January 17th, 2012
04:51 PM ET

Opinion: What the deaths of two soldiers say about anti-Asian bullying

Editor's Note: Jeff Yang writes the column Tao Jones  for the Wall Street Journal Online,  is a regular contributor to WNYC radio, blogging for "The Brian Lehrer Show", and appears weekly on "The Takeaway".  He formerly wrote the  "Asian Pop" column for the San Francisco Chronicle and  was founder and publisher of A magazine.  He tweets @originalspin.

By Jeff Yang, Special to CNN

Two young soldiers, Private Danny Chen of Manhattan, New York and Lance Corporal Harry Lew of Santa Clara, California, volunteered for military service over the objections of their families. Both ended up being posted to remote parts of Afghanistan, deep in hostile territory and largely cut off from the world. Both subsequently experienced extended campaigns of harassment at the hands of their comrades-at-arms. And last year, both, it appears, were driven to take their own lives as a result.

Their shocking deaths have raised new questions about hazing in the armed forces — but the truth is, "hazing" isn't even the right word for what they experienced.

After all, hazing is generally part of a process of initiation, in which a newcomer voluntarily undergoes ritual abuse in order to win acceptance within a group.

There was nothing voluntary about the punishment Chen and Lew experienced, and it was designed to alienate them from their peers, not create a path to solidarity. In Chen's case at least, the program of isolation included being repeated called racial slurs like "gook," “chink” and “dragon lady" by his tormentors (all of whom were white).

The more appropriate term for what Chen and Lew faced is targeted bullying — and it's something that's hardly limited to the military.

In fact, recent research suggests that young Asian Americans are facing a bullying epidemic. Last year, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education released a joint study showing that over half of Asian American teens said they'd been the subject of targeted abuse at school, versus around a third of blacks, Hispanics and whites.

See CNN's special coverage on bullying 

There's also plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this phenomenon. In Philadelphia, a series of concerted assaults against Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School in 2009 counted 26 victims in a single day, 13 of whom were sent to the emergency room with serious injuries.

The attacks were part of an ongoing stream of persecution and violence that included racial taunts, anti-immigrant slurs and mockery of accents. The incidents continued, despite pleas for the school administration to intervene, until one student finally organized a strike, with 80 Asian students refusing to attend classes until their physical safety could be guaranteed.

Why are Asian Americans disproportionately targeted for abuse?

A harmonic convergence of factors. There's the perception — and in some cases, the reality — of the "nerd" stereotype. The trinity of social awkwardness, physical frailty and academic overachievement has always served as a magnet for bullies.

There's the rising tide of animosity toward immigrants, particularly those from predominantly countries that are seen as emerging rivals of the United States, like China and India.

There's the plain old fact that those who are "different" in obvious ways — appearance, name, faith, accent — are often the focus of unwanted attention in environments where fitting in is prized, like high school. Or the military.

And especially among immigrants and the children of immigrants, there's the reality that cultural and familial expectations push them to submit to bullying rather than being "disruptive" or succumbing to "distraction."

Yul Kwon speaks out about being bullied, and identity

As a result, incidents of anti-Asian bullying frequently go unreported, and victims can find themselves increasingly distanced from peers, parents and authorities, in a growing sense of desperation.

Over the past ten years, depression rates among Asian Americans have skyrocketed — with young Asian American women, in particular, more likely to be diagnosed with depressive symptoms than those of any other racial or ethnic group.

So have suicide rates: It's now the fifth most common cause of death among Asian Americans; by comparison, among white Americans suicide ranks ninth.

Clusters of Asian American suicides have emerged in situations that are both heavily stressful and highly isolated. Like Cornell University, in remote Ithaca, New York, where nearly two-thirds of suicide victims — 13 of 21 — over the past decade have been Asian, even though Asians currently make up about one-fifth of Cornell's student body.

Or like the remote frontlines of Afghanistan, where soldiers, far from home, family and the comforts of civilization, have only one another to turn to for social and emotional support.

When that sole source of aid and encouragement is removed — when it's replaced instead with coordinated contempt and repeated abuse — it becomes easier to understand the mindset of Lance Corporal Harry Lew when he wrote his final message in pen on the skin of his forearm, before shooting himself with his own rifle: "May hate me now, but in the long run this was the right choice." And then: "I'm sorry, my mom deserves the truth."

We all do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Yang.

soundoff (638 Responses)
  1. Kati

    Asians generally stick together to share a peaceful, friendly, safe atmosphere. There are of course asian groups that exist despite jealousies, back stabbing, and vengefulness...just like other ethnic groups. The fact is Asians can't hide their ethnic difference. Their facial features and accents are dead giveaways. Therefore, they tend to shy away from those who make notes of those traits, however subtley.

    I came to this country without speaking a lick of English. I am now a lawyer. I concentrated on my studies to excel in a culture that questioned my facial, speech, and ethnic differences so that I would not be treated as inferior at the very sight of my face. I speak English without an accent, but Mandarin is my native tongue. Yet, I after reading this story, three incidences stick out in my mind. First, a 1990 story about a Chinese take-out owner who had to give away egg rolls to win back customers that complained he was benefitting from the black customers in the neighborhood without giving back to the community. Second, a wealthy woman who answered the door of her pricey NW Washington, D.C. home and offered a bright smile to a white trick or treater and a cold, pursed lipped hello to me. Third, a white waiter who had the nerve to ask me why I didn't date my own kind after seeing my white PHD boyfriend. Fourth, a condominium community that made it their goal to call into question my husband, then a lawyer, and my elected positions on their HOA Board. The common thread in these three incidences is that they rarely, if ever, happen to whites.

    There are many kinds of prejudices. The overt, in which one would not invite a person of another culture to their home. The hands distance, in which one would not invite a person of another culture to their home, but would sit across a table at a restaurant and do business with the same. Lastly, the subtle, in which, in a group setting, one would first greet individuals of their own race first, and then offer their finger tips to the person not their own race last.

    Bottom line, I appreciate Eric's honesty in recognizing the unspoken advantages he receives because he is facially not an ethnic standout. I think we all know bullying is wrong whether it's racially motivated or not. The soldiers who bullied these men are a disgrace to their maker. They are no better than the white soldiers that sneered at theTuskeegee pilots who saved their behinds in the heat of battle. Let's all pray that parents and teachers alike get a clue. Bullying is not okay anywhere..anytime. The bullys need to be straightened out at the first signs of antisocial behavior. Additionally, Chinese parents need to unleash their children if they are being bullied. There is nothing wrong with self-defense.

    February 7, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. towerungkiancamotau

    I was always told by my parents to not argue and walk away when people give me trouble -we are to be good catholics. A bully (also catholic) I work with, first harassed me in subtle ways. I walked away. Then the harassment became threats. Asian parents must never again teach their children to walk away from bullies because in the end when you commit suicide, the bullies like the one I experienced, would sit back and smile at what they can do to you. The experience changed me on so many levels and for the better. I threw out the good old catholic life too. Asian parents should teach their children not to kowtow to anyone, stand up proudly and believe in themselves and their own God.

    February 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • MYGOD

      Ancestral God and prayer ....... I bow to the East,
      I bow to the West
      I bow to the North
      I bow to the South

      I bow to the souls of Marine Chen and Marine Lew.
      – my Fujian Prayer-

      February 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
      • shalak2

        Chen was in the Army idiot!!

        February 4, 2012 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  3. ajacob

    Bully will alway bully whoever is available irrespective of skin color. The military guys would have bullied the next available person even if he is their own skin color if the two asians were not there. Bullies makes friends with other bullies and when they join together and attack, the outcome can be horrifying. They are pretty much beyond reason but is sure aware of their combined power to create terror in the minds of the victim who usually will be alone at the time of the attack.

    February 3, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  4. Angela

    I'm not sure where you came up with your logic. However, I'm black and Female and All my brothers are married to White women. I have numerous cousins (Black Females) married to Asian Men and many Black Female cousins married to white men. I have 3 sister in- laws (black women) married to white men. As far as your commentary that Asian men are the least desirable. That is the furthest thing from the truth. Sounds to me like you have a bias against Asian Men. The facts are clear that Asian men are victims of bias by mainstream media, in the entertainment industry and apparently in the American Military. The media perpetrates the image of the weak, passive Asian man. If they don't portray them as tongue tied immigrants, they are heavily portrayed as part of Asian Gangs or drug dealers. There are very few Asian men represented on film or TV shows and when they are, they're portrayed as nerds, geeks, teckies. It's very seldom if ever in a romatic role or a strong masculine or even fatherly role.

    What were these me thinking, using racist, condescending words and abusive behavior against these men, in an already hostile environment? The American Military needs to do a better job of educating it's recruits, on what should be considred appropriate behaviour out in the field.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. IMHO

    I don't know if I see Racism in this video, but I do see a lack of character on the part of these kids.

    I do not believe *all* of these kids where "racist" but the ones that were not did not have the character to stop the beating, pick the kid up and carry him away.

    Where were the heros?

    February 2, 2012 at 4:47 am | Report abuse |
  6. Harman

    US military is not the place for Asians, specially if you are brown. My cousin, who is Indian American, quit medical school to go serve his country. He is back home after just 2 years, suffering from clinical depression because of the mental torture he was subjected to by his fellow "country men".

    Military is only for high school dropouts from small town USA.

    February 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kyser

      So you’re saying because your brother is one case of an ethnic group going into the military and having a horrible experience is a generalization because his social set of skills did not fit in? You sir are retarded and just as judgmental as the people who were responsible for the Death of these soldiers who put it above themselves to enlist and serve their country. I'll have you know that I'm not a Dropout, I come from Phoenix, I have a Bachelors in computer science, and I am surely not Caucasian, yet I enlisted and served in Iraq with a Diverse group of people. People of their ethnic heritage are not the problem, it's the generalization like your statement "Military is only for high school dropouts from small town USA." that is the root of the problem. Please just shut up and pilot your Reverse Racism and Generalizations to your closed inner circle.

      February 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Raj

      Harman Ji, you are right. Brown people are NOT accepted into mainstream America. My cousin had the same problem in the military.

      February 1, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ian. UK

    Excuse my ignorance, but when an American says an "Asian," who exactly are you talking about?
    Asia is the biggest continent on the planet, with a population of 3.87 billiuon and 52 seperate countries
    including China, India, Israel, most of Turkey and a lot of Russia.
    What's an Asian?

    February 1, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
    • bernie

      it's called deduction. you see the picture of an east asian guy and they say asian... just like the rest of our society has been doing for years. Who the hell ever thinks... india, pakistan, turkey... when u say asia. sheesh

      February 1, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  8. IMHO

    Here is my observation of interracial couples:

    Black Guy+ White Girl: normal.
    Black Guy+ Asian Girl: Plausible

    White Guy+ Black Girl: rare
    White Guy+ Asian Girl: Common

    Asian Guy+ White Girl: Rare
    Asian Guy+ Black Girl: Impossible


    Black Guys and Asian Girls are the least racist.
    Black Girls and White Girls, white guys: moderately racist
    Asian Guys: Most racist.

    Who can explain this?

    February 1, 2012 at 4:40 am | Report abuse |
    • toad

      i cannot explain people like you..........

      February 1, 2012 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
      • IMHO

        Oddly, the person who pointed this out to me was my asian girlfriend... I had never noticed it. Oh Snap.

        February 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • bernie

      WHITE GIRLS are the most racist... trust me. they don't date ANYONE outside their race. Sure some do. And those women combined with the fact that white people are 60% of our population gives you the impression that white girls date interracially more than anyone. But it is the opposite it you crunch the numbers

      February 1, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • bernie

      asian guys: least desirable in america... or at least that is the perception. that's why those pairing you denote are "rare" and "impossible"

      February 1, 2012 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
    • MannyHM

      Oversimplified generalization ! Racism is not in the color of the skin, it's in that person's upbringing. Parents and friends inculcate into the minds of children what and who are trustworthy and desirable. Examples: Children and adults in Vietnam with Caucasian features are not desired, are scorned, and labeled as 'Children of the dust' equivalent to trash. In the Philippines, most of the movie stars are hybrid Filipino-Caucasian mestizos with features that are desired in that society.

      February 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • IHMO

      Before you judge me, lookup interracial marriage in the United States on Wikipedia.
      The hard statistics back up these observations.
      The conclusion can be argued with, but not the marriage rates.

      February 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • jack

      that is nonsense. asian guys never get white girls bc they are rejected, not because they don't want to. you obviously live under a rock and make senseless deductions.

      February 1, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
      • jack

        and asian girls are not 'racist' simply cuz they seem like they date outside of their race, which again, is because they think asian men are even less desirable. the same happens with indians except indian men have an easier time bc all the religion/arranged marriages that is still going on.

        February 1, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Observer

    I just wanted to start off by stating that I was victim of anti-Asian bullying as a child. I still suffer the psychological effects as an adult almost 20 years later (PTSD, depression, night terror, etc). It was really bad when I was younger. It got to a point where I contemplated suicide with the dates picked out and the notes written out. I was bullied verbally and physically relentlessly on a daily basis from preK to 8th grade. I read a comment about fighting back, well I did that; next thing I know I got the nicknames "karate kid" and "kung-fu master," I started to get ambushed by groups of older boys (I'm female, by the way). Other non-American born Asian students pretty much ignored it and stayed away from me for fear they would be next and biracial Asians joined in. One thing that I have learned about our community is that we are the most non-united minority group. When a Black or Latino kid got bullied, you would get a group of Blacks or Latinos to stand up for them. Let the same group of White kids call a Black or Latino kid a racial epithet, there would be a riot. I don't recall not one time another Asian kid ever helped or stood up for me. I also read the other comments how most of the anti-Asian bullying comes from Blacks. I would have to disagree. For me, the bullying stopped altogether in high school when Black (not Asians) kids stepped in and befriended me. It's ridiculous that this is still going on in this day in age. I fear for my children and other Asian children that will have to go through what I did.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:36 am | Report abuse |
    • MannyHM

      I'm glad that you 'survive' that ordeal. The reason why I say this is because when I was growing up, I actually get the loaded gun of my father and went after the older kid who tried to bully me. Thank God he wasn't there ! I would have been in prison by now or I never would have attained my M.D. degree as an adult. I think an option would be home schooling if it's really a concern. The ubiquitous cell phone or digital camera can record any bullying and expel the bully. It would have been quite serious for me and for him had I confronted that bully.

      February 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jaime

    Why can't people just get over themselves and accept others, flaws and all? What ever happened to RESPECT? Regardless of ethnicity, age, gender?

    January 28, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mike

    Why are Asians bullied? That's easy. Because the stereotype says they're unemotional intellectuals who will let you bully them. A few good fists in bullies' faces would cure the bullies of that notion. But we have become a society who punishes people who fight even when they fight for the right reasons.

    January 27, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jaime


      January 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
      • Kyser

        Plus, the problem of punishing the ones who are more enlightened to stand up for a fellow human being regardless of their ethnicity and step in and punch said Bully right between the eyes if the person being bullied themselves cannot not do so themselves. Coming from a diverse family that includes whites, blacks, and Asian influences, I was taught from a young age to stand up for those in need regardless of Race, Creed, or Religion. Something more people should teach their children.

        February 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Person

    I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where people with Asian heritage are plentiful. About half the people I see on a given day are Asian or Asian-American, in fact. I haven't seen many instances of Asians being bullied. Usually it is Asians that do the bullying of others, especially in the workplace. They tend to form tight cliques and then alienate and mob any non-Asians that they happen to work with. They tend to do this by way of malicious gossip, the spreading of false rumors, assigning unfair workloads to non-Asians, blaming mistakes and failures on non-Asians, etc. Asians-Americans are also probably the most racist group of Americans I have encountered, on average. I worked at a hospital once that employed many whites, blacks, latinos, and Asians. The whites, blacks, and latinos would generally treat each other very well and have a good time together, but this was only true for about one third of the Asians. The rest of the Asians tended not to be willing to get along with anyone that wasn't Asian, and they could be very mean and vicious to non-Asians. This can leave emotional scars that make it hard to sympathize with Asian victims, because many people in places such as California have encountered Asians cliques in the workplace that subsequently been seriously abused and bullied. That being said, I am sorry to read about the suicides mentioned in this article.

    January 20, 2012 at 4:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Boisefred

      Sounds like you had a bad experience. But it seems like an exception. Not to take anything away from you and not to say you didn't really meet some idiots, but for every story like yours there millions of similar ones with the roles reversed. Asians always get blamed for forming cliques but that's because they face racism and harrassment from other groups. Part of the reason Chinatowns exist is for protection and support against racists. You force people into a situation then blame them for it. Ok. And also why is it whenever racism against Asians is reported a lot of people say try to dismiss it? You wouldnt say black or Hispanic people have no right to complain even though many are extremely and hatefully racist. You'd just say that's just one idiot. But now your saying all asians are racist and therefore shouldn't be listened to. That's racist. Asians deserve to have their grievances heard and believed as much as anyone. Don't be an anti-Asian racism denier. 

      January 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
      • NameGoesHere

        Well, I think it's not so much that racism against Asians doesn't occur – very clearly, it does. However, I also live in an area with a large Asian population (Seattle) and it is my experience, too, that it is often Asians who are the bullies/who start the bullying incidents. I don't see the same types of bullying/meanness/gossip coming from other ethnic minorities I have worked with at the same rates as I have with Asians. There is something to this and it shouldn't be swept under the rug if we want the problem to be solved.

        January 27, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
      • fangrotas

        Well NameGoesHere, it's interesting that people are always quick to point out Asians doing bad things whenever Asians report any wrongdoing against themselves. As if to say, therefore they don't deserve to complain like black, hispanics, or any other group about injustice and racism. But those other groups, all groups, contain racist bullies as well. I don't know where you live or what you experienced. We all see our little section of the elephant and decide that's how things are and continue to harbor those judgements and prejudices afterwards. Where I live, and in most of America, I can assure you it's the other way around from what you're describing. I get the feeling you're trying to get back at a few bad people who hurt you by pointing your finger at a whole race. The numbers don't back you up. You're correct though: hate keeps happening from one person to another. If people hurt you, they may have been hurt themselves by people who look like you. Why not try to understand that instead of pointing the finger back once again and keeping the circle going?

        March 6, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • arielnv

      "The whites, blacks, and latinos would generally treat each other very well and have a good time together...". Yes, exactly.

      January 22, 2012 at 5:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Asian

      Bullies don't get to complain. Non-bullies can complain.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Eric

    What's most interesting about this article is that the author very comfortable disclosing the race of those assaulting and bullying asians when they are white, but leaves it out when they are black (South Philadelphia High School). In the past two years, I've had 4 asian friends of mine assaulted or robbed, three mugged (1 beaten, 1 at gun point, 1 punched and held at knife point), one had their car broken into and the idiots who did this in broad daylight got caught and were recorded on camera. There was one thing in common with all these criminals: they were all black. I can tell you that most of my friends are asian (I'm white) and many harbor very negative feelings about black people, often because of things like this. It's unfortunate that stereotypes are often reinforced by reality, I wish it wasn't true.

    January 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karyn

      I'm a black female. A few years back I was attending an elite college and I encounted a couple of asian people who were incredibly rude. I found myself stereotyping and had to check myself because having been stereotyped and dealing with people like yourself that think certain incidents justify painting an entire race of people with a broad brush, I stopped and evaluated and dealt with the behavior of individuals. I met two idiots, who were idiots because they were idiots not because they were asian. Your friends encountered criminal behavior from criminals not because they were black. The fact that they were black doesn't say anything about me or my black friends who have never engaged in criminal behavior, nor does the rude asians I encounter have anything to do with my asian friends who are warm and embrace all cultures.

      January 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
      • magruber

        yes, that's true. it doesn't say anything about you or them or anyone's entire race. but there are a lot of black people who are racist – and violent – towards asians. that violence is racially motivated. and they're not the only ones.

        January 21, 2012 at 4:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Karen: I wasn't stereotyping anyone. I was pointing out the process in which stereotypes are reinforced. I've noticed that many of my asian friends harbor strong anti-black feelings, often for the exact reasons I pointed out. I myself differentiate with the thuggy gangsta types (often, but definitely not exclusively black) who strut around like they own the street and are about to jump you with everyone else. BTW, not that it matters, (here comes the "I have lots of black friends remark") but part of my family is black and one of my best friends is as well ... They are not drug dealers, rapists, or robbers but law-abiding, high achievers who are not happy with the negative stereotypes (who would be?).

      I'm 100% aware that thanks to, amongst other things, the color of my skin, I can walk into any store and not be suspected of being a shoplifter. When I apply for a job, I immediately get a higher chance of getting the job because of my European name. When I have a conflict with a business, they are more likely to believe my side of the story. When I am driving my car, the police are much less likely to pull me over because they suspect I'm doing something against the law. These things are all totally unfair and give me a subtle, but measurable, advantage in life, and is the way our society operates.

      The fact that the author skirts around this issue is one of the things that annoys me about race in general. From the right, I hear that crime is exclusively committed by immigrants, blacks and Hispanics (probably all of them combined haven't stolen what Bernie Madoff did all by himself), while the left totally denies crime statistics that show that, yes, blacks commit more non-white collar crime, relative to their population.

      January 21, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
      • Eric

        Sorry I got your name wrong Karyn

        January 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. shugee

    The"well everyone else is doing it" argument in support of racism is not a strong position to support.

    January 19, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Noelle

      Thank you! Why do people not get this? Bullying is bullying and racism is racism. Just because everyone does it doesn't make it right.

      January 20, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
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