The Family History

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.

elite elite elite

Hey, BlAAAg,

My name is Kristen and I am the current co-social chair of AAA, contributing to BlAAAg for the first time. What prompted this foray into the writing field? First, my realization that I actually quite enjoy writing about issues that I care immensely about (which probably does not include Martin Luther’s opinion on individualism in The Freedom of a Christian) and, second, this article.

In the middle of my finals week haze, I was, of course, finding new methods of procrastination on Twitter. A certain blog I follow tweeted the article, with a hook about “surprising statistics” in reference to Asian Americans. Eager for something to distract me from linear momentum equations, I immediately clicked on the link.

Unfortunately, it was exactly what I unconsciously thought it would be: an article about how Asian Americans are a minority but a totally model one! And now, here are some great statistics about how they are living up to a racialized and completely imposed stereotype! And oh, general inconsistencies? Pfft, we’ll just mention them and gloss over them like they don’t exist.

This is precisely the problem with the model minority stereotype. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that Asian Americans are seen as successful, hard-working, value-oriented people. The problem is that the stereotype persists in ways that are actually harmful to Asian Americans as a racialized ethnic minority in the US. Instead of being seen as individuals with distinct personalities and skills, we are homogenized, essentialized as a group of people who are good at math, play the piano or violin, and are accepted into the most elite institutions in the US, among other incorrect assumptions. We are not human beings to the people who perpetuate this stereotype; we are stripped of our uniqueness, of our dignity as individuals.

For example, in this article, #4: “Asian kids just spend more time studying” and #5: “Asian-American kids aren’t more stressed than their peers”, there are choice lines like “they spend more time studying than other kids, and not necessarily because their parents force them to” or “studies have found that they typically don’t experience more stress than other groups.” Before I question the validity of these “studies” based on a research standpoint (Who was surveyed as ‘Asian-American’? How does surveying a group of students in a particular age range, as in just one grade level, accurately reflect any statistic for a large population? etc.), it is enough to question the fact that these studies are glossing over the social anxieties that arise from the very obvious pressures these Asian American students have on themselves to live up to certain behaviors imposed by society. It also does not reconcile the reasons that Asian American parents might push their children to excel or succeed.

Then there are some points that just blatantly disregard counterarguments. #6: “Asian-American families simply earn more” even addresses the fact that this statistic is not true across the board and that there are many Asian American families that are of low socioeconomic status or living at the poverty level, but then moves on to the next point as if it isn’t important. Well, it is important to address these inconsistencies: perhaps there are ethnic groups of Asian Americans who are economically secure overall, but yet again, this is not true across the board for every individual Asian American within that ethnic group. Furthermore, this ignores the fact that in certain Asian American families, the median income per household may be higher than the national average, but these are limiting factors: Asian American families statistically have more wage earners within the family and a higher number of people in each household as well.

I am all for lauding Asian American accomplishments where praise is due, but let’s be honest here: this article isn’t lauding Asian American accomplishments so much as lauding the successful integration of the model minority myth into even the psyches of Asian Americans. And on a personal level, it is hurtful and frustrating to look back on my past experiences and realized that I’ve told myself I wasn’t “a good Asian” because I didn’t like math or get straight A’s when I honestly was doing the best I could with the unique skill set I was born with. I have reconciled what I once deemed an inconsistency with the image of the Asian American I always assumed to be correct, because I know, as an individual, I am more than a stereotype. I am proud of my accomplishments not because I “did well for an Asian” or because I am a successful member of a “good minority” who doesn’t question the status quo, but rather because I applaud my personal efforts.

The model minority stereotype might seem harmless, and even now, I can say I have not encountered a terrible amount of malice when I live up to the stereotypes. But I can say that, having contemplated giving up (in every sense of these words) throughout high school and even during my three semesters so far here at Columbia because I did not believe I was doing “well enough” thanks to absurd expectations other people forced upon me, there are dangerous consequences to the model minority myth overall. And it is important to remember that Asian Americans are not all the same. We are unique, distinct human beings, and we do not have to live to any fucking stereotypes.

Anonymous asked:

Hi, I was wondering if any of you guys have advice for standing out (in a good way) during the admissions process. I have been told may times that the applicant pool is especially competitive for Asian Americans, so I need all the help I can get.

We apologize, but as an organization, we cannot provide college admissions advice. Besides, there is no one formula that any of us particularly adhere to, but we encourage you to do your best and wish you success in your endeavors.

As an addendum, our co-social chair suggested, “You must extract the tears of a unicorn on Mount Olympus, bring it inside a crystal vial made out of Swarovski crystals, go to Dean Marinaccio’s office, do two backflips, sing the entire chorus of ‘Roar, Lion, Roar’ in Croatian while making a steak, and finally anoint the steak with your unicorn tears and present it to the dean.”


This video was recently sent to the AAA list-serv by a current member and also posted on popular blog, Angry Asian Man. It features a speech by Frank H. Wu, Chancellor and Dean of University of California Hastings College of Law and author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, on the future of civil rights and civic engagement in multiracial America at the Museum of Chinese in America.

We promise to start writing full-length posts again after finals week and as the new school year approaches, cheers!


Pledge Day, Monday, April 25th and Sunday, May 15th!


Join us at Trinity Lutheran Church, 168 W 100th st, on Monday, April 25th @ 6pm and on Sunday, May 15th @ 3pm to help reach out to local businesses and encourage them to sign the Sweat Shop Free Pledge!

As more and more businesses in our community sign on and promise to abide by labor laws, we create an environment of ethical consumerism and empower more and more workers to speak out and organize. 

*Food will be provided and we’d love to see you there!

Asian-Americans in Asia

This entry was not prompted by this article.


Hello BlAAAg,

I’m Belle, former (current?) co-Event Adviser of AAA, throwing random entries onto BlAAAG, currently at University of Hong Kong (following in the footsteps of our former Event Adviser, Annie). I may be making snarky remarks as an Asian American expat in Hong Kong, but first, this entire time has been really confusing, and I’m having the identity crisis that never really hit me during puberty.

On face value (prima facie!), Hong Kong seems to have two groups of people: expats and locals. Expats may be seen as ranging from non-Chinese people who were born in Hong Kong to migrant domestic workers and i-bankers to international students at university for the semester. Locals are generally seen (not defined) as Chinese people in Hong Kong; I make this “not defined” caveat because now knowing more about Hong Kong, it is very clear that HK identity is as muddled as the American identity. How do those non-Chinese who grew up in Hong Kong see their own identities? Are Mainlanders who migrate/immigrate to HK Hongkongers? If not, can they claim the identity? How long must they live in HK before becoming Hongkongers? Are Mainlanders whose parents’ permanent residency in HK grants them HK permanent residency make them Hongkongers? What I am having the hardest time grasping is where do I fit into all of this: What about HK-Chinese-Americans/British/Canadians/etc.?

I’m technically an expat. I’ve been an American all my life. I’ve never been to China or Hong Kong before studying here (it is my first time out of the U.S. and it slightly disappoints me that I can’t use my “never been there, can’t go back” line anymore). My English is far superior to my Cantonese, and my written Chinese and Pǔtōnghuà skills are basically non-existent. Honestly, with the minimal language training I’ve had, the only reason why I’m surviving in Hong Kong is the English language the Brits left behind. But no matter how American I may be (whatever “American” means), hardly anyone will believe I’m not an HKer at first glance. Sure, the second I open my mouth and my terribly accented (I’ve been told) Cantonese comes out, the cashier may know I’m a foreigner, but without that badge, they don’t believe my expat-ness. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not proud of my terrible Cantonese - I wish I spoke the language flawlessly, but my Cantonese has turned into a symbol of my foreigner identity here.

I feel that I am walking in the gray space between the expat world and local world. Let me explain. I believe that on an individual level, someone like me, Asian on the outside and (Asian-)American on the inside, would have no problem traveling in the expat world and local world: I can enjoy Soho (expat capital) as much as Shatin or Wan Chai. But what gray space I am speaking of is how society views me, how other people view me and accept me into their world. It seems like I will never be able to fully assimilate into the expat world, as I have an Asian face, but I would never be accepted into the local culture either because I have a foreign concept of the world with a language deficiency to boot. The constant microaggressions come from both sides: the looks that ask: why is this Chinese girl pretending she fits in with us or pretending she’s an expat, how come she can’t speak Chinese even though she is Chinese, how come she can speak Cantonese even though she’s American, why does she choose to speak English? With these preconceived notions, it seems that I can’t exactly fit into one or the other groups. If I am not welcome in either group, I am not sure where I am supposed to fit in.

I’m not sure what conclusions I wanted to draw from this reflection. After all, my exploration or aimlessly wandering in this gray space is nothing compared to the everyday and institutional discrimination non-Chinese people face, especially the discrimination endured by Filipina, Thai, Indonesian domestic workers. I do not know if other East Asian Americans are facing the same microaggressions or have the same thoughts. I guess what I’m wondering is where am I supposed to fit in? Must I prove to everyone in that group (if it’s not the gray area) every time of why I identify with them? But why should I have to? How do I avoid the hostility (from both sides)? Or maybe, do I have the best of both worlds: the mobility to move around, the privilege of acting as an in between, etc.?

P.S. Fun Facts

Fun Fact 1: In the 1800s, free-state California used Hong Kong as an example of why Chinese immigration should be limited. During that time, Hong Kong Chinese still employed muitsais (young girls bought by wealthy families to first, serve the family, and then usually, becoming a concubine to a son of the family). California implored that if the British could not stop Chinese people from owning slaves, how will California limit slavery when the Chinese immigrate with their muitsais?

Fun Fact 2: Some American universities (but not Columbia) warn their students not to participate in or observe Hong Kong protests, due to possible future ramifications. Never mind the fact Hong Kong Basic Law (mini-constitution) grants the right to protest Hong Kong affairs, and most protests in Hong Kong are state-sanctioned (all protests must have a permit from the government in order to proceed).

Fun Fact 3: Hong Kong, along with Mainland, participated in an Anti-American boycott in the 1905 to protest the unfair treatment of a Chinese immigrant in Massachusetts. After immigration officials raided a home of many immigrants, they arrested a man who was living in the U.S. legally without allowing him to show them his proper paperwork. He was later deported due to this incident. The man’s suicide in front of the American consulate in Shanghai sparked the protest.

Tags: firstworldproblems, firstworldguilt

Who the &%#$ knows about Asian American issues?

I’ve been reflecting on my time here at Columbia, thinking about the existence of Asian American ideas and activism on this campus, and the effectiveness of the Columbia University Asian American Alliance as a whole. Do we base effectiveness on awareness, education, community service, activism, how many people show up to our events, getting a large membership? It’s always easy to say an organization doesn’t do enough, but it’s also so easy to say that an organization can only do so much with the resources it has. Many AAA members are doing wonderful things, including picketing at Saigon Grill against sweatshop labor and exploitation, creating Asian American sexuality workshops, and creating teach-ins on Asian American Studies.

But the fact is that people just don’t know about Asian American issues.

Part of it is that people are unclear about the term. As we broached in our last general meeting, “What the !%$@ is an Asian American?”, the mere identity “Asian American” can span from descendants of peoples as far ‘east’ as the Middle East and as far ‘west’ as Hawaii. This is part of why Asian Americans in general have not really mobilized in recent years: there are so many groups defined under the umbrella term. Asian Americans are much more diverse, making the political term less effective than terms like “Black,” which has a stronger historical context and shared experience in America.

One could say that Asian Americans have done plenty well here in the United States, that there aren’t many negative stereotypes about Asians (good at math? yay!), that Asians have become a very much accepted race in the United States.  There are plenty of health disparities, especially in Hepatitis B cases (who knew those were even a problem with this in the United States?) and cervical cancer rates. Asian American women 15-24 lead in the highest suicide rate among all ethnic groups, and APAs are more likely to commit suicide than the “average American.” But who the hell knows about these issues? Yes, there are many students out there who know about the transcontinental railroad, Japanese (and Chinese, and anyone who looked Japanese) internment, but less know about the colonization of Asian lands through U.S. imperialism and the fetishization that has resulted, the enslavement of Asian peoples as coolies all over the world, etc. etc.

These issues seem so far removed from our contemporary reality as Asian Americans. Fact is, when many of us are seen as a ‘model minority’ it may seem like we don’t have issues. That, to say the least, has been extremely frustrating to face, both at Columbia and in general.

I know I, for one, was only brought into Asian American issues because of a hate crime my family was connected to. I want to share with y’all a piece of an email I sent to a (great!) Asian American and Ethnic Studies professor, Gary Okihiro, who’s helped a lot as I conceptualize Asian American issues (I was fortunate enough to take his class before I sent him this: take an Asian American Studies class, y’all!):

So when I was six, my mother told me that a relative of mine was really famous somewhere and that he had died. I had no idea who this man was, and casting off my mother as sensationalist, I proceeded to eat my dinner. Later, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was watching a PBS documentary about the Chinese in America, and a moment came on when the doc. started mentioning a pan-Asian movement that begun in the eighties, and I felt empowered. The screen kept plastering a picture of a man who had been killed and where this movement started. My mother came into the room, proceeded to point at the screen, and told me, “Yeah, you’re related to him.” I found out that man was Vincent Chin. Lily Chin was my maternal grandmother’s sister, making Vincent Chin my mother’s adopted cousin. […]  I’ve been struck by how little my family speaks about him; I think the whole family has just tried to put that past behind us and move on, and I think there’s some sadness that the case never really went anywhere. 

I’ve always been sad but proud to say I’m related to a man who, as a martyr, started a pan-Asian American movement that hasn’t been matched since the 1980s. But at the same time, I wish I didn’t have to be related to a martyr in order to be interested in these issues. Indeed, the documentary Vincent Who? shows just how little our young generation knows about Vincent Chin-or, really, many general Asian American issues. These things still exist: just look at cases of Asian deliverymen being killed, the 2008 assaults on Columbia students, of whom five were Asian, and all the people who are discriminated against after 9/11 for looking un-American or terrorists. Don’t get me started on the perpetual foreigner myth.

As I leave Columbia this year, I can’t help but think that many people are stuck in complacency. I feel like so little know what Asian American issues are out there.  People can hold up other causes, of course, but so little is mentioned about Asian American issues.

All of this information and experience I’ve gathered stirs anger in me. I know I’m not the only one who’s had kids pull their eyes back at me or random streetwalkers say “ching chong cheeeee” to me on the streets. It is with this anger that I teach first-grade students how to navigate this biased and racist world. It fuels me. Does it fuel others? I hope so. There’s too much in this world to be angry about, and we have to turn that into something. For now, we have to show people that these issues actually matter. I don’t want to be preaching to the choir all my life, now.