, build common humanity, and use that to advocate for themselves and others.
I won’t ever know everything about the case, Lily, and especially not about my family history. Learning about the Vincent Chin case, though, always brings me back to my family and some hope that I’ll understand my family one day. Maybe one day I can ask my family in Cantonese, or even in English.
Last year I met an “aunt” living in Indiana, who was telling me about my family’s long history in America. Unlike many Asians who came after 1965 and the Hart-Cellar act, my Chicago “aunt” and her whole family has been in the US since 1962. My aunt joked that I should write a book about our family history- we are a true Chinese-American family, after all. Maybe, one day. And maybe one day I’ll get the “whole family story” I’ve been waiting for.