I usually listen to NPR talk radio on the way to work every morning and on Fridays there’s always a special segment called Story Time. It’s wonderful because it’s real, it’s human. People share the good, the bad, the inspirational, the devastating, and the curious stories about themselves, their relatives, their friends and coworkers, etc. I’ll readily admit, I get emotional with a lot of these stories. I cry, I laugh, I get angry about what these people went through. I’ll nod my head and think, “Life throws you for a loop sometimes. All you can do is keep going.”
Today’s story affected me though in a different way. I cried, but that’s pretty normal. Shoot, I cry when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when my cup is over flowing. Today’s story was told by Gary Koivu and he was telling us about his friend, Vincent Chin, who was killed 35 years ago today.
Now, this is a devastating story, obviously. When Gary says the killers only got probation, it does feel, “like a punch in the gut,” just like he says.
But, for me this brought up a haunting memory. And the time period was around the same time this happened to Vincent Chin and I wondered if they were related somehow.
It was sometime back when I was in 6th or 7th grade. I must have been about 11 years old. I was on the bus with my brother, I don’t remember where we were going during that particular trip since we rode the bus everywhere, but I remembered saying something about the Japanese being to blame for something, for the economy, something I didn’t know. I don’t even remember what it was because I didn’t understand what I was saying. See, I was just repeating what I’d heard earlier that day. As a teacher today, I’m reluctant for some reason to admit that it was a teacher that day who had said something about how the Japanese weren’t sharing technology, or something like that. I don’t remember the context, I don’t remember what we were doing or if it was during or after class. I just remembered that by the way he said it, the Japanese must be bad. I knew this teacher thought they were awful for whatever they were doing, and though I didn’t understand that, I understood what doing bad was. Or I thought I did. I’ve always been impressionable, thought today I’ve got the experience and the education to look at things more closely.
So, here I am on a city bus in Pacifica, CA thinking I know so much and that it’s, whatever “it” is, is all the fault of those darn Japanese. Well, my brother, just 13 himself, stopped everything around us looking cold into my eyes, and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you need to seriously rethink what you just said.” His words sounded calm, but the look in his eyes I knew. Those were his take-me-seriously-I’m-not-joking eyes. There have been a handful of times I’ve gotten that look from him in my life, my stop-check for life decisions and behaviors. And this was a monumental time, and he was there right when he needed to be. I needed to hear that, I needed to have that destructive idea knocked from its pedestal immediately before it took hold, before it was too hard to let go of. And just as easily as it was planted in my mind, it was uprooted. I look back now at my words with shame, at my brother with pride, and am thankful for the experience.
Vincent Chin was brutally beaten by a group of men who wanted to blame him for their financial problems. Maybe they’d just lost their jobs. Their racial ignorance made them think that Vincent was Japanese instead of Chinese, or maybe they just didn’t care. Somehow, they’d heard the idea that it was the fault of the Japanese and that idea took root and flourished. It was fed by the hate, the regret, the shame, the fear of their own predicament and when it fully developed, it exploded irrationally. Irrevocably changing their own lives, the life of Gary and his friends, and forever ending the life of an innocent man, Vincent Chin.
In today’s world, there is so much information being thrown at kids. So many ideas and opinions. Let’s try and remember that, as adults, our words matter. Let’s try and remember to express love and compassion for all of humankind.