I’ve played basketball at the Chinese Rec Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown as a kid, but this was a one-on-one game no one would have expected.
An undocumented Asian student in America, Ju Hong, 24, a DREAM activist from San Francisco State, was one of those with an invite to the special presidential event.
He was among the hand picked and vetted diversity props selected to stand on the risers behind their guy, President Barack Obama, at what was hoped to be the speech to change the national conversation from health care back to immigration reform.
Hong was supposed to be merely ornamental, not a catalyst.
Obama, of course, was on one of his typical West Coast rejuvenation jaunts-Seattle for the tech wealth, SF for the immigrant wealth, LA for the Hollywood excessive wealth- a lot of fundraising with a little policy meat thrown into the mix.
But before LA, on the SF portion, the president encountered Hong in Chinatown.
The president was in a “roll up your sleeve” mood, talking about immigration, family and the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and then Hong decided it was no longer a time for polite political chatter.
For a guy who was essentially given the right to stand and be silently appreciative, Hong did a gutsy, some would might say naive, move. He wasn’t just happy standing for ceremony. He could see the president’s ears. He wanted to be heard.
So while others–older, maybe wiser–stood silently, Hong brought it on with a passion.
He spoke out, out of turn, loudly enough to be disruptive, just to make sure he wouldn’t simply be used as a presidential prop.
While Obama’s back was to the basket, Hong heard a silence that was as wide as an open door and walked through it.
“Mr. President, I need your help,” Hong said. ” Families are separated for Thanksgiving.”
It was the unthinkable for a guy who was supposed to stand there in the president’s shadow, look “immigrant-y,” and above all, shut up.
But the undocumented South Korean Hong had sick family back home and couldn’t visit them because of his status.
He wanted to let the president know how he was impacted by the interminably slow process. He urged the president from the riser: “Please use your executive order to stop deportations …you have a power to stop deportations for all undocumented…so please, I need your help.”
To his credit, the president handled it like he would have corrected an unruly constitutional law student he might have taught at Harvard.
First, Obama won back the crowd by taking control, simply by allowing Hong to be. He stopped any security effort to remove Hong and others who joined in the chant, “Stop deportations,” from the event.
Obama stood down, and let Hong have his say.
And then Obama re-engaged. “If I could solve all the problems without passing laws in Congress, I would do so,” Obama said. “But we are a nation of laws.”
The president then indicated that what he was trying to do with his reforms was not the easy way, but the hard way, and the right way.
The crowd was back with the president. And Hong was satisfied having made his point so publicly,though he probably got someone on the Obama advance team fired.
Still, it was an example of what we need to see more of in our Asian American community.
We silence ourselves, and smile quietly. And then we wonder why we are taken for granted.
For lack of a better term, Hong went for his amok moment, as all of us should more often than not. When matters of public import are at stake, it is far better to stand up, speak out, and be heard.
Others might say there was a more strategic way. You mean like fainting behind the president during the healthcare.gov rollout speech? No, as Hong figured, what did he have to lose.
At some point there will be a time when you can no longer hold it in and be the dutiful Asian American.
At that point, remember Ju Hong.
He was no heckler. Not even a presidential heckler.
Hong was an outspoken Asian American activist with the president’s ear. There is a difference.