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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Danny Chen, Vincent Chin, and Asian bullying

In recent weeks, I've come across a number of stories on Asians and bullying.  I felt heartbroken while reading about Private Danny Chen, a young Chinese American soldier who committed suicide after enduring months of hazing and abuse from his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan.  

RIP Danny Chen
The reports of his physical and mental abuse are deeply saddening; in addition to being teased and humiliated because of his racial-ethnic identity, Chen was also forced to walk on all fours while fellow soldiers chucked rocks at him.  Other reports suggest that he was made to do pull-ups while holding water in his mouth.  

I can only hope that his family is able to find some peace in the wake of his death.  It is a tragic loss and I hope that the military uses this event to take a serious look at bullying and hazing within its ranks.  I also hope that his tormenters get what is surely coming to them.  

Chen's story reminds me of the story of Vincent Chin, a Chinese man who was beaten to death in Detroit, MI.  I won't go into the entire story here, but Chin was ruthlessly beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white men who never served any prison time.  Instead, his assailants were given 3 years probation and fined $3,780 dollars (some of which was to cover court costs).  Whenever I think about Vincent Chin's death, or the lives of other hate crime victims, I feel an incredible sadness and rage come over me.  Danny Chen's death is a painful reminder of how deeply racial and ethnic divides still persist in the US.  (On a sidenote: Vincent Chin's death was deeply tragic, but he did not die in vain.  His death became a historical rallying point for Asian American political activism).    

RIP Vincent Chin
Today, I encountered a disturbing viral video of a young Asian man being beaten by a small mob of his peers.  Outnumbered and frightened, a young Asian man goes into the fetal position while being kicked, punched, choked, and slammed to the ground by multiple attackers.  The worst part is that his attackers seem to be having a great time while doing this; one of them catches the whole incident on what appears to be a smart phone or small palmcorder.  

These and many other events seem to be part of a growing public awareness around Asian bullying in the US.  A recent US Survey study showing that Asian Americans reported the highest rates of bullying in schools.  The study showed that 51% of Asian American students reported personal experiences with bullying.  This number was strikingly higher than all other racial-ethnic groups.  Here are the rates for other groups in the study:

--31.3% of white students reported being bullied
--34.3% of hispanic students reported being bullied
--38.4% of African American students reported being bullied

In addition to my general interests in crime and violence, these studies resonate with me because I was the victim of bullying while growing up.  As a tall and skinny 2nd generation Korean American in predominantly non-Asian surroundings (my middle school was mostly Latino, and my high school was mostly white), I was teased for my appearance.  By the time I was in 6th grade, I had encountered just about every different kind of racial slur and epithet in the book.   People seemed to like calling me "chink," "gook," and "jap" the most.  These are your run-of-the-mill ethnic slurs--the kind to which the unimaginative mind might first turn.  

The funny thing about these slurs (if there was such a thing), is that none really made that much sense to me.  In different ways, I always felt that each slur missed the mark...They were ethnically inaccurate and clumsy.  "Chink" and "Jap", at least in my mind, were direct ethnic slurs about Chinese and Japanese people.  I never really understood "gook", either.  What is a gook?  Where does this word come from?  I feel like I've heard it in cheesy Vietnam movies, but if that's the case, then the ethnic slur has again missed the mark.  A part of me felt that if people were going to disrespect me, they might as well make it "fit" me.  

Bullies also like to make fun of your phenotype, or how you look.  This is something I'm sure many Asian and Asian American people can relate to.  As a young kid, I can remember kids teasing me about my eye shape, asking me if I was always squinting, and making the stereotypical "Wooooo" kung fu fighter noise whenever I came around.  The eye jokes aside, I almost took the kung fu sound effects as an underhanded compliment.  As a kid I grew up idolizing Bruce Lee.  

I wish I could have responded to jeers and taunts like Bruce
To this day, Enter the Dragon is one of my all-time favorite films.  I also really liked the Karate Kid, Bloodsport, and Best of the Best.  The only drawback was, well, I didn't know martial arts.  I always wished that I did, but I was a swimmer first and dancer second.  I didn't discover martial arts until I turned 30.  So, I guess there were limits to how I could flip the script on that one.  But I digress...

These stories and my personal experiences remind me of how much I take for granted.  As an adult, I'm confident in who I have become and have wonderful friends and family who have supported and helped me along the way.  After leaving high school in Jacksonville, I moved to The Bay Area and Los Angeles--two cities which are far more racially and ethnically diverse and tolerant than many areas of the country.  Although both cities have deep pockets of racial-ethnic segregation and have their own issues, I never really felt that being "Asian" was shameful in either place.  If anything, I felt that both cities were a much welcomed break from the very visible and thick color lines in the South.  My time in Berkeley and Los Angeles were cathartic.  Moreover, as an academic, I am surrounded by politically progressive folks who believe that racism is a real thing that matters. Many Sociologists, myself included, study different dimensions of social inequality.  In my current life, it's easy to forget where I came from.  The stories of Danny Chen, Vincent Chin, and many others help me remember.