In many ways this is my genesis story. I shared a version of this story at @TheMoth StorySLAM competition Thursday, October 18th at NYC’s Housing Works Cafe. I’ve written a lot about my uncle, but never quite like this.
I was 13 when I found out a relative of mine was killed in a hate crime. It would take another ten years to figure out what that meant for me.
I laid on the couch that March Sunday, watching Becoming American- The Chinese Experience on PBS (because that’s the kind of kid I was at 13). The last 20 minutes of the documentary focused on a man named Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death by baseball bat in 1982 by two white laid-off autoworkers who thought Vincent was Japanese and who blamed him for the Detroit autoworkers crisis. I would have dismissed it entirely as a historical event, much like the dead white guys I was learning about in school, had I not seen waves and waves of Asian Americans who were protesting, the first time I’d ever seen that image.
And then, out of nowhere, my mom happened to walk by. She pointed to the screen, and said, “嗰個係你表哥.” “That is your uncle.” Your blood relative.
“What?” I said.
But my mom never said a word about Vincent again. To this day my mom has never talked to me about Vincent.
In fact, no one told me about Vincent. My uncles and aunties didn’t talk about him, and my cousins didn’t know about him. Why wasn’t anyone saying anything?
I wondered if it was the “Don’t rock the boat” mentality. As a kid of immigrants, I was taught to stay in my lane, don’t speak out, get into a good college, make a good life for yourself.
But I had to know. So I started to do sly research. I found out Michael Moore wrote about Vincent. When I was 18, I had the chance to watch Who Killed Vincent Chin? I saw a woman, Vincent’s mother, speaking at protests and rallies, saying, “I want justice for my son.”
This woman, Lily, looked and sounded exactly like my great auntie in New York, like my grandmother. I knew she was mine. But how?
I finally sought answers in the only place where I might get some- Detroit. I had begun my teaching career in Chicago and decided to take a solo trip. The first thing I did was go to Vincent’s grave. I saw Vincent’s grave, Lily and David’s graves. They were no longer ghosts to me. They were real, and I was going to finally find out how I was related to them.
When I got to my relatives’ house, I asked, “Can you help me make a family tree? I have been trying for ten years to figure out how I am related to this family.”
She laid it out. One brother, nine sisters. “第二, 你二姨婆, 係 Lily. 第四係你婆婆, 我係第八, 你八姨婆.” “The 2nd sister, your 2nd great-auntie, is Lily. The 4th sister is your maternal grandmother, and I am the 8th sister, your 8th-great auntie.”
I look at this family tree. Of those kids who survived, those kids had kids, those kids had kids, and some of those kids had kids. Except Lily. After Vincent died, instead of going to his wedding, she went to his funeral instead.
I asked my eighth great-auntie in Detroit, “What happened after Vincent died? What happened with 2nd-great-auntie?”
“After Vincent died, Lily was all alone in Detroit. I and your grandmother flew from China to America to support her. I brought my whole family here. And, your grandmother didn’t want to learn how to drive [in the Detroit suburbs] so she moved to Chicago. She brought your mom a few years later to Milwaukee, and then your dad, and then they found work in New York. That’s how your family ended up in New York City.”
They immigrated from China, my parents, after Vincent’s death, after my grandmother got them both here.
From a country with a one-child policy. And I am the second child of three.
And I realized at that moment, that, if Vincent had not died, if Lily did not speak out, no one would know Vincent’s name today.
But, moreover, if she hadn’t called her sisters over, and if she hadn’t called my parents over… I may never have been born.
So, every single day of my life, my mom’s message: don’t rock the boat, Annie. Don’t go on that bullhorn, Annie. Don’t write that article on the Huffington Post. Don’t fight for your special education students. Don’t get fired again. Don’t get your principal angry.
But I look at my great auntie on that screen, and I think, I have to.
Vincent did not die for nothing. My great auntie Lily Chin did not speak out and go all around the nation fighting for nothing.
And, I was not born for nothing.