As a longtime trustee of West Chester Township, an affluent suburb north of Cincinnati, Ohio, Lee Wong has found himself being questioned if he’s “American enough” or “patriotic enough” more in the last couple of years than at any other time.
Then came the Atlanta-area shootings in which six Asian American women were gunned down. Wong couldn’t remain silent anymore.
He spoke of patriotism and revealed scars he received while serving in the US military, at a March 23 meeting of the Board of Trustees. The video of the meeting has since gone viral worldwide.
“People question my patriotism, that I don’t look American enough. They can’t get over this face. I want to show you something; I don’t have to live in fear, intimidation, insults,” Wong said while unbuttoning his shirt to show his scarred chest.
“I am 69 years old and I want to show you what patriotism looks like. This is my proof. This is sustained from my service in the US military. Now, is this patriotic enough?” Wong asked.
Wong, who is the chair of the township Board of Trustees — a position equivalent to mayor — told China Daily of the racial discrimination he has experienced since immigrating to the US in the 1970s from Malaysia.
The worst was in the 1970s, when he was studying pharmacy in Chicago. A white male, mistaking him as Japanese, kicked him, punched him and choked him. Wong ended up in the hospital as a result.
In the 1970s and 1980s, heavy industry in the US was waning, and workers were experiencing widespread layoffs just as counterpart businesses in Japan were making major inroads into US markets, especially in the auto industry. The anti-Japanese sentiment manifested in the US with occasional public destruction of Japanese cars and the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin, who was mistaken to be Japanese.
Wong filed a criminal complaint and went to court. The defendant continued to call him a “Jap” in court and was given one year of non-reporting probation.
Wong said the experience steered him away from medicine. “I was confused, and I needed to learn about America,” he said.
He decided that the Army would be a good place to start, joining as a military policeman. Wong eventually got into the Army police force’s elite Criminal Investigation Command.
“I stayed in the Army for 20 years and served the country all over the world,” Wong said.
When he retired from the Army in 2005, Wong decided to run for office to serve the community; he got elected and has been re-elected since.
As an Asian American, Wong said he stood out in the military as well as in his current community.
“There is discrimination everywhere. It’s not so blatant. You can feel it, but you cannot see it, touch it,” said Wong. “Like opportunities for promotion, you are always the last one to be considered sometimes.”
Sometimes it’s jokes told by people around him. However, those jokes are “demeaning and dehumanizing to any Chinese American”, Wong said.
When he first started campaigning for township office, Wong, a Republican, said he sometimes had doors slammed in his face.
“I am the first Asian American in the state to run for public office and be elected. I went door to door on a bicycle and knocked on 18,000 doors. A few doors were slammed in my face. I was not afraid; I walked away, and I came back and talked to them,” Wong said.
Some of those people also were military veterans. “After they found out that I served 20 years, they become my big supporters.”
However, Wong noticed that in the last couple of years, he has experienced more vocal and expressive racial discrimination than ever before.
“It was the worst in the last year. It was so bold, verbalized, in front of my face,” Wong said.
A couple of years ago at a Republican Party function, Wong was standing by the door greeting people. “Someone said to me: ‘You don’t look American,’ or ‘You are not patriotic enough.’
“People that talked to me that way probably never served one day in the military. That’s very disrespectful and hurtful,” Wong said.
Wong experienced another incident during his re-election campaign last year.
“People approached me outside of the election office — I was standing there waving at people, holding the US flag, wearing an Army shirt and cap — told me I am not American enough. One lady even said: ‘When did you stop loving America?’ It is, wow, very insulting,” Wong recalled.
In another recent incident, a father and son in a grocery store both pulled the corners of their eyes to mimic slanted eyes.
Wong said those incidents shocked and hurt him, but he didn’t argue with them. “I maintained my composure. I didn’t want to get into an argument with them. I just took it, took it, took it.
“If I start to argue with them, I would give them more credibility to attack me. That’s how I felt before at those times.”
With hate crimes against Asian Americans rising nationwide and as he experiences more discrimination, Wong has begun to respond differently.
“I realized that keeping silent is not good. I feel I need to say something, otherwise bad things continue to happen. I spoke up and I said what needed to be said for the first time to the public like that.”