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.
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.”
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.