Originally published Wed, 17 Oct 2007 02:16:52 -04:00
Through the course of my life, I have been close to several Asian Americans who chose to take their own life. Given the gravity of yesterday’s events at Virginia Tech, I am again reminded of their tragic stories.
Sam was an American Desi who attended Purdue University trying to make it as an engineer like all good Asian American boys seeking to please their parents. As a group of Asians (Thai, Indian, Taiwanese, Indonesian and Malay) we would all go play basketball together against the Indiana farm boys. Sam and I were the tallest guys there, but Sam played ball like a guard. My own personal basketball hero was Hakeem Olajuwon (7 foot tall center for the Houston Rockets) so I always had the privilege of playing center. Of course at 5’11 and 130lbs with an average vertical, I had a little trouble playing against the tall guys I had to guard. It was all in good fun, at least from my perspective. Our goal was to outrun the other team since there was no way we could play them in a half court game. (I would almost always foul out since that is the only way I could stop a guy that was bigger and taller than me) I remember when racist comments happened on the court, I would get inflamed, but it was nothing like the anger Sam had. His anger was vicious whenever some disrespect happened. Of course he wasn’t much heavier than me so we had level headed friends in our group to calm us down.
What was unfortunate about Sam was that he wasn’t doing well academically. He dropped out of the engineering college and switched to accounting. He also wasn’t able to score well in accounting. I remember he would say “I am the dumbest Indian you will ever know” We tried to reassure him but he seemed to get more and more distant from us. After winter break during my second year in college, we found out that he had bought a shotgun and blew his head off in his dorm room. Apparently, the pressure to be a “smart” Desi was too much for him to handle.
As a college student, I was very active in the movement for self determination in Taiwan. In the early 90’s there were still many Taiwanese democracy activists who would be imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech. Many of these activists left Taiwan in the 1960’s and raised their children in the US. They would get involved with the democracy movement and then be subsequently black listed by the authoritarian dictatorship in Taiwan and not be allowed to return back to Taiwan. In the early 90’s, the black listed leaders of a Taiwanese democracy organization went back to Taiwan to support the growing democracy movement in Taiwan. This would unite the work done by overseas Taiwanese immigrants with those working in Taiwan. Many of these immigrants had Taiwanese American children who were born and raised in the 70’s. Many of us grew up together and were childhood friends. When these leaders went back to Taiwan in opposition to the black list, they attended a banquet and all were arrested. They were put in prison for committing “sedition” and for trying to overthrow the government. Amnesty International promptly adopted them as prisoner’s of conscious. As college kids, we saw them as Alvin’s dad or Stella and Rita’s dad was in jail for nothing but going back to Taiwan and we wanted to know what we could do to get them out.
It was through those efforts that I got to know Dave. I remember how sincere he was when he was expressing concern for those people he saw as his uncles. We organized petitions, letter writing campaigns and eventually they were all set free. Many of them are politicians in Taiwan today due to the success of the democracy movement. At Taiwanese American community gatherings, I remember playing ball with Dave. After we graduated from college, and saw Taiwan develop into a democracy where the people in Taiwan had their first presidential election in 1994, many of us started to lose touch. Dave and I met at that gathering after the presidential elections. I sensed he was depressed. He didn’t seem to have a direction. He had a typical corporate job but was recently laid off. He was asking me what was the point? Earn money, buy a car, buy a house, why bother? I was worried about him. At the time, as a young college grad, I had bought a two bedroom apartment in the Chicago suburbs for cheap which I was trying to remodel in my free time. In our conversations, I asked him to come move in with me in my extra bedroom and we could hang out in Chicago. Of course I was hoping to recruit help to renovate the place, but at the same time, I felt his loneliness and thought that it would be nice to hang out. He said “I think I’d like that” A month later, I found out he jumped out of a 12 story building to his death.
Albert was an athlete. The first time I met Albert, we were at a Taiwanese American youth camp riding the bus together. He told me that he ran track and I said, oh, I ran track also! What events? He said “100 yard dash” I was impressed. I mean, I was a long distance runner without the athletic talent to compete with much speed. A sprinter had that explosive muscle that few of my peers had. I asked, how did you do? He then looked left and right and bashfully said “I beat o-lang (black people in Taiwanese)” Later I found out that he ran in the Maryland state championships and actually placed in the top 10. He would tell me “I never let a white guy beat me!” In just about any athletic event he chose to participate, his natural athleticism was obvious. In basketball, he would dunk the ball with authority. He was my height but had springs on his legs. In volleyball, he was all about “6 packing” the opponent with a thunderous spike.
In the summer of 1990, I was an intern in Washington DC for the Asian Resource Workshop (ARW). The organization was set up to push for human rights in Southeast Asia, Korea, and Taiwan. It was my first summer in the east coast away from the midwest and it was truly exciting. Being a young college student filled with idealism, learning about these human rights abuses and believing I could do something about it made me feel like I had a dream job. Albert lived in Bethesda and I was staying in a house in Bethesda that summer. Since we lived in the same neighborhood, we spent that summer in Washington DC playing ball, watching movies and just hanging out and going to clubs. I remember our talks about life, parents and of course girls we thought were hot. His parents were always a sore subject. Albert had trouble with his academic work. His goal was to be an engineer, have a wife and several children living in the suburbs. He even had a time line on when he wanted to achieve certain things. Not only could he not meet his own expectations, but also his parent’s academic expectations. They even went so far as to call him fat!
Albert’s body was an Adonis body. There was not an ounce of fat on his body. He was rippling with muscle and of course it was all quality muscle. I couldn’t believe his parents negativity. He had the most positive attitude of anyone I knew. It was as if he was fighting the negativity of his parents all his life that he clung to positive thoughts as a drowning person would cling to a floater. The only time I ever saw Albert angry, was when one time I was feeling a bit down about myself and I said something negative about myself. Then, with a ferocity which startled me, he shouted “NEVER cut yourself down Tim, there are enough people, places and things in this world that will cut you down, don’t add yourself to the list.” The following school year, I went back to school in Indiana and him and another friend were taking a road trip to the midwest. On their way to the midwest, they were driving fast. He was going 120 mph wearing his seat belt. Our friend Mike was not wearing his, Albert was passing a car on the shoulder, hit something on the road, and the car flipped over. Mike went through the windshield, but Albert was unscathed. If you ever read “Albert Camus – the stranger”, Albert’s response was similar to the stranger. He was emotionless and matter of fact. The police put him in custody for manslaughter. Mike’s family didn’t press charges and he went back to college. The Taiwanese community gossiped like you wouldn’t believe. The pressure from that must have been great. When we talked again, there was now a distance between us. Whenever I went to DC, I seeked him out, but we never had a good conversation since the accident.
Time passes, I was 24 and working in Chicago, he was also 24, yet he had not yet graduated from college. As I said earlier, he struggled academically. I received a call from a mutual friend who told me that he shot himself in the heart.
When we think of the shootings in Virginia Tech, it is easy to have compassion for the innocent victims. The young students, their families, and the fear that has been created throughout the campus is understandable and unfortunate. But in our society, it is so much harder to have compassion for the shooter. As we know, people who are broken inside can do great damage. All of us have a responsibility to make sure we will not break as human beings and if we have a chance to help others around us, we must do our best. Sometimes, we find that we are powerless to help those who need it, and of course we must accept that we have done all we can. From that, we forgive ourselves for our failings, move on, and live life as best we know how.
peace and blessings to you all!