Ever since he moved to the United States from China more than a half-century ago, Lee Wong has been told he doesn’t look American enough. Despite his 20 years of service in the U.S. Army, he says his patriotism has also been questioned by people who “can’t get over this face.”
So when Wong called out the uptick in violence and discrimination against Asian Americans during a meeting of the board of trustees in West Chester Township, Ohio, the board chairman calmly unbuttoned his dress shirt to show those in attendance at the Tuesday meeting what patriotism looked like: red scars across his chest from his military service.
“Here is my proof,” said Wong, 69, who last year ran as a Republican candidate for the state Senate. “Now, is this patriot enough?”
Lee Wong, an elected official in West Chester, Ohio & @USArmy veteran with 20-years of service, took his shirt off during a town hall meeting on Wednesday and revealed scars he received during his service. “Is this patriot enough?” he asked #StopAsianHate https://t.co/3nCwTlVGxD pic.twitter.com/0R1TX3MTtp— James LaPorta (@JimLaPorta) March 26, 2021
Wong’s impassioned speech on Tuesday, captured in a video that’s been viewed by millions as of early Saturday, has resonated at a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have become a regular occurrence in the year since the coronavirus upended everyday life in the United States. A report released this month by Stop AAPI Hate found that Asian Americans reported nearly 3,800 hate incidents during the pandemic.
The nation is also still mourning the eight victims, including six Asian women, who were killed in the mass shooting at three Atlanta-area spas on March 16. While the suspected gunman claims the attack was not racially motivated, Asian advocates and Democrats allege the rampage was fueled, in part, by the derisive rhetoric from former president Donald Trump toward the community.
Wong could not be immediately reached for comment. In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, he said he needed to speak out against the constant wave of anti-Asian violence.
“The timing was right in light of what’s happening in this country,” Wong told the newspaper. “In that moment, I don’t know what came over me. I just knew I had to say something.”
After his parents died when he was 12, Wong moved to the United States at 18, immigrating to Chicago to pursue a degree in pharmacology in the early ’70s.
Two years into his program, he said, he was beaten by a White man who mistook him as being Japanese, Wong recalled in a 2018 interview with China Daily. But when the judge sentenced the man to one year of probation, Wong, who said he was hospitalized from the attack, was left “confused” and livid.
“For two years, I was angry at the world and I hated White people,” he said to the outlet at the time, noting he later married a White woman.
Other instances of discrimination came up. When his application to become a police officer was reportedly thrown in the trash, he recounted how he could hear officers laughing and using a derogatory term at him. He told WXIX about how a little boy had pulled his eyelids back toward his temples when the child saw him. He tried to brush off the child’s actions, but he could not, realizing that “he learned it from somebody.”
“I have put up with a lot of [expletive] in silence,” he said at the meeting, according to the Hamilton Journal-News, “too afraid to speak out, fearing more abuse and discrimination.”
Following his two decades in the Army as a special agent for the criminal investigation division — a move he says helped him “learn about Americanism and democracy” — he was a police officer in Indiana before moving his family in 2001 to West Chester Township, an area of roughly 60,000 people located more than 20 miles north of Cincinnati. A member of the nonpartisan board of trustees since 2006, Wong ran last year as a Republican for a seat in the Ohio Senate, but was defeated in a GOP primary.
Standing before his fellow board members this past week, Wong emphasized that he was no longer ashamed to walk around anymore.
“I don’t have to live in fear,” he said at the meeting. He later added: “Last I read in the U.S. Constitution, ‘We the people,’ we are all the same. We are equal, not all of this, ‘You are more superior, you are not.' ”
Wong admitted to local media that he spoke out, in part, because a friend’s Chinese restaurant in Kentucky had been vandalized several times. He said people have thanked him for speaking out in a moment that has since gone viral, but pushed for more people to speak out against the anti-Asian discrimination that is sweeping the country.
“They are just getting bolder and bolder,” he told the Journal-News. “I’m just afraid it might come down to what’s happening in Atlanta, sooner or later, if we don’t speak up.”