Moderator: This article is a must read for anyone seeking to see the place of Asian-Americans on a college campus. With sentencing for four hazing culprits set for next Monday, this article carefully recounts why and how Baruch student Mike Deng perished.
What a Fraternity Hazing
Death Revealed About the
Painful Search for an
When Michael Deng, a college freshman, joined an Asian-American fraternity, he was looking for a sense of belonging and identity. Two months later he was dead.
By JAY CASPIAN KANG
Four of the five students soon arrived, each one fresh from the barber. In their fitted suits, dark sunglasses and pointy shoes, Wong, Lai, Kwan and Lam looked more like characters from Hong Kong’s golden age of cinema than frat bros facing trial for murder. (Li would be arraigned at a separate hearing later in the day.) In the damp, narrow hallway outside the courtroom, Kwan, who was 26 at the time and the oldest of the fraternity brothers, broke down sobbing. He was consoled by Lai, who put an arm around him and stared glumly at the reporters scribbling in their notebooks. The next morning, The New York Daily News reported that ‘‘a frat rat’’ had ‘‘bawled like a baby before his arraignment Thursday.’’
Friends and families of the defendants sat in the back of the courtroom, staring stolidly into space. When the proceedings started, the younger relatives of the defendants quietly translated, for their elders in the gallery, the greetings between Judge Richard S. Claypool and the small army of defense lawyers and the lengthy reading of charges, which included hazing, hindering the investigation, assault, conspiracy and murder in the third degree.
Claypool, a tall, bald man who looked as if he had rolled out of bed in his magisterial robes, appeared to be unmoved by the defense lawyers’ attempts to reduce the $500,000 bail or to characterize their clients, none of whom had a criminal record, as law-abiding citizens. ‘‘I know that what I’m supposed to be seeing in front of me are some nicely dressed, cooperative kids,’’ Claypool said in a flat drawl. ‘‘What we’re seeing here is different from what happened that night. Reading the affidavit shows a lot of poor judgment from the kids.’’ Claypool’s mild manner then veered into something closer to exasperation: ‘‘Reviewing the charges, I am surprised that the D.A.’s office came in as low as they did. The $500,000 bail stands.’’
Now came the business of sorting out who could pay bail and who would be headed to jail. The lawyers whispered instructions to their clients, who tried to put on a brave face for their visibly shocked parents. Lam and Wong left with their lawyers. Kwan and Lai, who could not come up with bail at the time, were escorted to a side room and handcuffed. (Kwan would eventually make bail, as would Li, for a lesser amount, $150,000.)
Outside, as the press waited for Kwan and Lai to be led to a waiting police car, I spoke to an Asian television-news producer who had also made the trip from New York. ‘‘I’m just imagining what my parents would think about all this,’’ she said. We had one of those talks common among people of any marginalized group, in which it’s possible to unload your neuroses without having to explain everything. I told her, absurdly, that if I had been charged with murder, I would have faked my death so my parents wouldn’t know.
The families of the defendants straggled out the front door of the courthouse, some holding up their forearms to shield their faces from the cameras.
‘‘What are they thinking?’’ the producer asked under her breath.
Chun Hsien (Michael) Deng, like the Pi Delta Psi brothers charged with his murder, was a Chinese-American student from the outer boroughs. His father, a businessman in China, secured one of the visas allotted by the Immigration Act of 1990 for highly skilled workers and moved with his wife to Long Beach, a waterfront Long Island town near the southern end of Kennedy Airport. She found the transition more difficult than she had imagined. ‘‘I was pregnant and had food cravings — American food was so bland to me — and I always felt hungry,’’ Ms. Deng told me in a mix of English and Chinese. (She requested that her first name be withheld because the Dengs want to maintain as much of their privacy as possible.) Long Beach did not have any semblance of an Asian community or any acceptable Chinese restaurants, so the expecting couple moved to Flushing, a neighborhood in northern Queens full of immigrants.
When Chun Hsien was born in 1995, his mother realized that he would need an American name. She found a ranking of the most popular names for American boys and chose ‘‘Michael’’ when she saw it at the top. While Michael’s father flew to and from China for work, young Michael and his mother trudged through the mundane adjustments and small humiliations of life in America — new grocery stores, new bus systems, a Balkanized gathering of fellow immigrants who may look like you but who are not like you in the ways that matter.
Michael quickly became ensconced within the Asian bubble of Queens. In 1990, Asians made up 22.1 percent of Flushing’s population. By 2010, that figure topped 70 percent. The population began to creep out into nearby middle-class neighborhoods like Bayside, where the schools were better and the relatively spacious houses sat on quiet streets with tidy, uniformly rectilinear front lawns. By the time Michael entered Middle School 74, in Bayside, the school’s population was majority Asian.
Michael’s mother left her job and studied up on the subjects Michael was taking in school. ‘‘Math and science, of course I could help him with that,’’ she said. ‘‘But English and history — those things — I could only encourage him and try to keep up.’’ In his free time, Michael roamed the handball courts in Bayside and became a formidable player. In eighth grade, he took the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test and placed into Bronx Science, which is in New York’s top tier of selective public schools, with Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.
Like Middle School 74, Bronx Science’s student body is majority Asian. There are all-Asian cliques from Flushing, all-Asian cliques from Manhattan, all-Asian cliques from Sunset Park in Brooklyn. These groups might be created by immigration patterns, school districts and real estate developments, but they are reinforced through long hours in standardized-test tutoring, weekends spent at Chinese- or Korean-language classes and long subway trips up to the Bronx.
It was on one of those long rides that Michael got to know William Yuan. They recognized each other from art class and decided to skip school to play handball. The boys became fast friends.
Deng and Yuan were popular enough — not quite in the party crowd at Bronx Science but not quite nerds. When I asked Yuan what he and his friends had done for fun, he began to describe a life that would feel very familiar to anyone who grew up in any of the Asian enclaves in the United States: boba shops, Pokémon, study groups, rich F.O.B.s (Asian immigrants who are ‘‘fresh off the boat’’) and the uneven attention from parents who feel the need to pressure their children but who, because of the language barrier and cultural ignorance, often don’t know what they have become.
‘‘We’d play League of Legends’’ — a multiplayer computer game — ‘‘and play handball and eat,’’ Yuan said, describing a typical weekend. ‘‘I know it might sound like a simple life, but it never felt all that simple to us. When we hung out, we hung with almost all Chinese kids, but it wasn’t racist or anything. I guess it’s human nature to hang out with people who are like you.’’
When it was time to choose a college, Deng was faced with a choice between following Yuan to Stony Brook University on Long Island or going somewhere more local. He didn’t want to leave his mother, so he decided to enroll at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York and a commuter school whose entire campus consists of a handful of buildings near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Most of Baruch’s students live off campus, but Deng wanted a college experience that felt a bit more like what he had seen in the movies — pranks, girls and freedom from parents — so he moved into the nearby dormitories. His assigned roommate was Jay Chen, an 18-year-old freshman from Long Island. Deng and Chen tried to build their own small version of campus life, with Deng taking the cockier, worldly lead and Chen playing his sidekick. Two years after Deng’s death, Chen recalled their time together in a letter addressed to the memory of his old roommate: ‘‘I remember on my birthday, freshman year, you brought home a six pack of Corona for us to celebrate. I never questioned how you were able to get your hands on it, but I was just glad you did. Of course, being the type of people we were, we didn’t have bottle openers. Obviously the most important thing to do at that moment was to figure out ways to open a bottle without a bottle opener. Thanks to you, I now know about 900 different ways to open a bottle without a bottle opener.’’
What little social life existed on campus at Baruch was dominated by its tiny Greek system, and freshmen, especially those who showed any interest in campus life, were aggressively recruited. At night in their room, Deng and Chen lay in their beds and debated whether to rush one of two big Asian-American fraternities at Baruch, Pi Delta Psi and Lambda Phi Epsilon. Chen decided fraternities weren’t for him. Deng chose Pi Delta Psi.
‘‘Michael would come home and tell me about all the people he had met,’’ Chen said. ‘‘He seemed enthusiastic at first. But as pledging continued, he seemed to get more tired, and he became less of his normal self. We spoke less. Every time he came home, he was absolutely exhausted and usually fell straight to sleep.’’
On Thanksgiving weekend, Deng went home to Flushing. His new friends from Baruch, many from families who lived nearby, came and went from his house. Deng had started dating a member of one of Baruch’s Asian sororities who grew up a few miles away from the Dengs in Queens. She told him that her family did not eat turkey on the holidays, so Deng had his mother cook more than usual and took a box of leftovers to her house. He did not tell his mother, his girlfriend or Jay Chen about his coming trip to the Poconos.
“Asian-American’’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America. Michael Deng and his fraternity brothers were from Chinese families and grew up in Queens, and they have nothing in common with me — someone who was born in Korea and grew up in Boston and North Carolina. We share stereotypes, mostly — tiger moms, music lessons and the unexamined march toward success, however it’s defined. My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.
Discrimination is what really binds Asian-Americans together. The early scholars of Asian-American studies came out of the ‘‘Third World Liberation Front’’ of the late ’60s, which pushed against the Eurocentric bent of the academy. When Asian-American-studies programs began spreading in California in the early ’70s, their curriculums grew out of personal narratives of oppression, solidarity forged through the exhumation of common hardships. ‘‘Roots: An Asian-American Reader,’’ one of the first textbooks offered to Asian-American-studies students at U.C.L.A., was published in 1971; the roots of the title referred not to some collective Asian heritage but, the editors wrote, to the ‘‘?‘roots’ of the issues facing Asians in America.’’
The project of defining Asian-American identity was largely limited to Ivy League and West Coast universities until 1982, when Vincent Chin, who worked at an automotive engineering firm in Detroit, was beaten to death by assailants who blamed Japanese competition for the downturn in the American auto market. When Chin’s killers were sentenced to probation and fined $3,000, protesters marched in cities across the country, giving rise to a new Pan-Asian unity forged by the realization that if Chin, the son of Chinese immigrants, could be killed because of Japanese auto imports, the concept of an ‘‘Asian-American’’ identity had consequences.
‘‘His death was this great moment of realization,’’ Christine Choy, a Korean-American filmmaker and former member of the Black Panther Party, told me. ‘‘It galvanized a lot of people who said they can’t stand by anymore and let things go without any sort of legal or political representation.’’
Chin’s death came at the beginning of a huge demographic shift on college campuses. The children of the hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants who flooded into the country after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had grown up. Between 1976 and 2008, the number of Asian-Americans enrolled in four-year colleges increased sixfold. Many of these young men and women had graduated from the same magnet schools, attended the same churches, studied together in the same test-prep classes, but their sense of Asian-ness had never been explained to them, at least not in the codified language of the multicultural academy.
They found themselves at the center of a national debate on affirmative action. In the mid-’80s, students and professors began to accuse elite colleges like Brown, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, of using a quota system to limit the number of Asian-American students. As colleges responded with denials, a movement began on campuses to demand the creation of more Asian-American-studies programs and Asian-American clubs, student organizations, social clubs and, eventually, fraternities. The debate remains open and tense. In 2014, a group that opposes affirmative action sued Harvard, accusing it of discriminating against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. That suit, which is still unsettled, inspired a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups to file a complaint against the university the following year. Both cases received renewed attention this month when the publication of a Department of Justice memorandum led to the disclosure of the agency’s plans to investigate the 2015 complaint.
‘‘Who Killed Vincent Chin?’’ a 1989 documentary directed by Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña, was shown in Asian-American-studies classes across the country. Over the next decade, a rhetoric took hold that argued for a collective identity rooted in both the death of Vincent Chin and the debates over affirmative action, but it still felt strange to those who had grown up Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino. Whether expressed through scholarship or private, daily conversation, this vocabulary was imprecise and cloistered within the academy. By the early ’90s, when the Los Angeles riots thrust Asian-Americans onto the national stage, the brio of ‘‘Roots’’ had mostly been supplanted by a shy, scholarly neurosis that sought to figure out why Asian — particularly Korean — businesses had been targeted by rioters, but lacked the platform or the confidence to ask.
The modern Asian-American fraternity was born out of the protests of the ’80s and the growing alienation that Asian-Americans felt on campus. Of the 18 Asian-American fraternities and sororities recognized by the National Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Panhellenic Association, 16 were founded between 1990 and 2000. Their mission statements promise the ‘‘making of successful leaders,’’ as well as a commitment to service and ‘‘community awareness.’’ The messages from the fraternities and sororities are remarkably similar — unity to achieve unexpected success, brotherhood and sisterhood devoted to establishing a professional network of high-functioning alumni. Initiations tend to promote a vague vision of Pan-Asian identity that reflects the history of Asian-American scholarship and activism, but whose urgency has been hollowed out by years of apathy.
In 1994, the same year Michael Deng’s parents immigrated from China, 11 students at Binghamton University founded the first chapter of Pi Delta Psi. By 2000, the fraternity had chapters at 11 colleges in four states. In those early days, the brothers pieced together a mission from bits of what they had been learning in Asian-American-studies classes. Each fraternity chapter’s ‘‘educator’’ developed a curriculum for pledges. Some weeks were devoted to more predictable topics like ethnic foods or the origin of Asian flags, but the focus was overwhelmingly on instances of racism experienced by Asian-Americans. Over the last two decades, the curriculum has been updated modestly, depending on the chapter. There is, for example, a ‘‘function’’ — the fraternity’s term for an educational activity — in which pledges research and write reports on the murder of Vincent Chin. Another function centers on the Los Angeles riots and their catastrophic impact on Korean small-business owners. Around the time of Deng’s death, there were plans to introduce a function highlighting the death of Danny Chen, a young man from Manhattan’s Chinatown who committed suicide after a military hazing incident. ‘‘It was kind of like taking a half-course credit,’’ Lex Ngoto, a Pi Delta Psi alumnus from New York University who now works in banking, told me. ‘‘We would even meet in classrooms and get assignments and reports. Then we’d get tested by the brothers, and if we missed a question, we’d have to do push-ups.’’ He continued: ‘‘I ended up appreciating it. I hung out with Asian kids in high school, but we weren’t really aware, if that makes sense. Learning about what happened to us — you know, Asian people in America — it awakened me to a lot of things.’’
This was a common refrain among many of the Pi Delta Psi alumni I spoke to: kinship through a common history of suffering, consciousness through education. They also told of pledge functions that sound much more like typical, if sometimes even laughably innocuous, hazing. While always dressed in black sweats or military fatigues, they took part in trust falls, scavenger hunts and the ‘‘divide and conquer’’ function, in which pledges were dropped off in different locations without their cellphones and instructed to find one another at a predetermined meet-up spot. Before ‘‘crossing’’ into brotherhood, the pledges were subjected to ‘‘hell week,’’ deprived of sleep and made to carry book bags typically filled with bricks, concrete blocks or bowling balls.
Not all Pi Delta Psi pledges experienced a profound racial awakening. A former member of the University at Buffalo’s chapter told me that he was more ambivalent about the fraternity’s cultural curriculum. ‘‘The fraternity says they are about raising awareness of Asian-Americans, but it’s all [expletive],’’ he says. ‘‘It’s really just about partying and feeling like you belong to something.’’ All the Pi Delta Psi alumni I spoke to said push-ups were one of the most common forms of physical punishment. The University at Buffalo brother recalled being blindfolded for hours during his initiation ceremony and shoved into the dirt. Everyone recalls being roughed up in a ritual called the Glass Ceiling.