The Atlanta murders jarred us: I spoke with Michael Moore’s podcast yesterday on anti-Asian violence, my family’s legacy, and how to be positive/proactive and send AAPI love (donation links at the end of this post). Many too have asked, so below is the full transcript of my Moth story “Remembering Vincent” Chin. Thanks for listening/sharing.
Remembering Vincent (Listen to this story on the Moth)
By Annie Tan
My mom has a nickname for me, 八 a baat6. In Cantonese, it means busybody, curious, always asking questions. It’s kind of got a negative connotation.
And I had to suppress that curiosity, asking all of those questions, because when you’re born a kid of immigrants, you’re taught a guiding set of principles on which to live on. Keep your head down. Learn English, go to school, get good grades, go to college. Marry yourself a nice Chinese husband. Have kids, buy a big house for yourself. And keep quiet.
And so these are all the things I learned, and everyone around me believed them, because I was born and raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which is bustling with Chinese immigrants and kids of immigrants like me. My mom worked odd jobs in sweatshops, and in Chinese bakeries, my dad worked six days a week as a construction worker, and when he’d come back on Sundays, me and my brothers would take turns massaging his back. While doing all of this, I’m also trying to grapple with being both Chinese and American. And so I’m in fifth grade, watching a soccer match with my parents. And it’s the US versus China. And I asked my dad, “Who are we rooting for?”
“Of course, China.”
“But we’re here in America?” I thought.
I couldn’t ask that question though, because when you’re growing up here, you know that in that tiny Chinatown apartment you’re not supposed to speak up, because you’re just going to cause a ruckus.
But I found my ways to figure out this identity issue. When I was 13, I was so excited to watch a PBS documentary all about me: “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.” Before that, I’d only seen three people who looked like me, Jackie Chan, Trini, the Yellow Power Ranger, and Mulan a cartoon character.
So I’m so excited to watch these last 20 minutes, which talks about people marching and protesting, people who look like me! They’re holding clever signs in English. They’re chanting in English. I’ve never even seen anyone in Chinatown march before for anything! What was so big that all of these people would go on the street and risk their identities and their lives?
They were marching for this man named Vincent Chin. Vincent Chin in 1982 was a Chinese American man who was beaten to death. He was beaten to death by two white laid-off auto workers who assumed he was Japanese during the auto workers crisis in Detroit, where Japanese companies were booming, and people thought, the Japanese were stealing their jobs. They fought the guys, chased Vincent Chin, and beat him to death with a baseball bat at his bachelor party. Instead of going to his wedding, his wedding guests went to his funeral instead the next week. The two guys who killed Vincent Chin never served a day in jail and paid $3,000 for this man’s death.
And so all of these groups of people: Chinese people, Korean people, Japanese people, Filipinx people were now saying, “If this could happen to this guy Vincent Chin, this could happen to any of us.” And so they began to rally together. And for the first time for many of them, they came together under the term “Asian American.”
Asian American. I never heard that term before, and Vincent Chin must have been so important if he had brought all of these groups together.
So my mom happens to walk into the room as I’m watching this documentary. And I’m thinking she’s about to yell at me for being lazy on the couch, and she points the screen she looks up and in Cantonese says, “That’s your family.”
I have all of these questions. Who is he? How is he related to me? Was he like a cousin of a cousin of a cousin? Have I ever met him? No I haven’t met him, because I wasn’t born yet in 1982. But I’m wondering, like, what happened?
I look up at my mom’s face and there’s just pain and anguish in her eyes. She didn’t look like she had wanted to tell me this, but I think she felt she had to tell me.
How could I ask all these questions? How could I ask about a murdered man in our family? I had nothing to say at that moment and I just decided: I’m not going to confront my mother about this. I don’t want to hurt her.
So I decide to do research. I started looking up articles online. I find out there’s a documentary called “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” I look at all the New York Public Library branches and I can’t find a single copy. But luckily, when I was a freshman in college, the Asian American Alliance screens the movie.
The movie featured heavily Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily Chin. Lily Chin went all over the nation and on the Phil Donahue show crying out, “I want justice for my son.” She’s featured at her house in the suburbs of Detroit feeding her relatives, making fun of the relatives and making jokes, trying to set up the filmmakers with boyfriends. And she was speaking in my native tongue Toisanese. At some moments during the documentary you could see Lily Chin trying to hold back her tears, because at the sight of the cameras she was always reminded of her dead son Vincent Chin.
And I couldn’t help but cry myself, because this woman looked so much and sounded so much like my grandmother, my maternal grandmother. And she was rallying and she was protesting. She was nothing like any of the Chinese woman I’d ever seen before.
And I thought to myself, I have to find out who Lily Chin is, because if Lily Chin is indeed my family, and she’s related to me, then I, I have an example in my family of someone who spoke up. I could be a 八 baat6 again, to be a busybody curious and be proud of that, you know?
So now I’m like, I have to find out who Lily Chin is and I had to find out who Vincent Chin is. So I go to the only place where I think I’ll get a full answer. The city where Vincent Chin lived and died, Detroit. I took an eight-hour Megabus to Detroit. My friend picked me up, and I asked her if we could go to Forest Lawn Cemetery, to see Vincent Chin’s grave. She drives us, and we find Vincent Chin’s name on a tombstone, Lily Chin’s name on a tombstone, and Lily Chin’s husband’s name on a tombstone.
They’re no longer ghosts: they’re right below my feet. And I’m finally going to know how these people are related to me, and why this means so much to me.
I go the next day to my relatives’ house. We’re eating 12 dishes of meals, I’m looking through 30 photo albums of my family. I see pictures of my mom and dad with matching perms in the 1980s.
And so I asked my relatives, “Can you help me make a family tree? I want to know more about my family.”
So we start with my grandmother’s line. My grandmother had a brother and nine sisters. My great-auntie said, “The second sister on this list is Lily Chin.” So now I know Lily Chin is my grandmother’s sister, Lily Chin is my mother’s first auntie and Vincent Chin is my mother’s first cousin.
So I asked my auntie, “What happened to Lily after Vincent died?”
She tells me. “Well, when Vincent died, Lily was all alone in Detroit. So your grandmother and I, Lily’s sisters, flew to America from China to support her. Your mom and dad had married in China so your dad came soon after. They all found work in New York. And that’s how your family ended up in Manhattan’s Chinatown.”
I thought about this for a while.
My grandmother had brought my parents to America from China, which had a one-child policy at the time, and I am the second child of three.
If Vincent Chin had not been killed, Lily Chin may never have been alone in Detroit.
My grandmother may never have flown to America to support her.
She may never have brought my parents to America.
And I may never have been born.
That knowledge made my life now precious to me. And I only knew this because I dared to be a 八 baat6: curious, asking questions after 10 years of trying to find this answer.
And so every single day of my life now I march on. Just like Lily Chin marched on, just like the thousands of people who marched for my cousin Vincent Chin.
But that message as a kid that lesson I learned so well, to not speak up, it’s always in my head. I constantly have to stop that voice, that voice that tells me, “Don’t go on that bullhorn Annie. Don’t go to those protests, don’t write those articles. Don’t fight for your special education students.”
And I tell that voice, every single day. No, I have to. I have to fight.
Because my cousin Vincent Chin didn’t die for nothing. My great-auntie Lily Chin did not go all over the nation and speak out for nothing.
And I was not born for nothing.
Please send Asian American Pacific Islander organizations doing the work on the ground some love right now by donating or volunteering time:
NAPAWF: National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
CAAAV Organizing Asian American Tenants
Red Canary Song
Flushing Workers Center: Twitter @FlushingWorkers
Welcome to Chinatown
Send Chinatown Love
CACF Coalition of Asian Children and Families
18 Million Rising
And PBS’ Asian Americans is a five-part series that is free to stream right now. Learn your Asian American history! (And watch my clip with Helen Zia from the series)