Excerpt Testimonial from E.C.—A Korean-American Gang Leader of Atlanta, GA
I was [originally] raised in Bensonhurst—a predominantly Italian neighborhood… My parents came here 40 years ago. The Italian people didn’t like us. Italian kids would run in and shout, “Chink,” break up the whole store and run out. My parents worked 14-hour shifts. My mom would sit there crying, “It’s just too hard out here.”
But as I grew up I started becoming friends with them. As I got older, when I was hanging out with my friends one day, one of my best friends, he said, “Why don’t you go home, you stupid Chink.” I remember hurting. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is messed up. I’ve been friends with these guys for a long time and they say something like that.”
I remember the first day I went to school, this kid Louie grabbed my hat. They started throwing my hat around and I remember I had a fight with this guy. I cracked him in the face and hit him a couple of times. And after that, everybody wanted to be my friend.
I want them to understand that Korean kids are no pushovers. There’s a bad stigma to Korean kids—that we are just a bunch of nerds who study all day.
I’m very proud of who I am, my culture, my people, and if I hear that people are just abusing them, I’m going to go fight. This country is not built on a bunch of us studying and becoming doctors and stuff like that. Not everyone respects that as a kid. When you get abused, [you] grow up really messed up.
I thought I was Italian since I was a kid. I only realized I was Asian when the Italian kids made fun of me. That’s when I realized what I was.
I was born in this country. I saw it for myself. You could push a couple of us around but not all of us are going to stand there. Some of us are going to push back. And I push harder than most. I wasn’t scared.
For the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a documentary entitled A-Town Boyz, which is set in Atlanta, Georgia and follows the lives of young Asian-American men and their diverse lifestyles. I heard of the film in 2011, when it initially entered production with the generous help of filmmaker Spike Lee and his grant. The film is currently led by director Eunice Lau, a student Oscar recipient (region three, national finalist) for Best Documentary with her film Through the Fire, which documents women in leadership roles in Somalia. Eunice asked me to join her team as Producer in the summer of 2012. At the time, I was busy producing narratives, writing books, and my own feature script, but after seeing some of the footage she’d taken, I couldn’t turn it down. This movie isn’t about “Tiger” parents or their children. It’s not about stereotypes and successes. We’re filming Asian-American men who are coming of age, children to parents who admit to mistakes that came with their sacrifices, former and current gang members, and students who are looking ahead at their own future, uncertain of what’s to come.
Why Asian American Men?
Nobody ever asks for their point of view; Asian-American males are a neglected group in our society. The subjects of our documentary are all male, Asian American and either from or currently based in Atlanta. Our subjects have a diverse background but share some similarities: raised by immigrant parents who worked long hours (parental neglect at home) and lacked the knowledge to navigate the educational systems due to the language barrier (extra pressure on the children to figure things out alone at a very young age), and struggled with racism in their schools where Asian Americans were taunted for their looks, language, culture, etc.
In Atlanta, where the most prevalent demographic is split into two—black or white—the Asian Americans often times fall through the cracks. There aren’t many documented Asian-American stories that come from the South, or even in general. Eunice initially got the idea to shoot this film after hearing stories about the Asian American gang life that exists in the South through a mutual actor friend—an Atlanta native. Her stories on the kinship and unique lifestyle of her peers during her former years as a gang member led the team to Atlanta with a camera. We wanted to document the stories of parental sacrifices, racism during childhood and adolescence, and what work is being done today for progress—all in the great city where American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born.
Historically, many immigrants and children of immigrants have turned to the underground world for its communal and economic benefits (Italians, Irish, Israeli, Latino, etc.). Some of our subjects turned to gangs for a sense of kinship they never felt elsewhere. The upside to gang life was also the money. They preferred the ability to make large amounts of cash in just a day or two without the long hours at an undesirable workplace. Given the risks involved with this kind of lifestyle, a couple of our subjects have been in and out of prison. But over the course of two years of filming, some are now turning their lives around. One subject in particular has shown a tremendous change these last few months. (His story is especially compelling and we can’t wait to let the film show it.)
The main point we’re addressing with subjects like these is that they felt unheard and misunderstood by everyone. The lack of proper role models at home, school and in the media (a general lack of real Asian faces that are not embarrassing all of Asian Americans by perpetuating undesirable stereotypes that are easy to poke fun at or laugh at), these young men felt let down and alienated. Their introspective testimonies, and interviews with their parents, spouse, children and other members of their community show us a side of their identity that has gone unexplored up until now, and raise important questions on what we can do to make sure that the children and parents of immigrant Americans today make progress. The stories that our subjects tell are unique. They show us another kind of life and the wounds that led to it.
Hope, Progress and Support
In order to show the advances that educators and social workers of Atlanta are making, we’re documenting the younger generation of Asian Americans in Atlanta who come from immigrant and/or single mother households of low-income neighborhoods. One of these organizations is the Center for Pan Asian Community Center (CPACS) where staff members work with children and adults alike, including Asian and Hispanic families as well as with Burmese and Bhutanese refugees. Part of the great work that they do is provide counseling to children who have been touched by gang activity in some way, and advising immigrant parents on how to navigate the American systems for their children’s future. The nurturing aspect of CPACS is that the people who go there feel heard and that alone goes such a long way.
A-Town Boyz is currently in the final stages of production. Visit the website for more info: www.AtownBoyzMovie.com.