Emil Guillermo: The Chinese grad student and a gun; and 60 years after "I Have A Dream"

Image for Emil Guillermo: The Chinese grad student and a gun; and 60 years after "I Have A Dream"
Photo via Tailei Qi (middle) and the late Prof. Zijie Yan (far left)

A graduate student shooting his professor is not model minority behavior.

But given the proliferation of gun violence in America, maybe it is.

Tailei Qi, 34, a graduate student from China attending the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, was charged with first degree murder in the killing of his advisor Zijie Yan, an associate professor in applied physical sciences at the school.

Now people are wondering whether they could have anticipated the events of Monday that left the Chapel Hill campus disrupted and shut down for hours, and Yan, a young professor dead.

The suspect Qi, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, entered no plea on Tuesday to the murder charge or to a second charge of possession of a gun on an educational property.

With a translator present, Qi was given a public defender and a Sept. 18 date for a probable cause hearing.

The South China Morning Post cites Chinese news sources from 2010 reporting on Qi coming from a farming family with limited means in Henan province. Both he and his brother were brilliant students with high scores on national college exams, but they worried about affording tuition at top universities.

From his personal Linked In page, Qi earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Wuhan University and a master’s in material science and engineering from Louisiana State University before joining UNC.

He is one of an estimated 300,000 international students from China in the U.S., who contribute about $15 billion per year in export earnings, according to Forbes magazine.

But given recent diplomatic tensions between China and U.S., the number of students has dropped. There has also been increased competition for Chinese students from countries such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

At the same time, there has been a growing backlash against Asian scientists in the U.S., especially during the Trump administration when suspicions were at their peak over Asian nationals engaging in government or corporate spying.

How will all that be impacted by an alleged murder of a Chinese professor by a Chinese student?

It leads to a tension in Asian America few of us want to acknowledge, but it is a community story that is rarely told.

There is a distinction between Asians in America and Asian Americans, and few people take the time to make the distinction.

One only needs to look at the pandemic years to see how the scapegoating of Chinese for the coronavirus led to hate violence against Asians and Asian Americans of various ethnicities.

If the Qi case gets much play, it could lead to more anti-Asian stereotyping.

If the case is underreported–knocked off the front pages by hurricanes, election theft, mugshot politics, and the like–then maybe it gets ignored.

But is that a good thing?

With such a large number of Chinese and Asian foreign students here, their lives shouldn’t be overlooked. Are they exploited by their schools with long hours and little pay? By the communities where they live and work? Are they getting the mental health care and attention they need in America? Could the event on Monday have been avoided?

Would it happen in China? Or only in America?

In March, North Carolina passed a law allowing for handgun purchases without permits or background checks.

Clearly, we all needed to know more about Qi, the grad student, and the relationship to his advisor, the late Prof. Ziejie Yan.


There was another shooting that rocked the nation this week.

The commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was marred when an American Nazi gunman hunted down and shot three African Americans with an AR-15 style weapon before taking his own life in Jacksonville, Florida.

The shooting sparked a federal hate crime investigation. But it only serves to confirm in the starkest way possible that we are no closer to the dream in 2023 than we were in 1963.

I wasn’t at the 60th march on the weekend as I was performing in Ishmael Reed’s play “The Conductor” in New York City (see ticket info below). The play talks about America’s current race problems and touches on the threat of violence, but not the kind of obscene gun violence that took place on the weekend.

I was at the 50th anniversary of the march in 2013 in Washington, and actually felt like we were coming to the finish line.

(See post here:

We were into a second term of the first African American president from Hawaii, Barack Obama. We were a diverse coalition of people, marching forward to the next era of civil rights, building on our victories, preparing to turn what was once seen as extreme hope into reality.

Little did we know we were just three years away from the beginning of the reversal.

That’s when America got Trumped and returned to the politics of our racist past.

On reading the MLK speech again, the central metaphor isn’t the dream, so much. It’s a check we’ve been given that we’re still waiting to cash:

“One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” King said in 1963. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check.”

King continued: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

The dream metaphor has stayed with us the last 60 years. But upon re-reading, the bank/check metaphor seems more relevant today.

It certainly connects to our real lives. Dreaming works too. But when you vote and think politics, thoughts usually turn to the economy. You think of the price of gas. Your ability to pay the rent. Put food on the table. Real life.

For me, it’s the living metaphor from that same speech of 60 years ago that has more urgency than the dream.

We still have a check in hand. And we are standing in line waiting for it to clear.

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NOTE: In Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor,” I play a conservative commentator. That’s acting! The play is a commentary on the current state of race in America and the fight over education. See how Indian Americans and Asian Americans play a role. It runs from Aug. 24 to Sept. 10, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Sunday matinees at 3pm at Theater for the New City, 155 1st Ave, NYC.

Tickets here:

PLUS: While in New York, I’m also doing my own one- man show, “Emil Amok, Lost NPR Host: A Phool’s History of American Filipinos.” Two shows only on Sept. 6 at 7pm, and Sept. 14 at 9:30pm at Under St. Marks Theater, 94 St. Marks Place, at 1st Ave., NYC.

Tickets here:

And if you can’t make it to New York’s East Village, get a ticket to livestream the show.