Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Advancing the Race Conversation: Chinese Man vs. Model Minority

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Advancing the Race Conversation: Chinese Man vs. Model Minority

Article excerpt

At this year's National Conference Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, two very different images of Asian-American males were on display.

Oakland's Lee Mun Wah rings a Tibetan bowl to begin one of his well-attended "StirFry" seminars. The acclaimed filmmaker and educator wears a no-collar Tibetan shirt, his hair in a pony tail, his face anchored by a Confucian-like beard. When the sound from the bowl fades, he introduces himself simply. "I am a Chinese man," he says.


Frank Wu comes at you more traditionally. Taller, garbed in a tailored wool suit, his hair is short, his face clean-shaven. He's sans black-rimmed glasses, but you can imagine them on him. As the chancellor and dean of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, he comes with the weight of a keynote's full introduction. As one of the highest-ranking Asian Americans in academia, he's beyond "model minority." He walks the walk, and talks like a guy in a suit.

Let's get ready to rumble?

While Wu was an afternoon keynote speaker, and Lee gave workshops throughout the conference, they both represent stark contrasts in how to talk about race. For me, it was Lee's race whisperer versus Wu's perfectly modulated careerist in the battle to get to the truth about racial diversity in America. Who wins?

First, the similarity in their styles: Both gain trust by opening up about themselves.

Wu begins his talk as if a confessional. He was ashamed of his immigrant parents and their accents, embarrassed and angry, sometimes wondering, "Why are we Chinese?"

Lee reveals his secrets in spades. He can't help it. His workshops are like open heart surgery with no scalpels. There are many moments when the talk leads to a stunned breath-taking silence and moments of high empathy.

In the two workshops I attended, Lee revealed his guilt surrounding his mother's murder in 1985. She was shot five times in the head by an African-American male in a robbery attempt. Lee later accidentally met the man's mother at one of his seminars, which gave them both an opportunity to soothe open wounds.

It was just one of many moments shared by Lee who talked of being beaten by his own father, the restaurant owner, who just happened to spit in the food of Blacks. Secrets? Lee shares many.

Wu's revelations include his embarrassment at being Asian American and his feeling that "the less I talked about it the better." Change came because of an act of history, the murder of Vincent Chin. The 1982 story still manages to elicit sighs of disbelief, even to people who know the story. …

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