For days after the crash, Paul Li could not sleep, lying awake at night thinking of Calvin. His only son was a popular, outgoing football player at Wootton High School who had just graduated and was about to start at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Calvin died in a high-speed wreck when another teen — who had been drinking — crashed the car they were riding in after leaving a party. It also killed a second teenager, Alex Murk. Both were 18, on the brink of college, excited about where their lives were headed.
Paul Li had been in China that June night last year, a trip he’d urged Calvin to join him on. But his son begged off. The night before Li left, he says, Calvin told him: “Dad, don’t worry about me. I will work hard, and I will be successful, and you will be proud of me.”
Li returned home and delivered a eulogy at his son’s funeral.
Since that June, there has been a lot of time for Li to reflect on Calvin’s growing up. He has thought about the expectations the teenager faced at home and in school, about the cultural gap between him and his immigrant parents, about his search for identity and a desire to fit in.
“Things flashed back in my mind, and I started to try to piece things together,” he said. “I tried to make sense of everything, and that’s when I came to the realization that there’s so many issues and struggles that kids like my son have.”
Calvin’s parents were from China, moving to the United States in their 20s, strongly connected to their heritage. But Calvin wanted nothing more than to be a typical all-American kid. He played sports and listened to rap music. As he grew older, his father said, he distanced himself from Chinese culture.
In some ways, his experience is like those of many children of first-generation immigrants who straddle a cultural gap, confronting stereotypes and expectations about who they should be and to what they should aspire. Li said he regrets that he did not understand his son’s difficulties and do more to support him. Now he wants to help other families, in his son’s memory.
“If I knew what I know now, I would’ve been a much better parent,” he said.
The Li family said little publicly in the weeks after the fatal crash in North Potomac, Md. They also could not bear to attend court hearings deciding the fate of the car’s driver — Sam Ellis, a onetime star quarterback at Wootton — who pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison.
With a little distance, Li now wants to share his family’s story, hoping that it might make a difference for others.
He’s also trying to make a concrete difference: In March, Li, who works as an investment analyst, committed to donating $1.2 million over three years to endow a U-Md. fellowship that will focus on issues facing children of Asian American immigrants.
The fellowship will build on two decades of studies on family dynamics, adjustment and identity formation among immigrants and their children, said Janelle Wong, director of Asian American Studies at U-Md. Notably, she said, research findings will be presented at community workshops and lectures so that families can benefit.
“The real question at the heart of the fellowship is, ‘What does it mean to be American and to become American?’ ” she said.
Li said he believes that the difficulties of Asian students often go unnoticed.
“Society often thinks, Asian kids — they’re doing well in school, they’re working hard, they tend to be overachievers, they don’t have any problems,” he said. “But in fact, they do have problems, and many of the problems are overlooked by not only their parents but also by the society.”
In Rockville, where the Li family has lived since 2003, Calvin attended Chinese school on weekends as a child, had a gift for language and could recite poetry in Mandarin. But as he grew older, he gravitated away from his parents’ culture and traditions — not showing the same interest in eating at Chinese restaurants or traveling to China.
His father recalls him switching off the television news when there was a report about China and heading to his room.
“He wanted to be more American,” Li said. “So his way of doing that was to distance himself from anything Chinese. I felt that’s not the right way of dealing with identity, but at the time I was not aware of this issue. I was not understanding enough to help him. I was just forcefully saying, you know, ‘You’re a Chinese kid.’ ”
At Wootton — where more than 35 percent of students are Asian, more than in any of Montgomery’s other 24 high schools — Calvin’s social circle included few Asian students.
His father said Calvin defied stereotypes that Asian American students should excel in math and science. He got good grades — and was admitted to U-Md., with plans to study international business — but academic achievement was not his passion.
His friends recall Calvin as loyal, upbeat and funny. They say he loved football, and his teammates admired him for how much heart he put into the sport. He was No. 7 on the Wootton team, a wide receiver.
“Calvin didn’t want to let any stereotypes define him and just created his own identity,” said Jake Ledner, a close friend. “He was really charismatic and always had a ton of energy. He always lightened up the room.”
Another friend from football, Joey Castelli, recalled Calvin’s humor. “He always had a joke to crack,” he said. Although Calvin was not public about any internal struggle, he said, “you could tell his home life was much different from the personality he showed up with every day.”
Calvin’s friends praised his father’s efforts to raise awareness. Li also has created a foundation named for his son.
“I think it’s a great idea, because it addresses a problem that’s usually overlooked,” said Christopher D’Arpa, a close friend. ”I think it’s definitely a thing that’s going to help a lot of other people, which does honor Calvin.”
Li testified before lawmakers in Annapolis this year to support “Alex and Calvin’s Law,” to stiffen penalties for adults who furnish alcohol to minors or allow them to drink at their homes.
“My heart was shattered into pieces,” he told lawmakers, speaking of Calvin’s death and of seeing his body in a funeral home. “I really wish it were me lying there so he could walk.”
The bill — which many hoped would deter parents from allowing teen parties — was weakened before it passed. Li said he still feels strongly about the importance of toughening laws, which he sees as a first step toward changing the teen drinking culture.
With his own son, he said, he believes alcohol was a way to show that he fit in. Calvin had been to other parties, he said, and the issue had strained their relationship.
“We used harsh tactics, and it didn’t work,” Li said. “I just want other parents to understand their kids more, and listen to them more, and try to find a better way to deal with the issues their kids may have.”
Even if it would not have solved all their problems, he said, he wishes he’d talked it out more with his son. “Sometimes we can’t solve the problem, but just having dialogue helps a lot,” he said.
As Li has missed his son, he said, he has mulled over one difficult moment — when Calvin was in middle school and announced that he wanted to play professional football. Both father and son were Dallas Cowboys fans.
“Son, you go back to study,” his father said. “You’re not going to be a football player.”
His son pressed, asking why.
The answer he gave, he said, is one of his greatest regrets.
“You are Chinese,” he said.
His son cried.
“When I look back, I cannot forgive myself,” Li said. “Even though I know maybe in reality he would not be a football player. But it was just the way I shattered his dream when he was small. . . . And I know for sure, there are other Chinese parents who are doing the same to their children right now. And I don’t want that to happen.”