Pocono Pines, Pa., is a two-hour drive from New York City. After you exit the Interstate, the route into town winds past short trees and abandoned gas stations with rust-edged signs showing gas prices from years before. The town, on the shore of Lake Naomi, once serviced the traffic to Mount Airy Lodge, a nearby resort that featured honeymoon suites with heart-shaped tubs in the bathrooms that closed in 2001 after years of neglect; in 2007 the Mount Airy Casino opened on the same site. The local courthouse is on the second floor of a rundown building, above Elite Nails and Spa. There are no government markings out front, no scales of justice, nothing to distinguish it from the generic commercial properties that line Pennsylvania Route 940. The directions given out by the Monroe County courts tell you to look for an ice-cream stand with a sign shaped like a cone. The courthouse is across the street.
On an overcast, chilly day in October 2015, Sheldon Wong, Charles Lai, Kenny Kwan, Raymond Lam and Daniel Li were arraigned in the Pocono Pines courthouse. All five belonged to Pi Delta Psi, an Asian-American college fraternity. All five were young men from Chinese families who grew up in Queens. When I arrived at the courthouse that morning, one of the TV cameramen who had gathered in the parking lot began following me. ‘‘I’m not on trial,’’ I said. He chuckled and tilted his head at his colleagues, who had perked up and slung their rigs up to their shoulders. ‘‘Well, you’re going to get more of the same when those guys see you,’’ he said. He was right: The cameras swarmed. And I suppose, given the surroundings, that I couldn’t much blame them. By choosing these gray hills for an initiation ceremony, the fraternity brothers had unintentionally made it possible that their fates could be decided by a jury made up of locals who wondered just what these Asian men had been doing here.
Four of the five students soon arrived, each one fresh from the barber. In their fitted suits, dark sunglasses and pointy shoes, Wong, Lai, Kwan and Lam looked more like characters from Hong Kong’s golden age of cinema than frat bros facing trial for murder. (Li would be arraigned at a separate hearing later in the day.) In the damp, narrow hallway outside the courtroom, Kwan, who was 26 at the time and the oldest of the fraternity brothers, broke down sobbing. He was consoled by Lai, who put an arm around him and stared glumly at the reporters scribbling in their notebooks. The next morning, The New York Daily News reported that ‘‘a frat rat’’ had ‘‘bawled like a baby before his arraignment Thursday.’’
Friends and families of the defendants sat in the back of the courtroom, staring stolidly into space. When the proceedings started, the younger relatives of the defendants quietly translated, for their elders in the gallery, the greetings between Judge Richard S. Claypool and the small army of defense lawyers and the lengthy reading of charges, which included hazing, hindering the investigation, assault, conspiracy and murder in the third degree.
Claypool, a tall, bald man who looked as if he had rolled out of bed in his magisterial robes, appeared to be unmoved by the defense lawyers’ attempts to reduce the $500,000 bail or to characterize their clients, none of whom had a criminal record, as law-abiding citizens. ‘‘I know that what I’m supposed to be seeing in front of me are some nicely dressed, cooperative kids,’’ Claypool said in a flat drawl. ‘‘What we’re seeing here is different from what happened that night. Reading the affidavit shows a lot of poor judgment from the kids.’’ Claypool’s mild manner then veered into something closer to exasperation: ‘‘Reviewing the charges, I am surprised that the D.A.’s office came in as low as they did. The $500,000 bail stands.’’
Now came the business of sorting out who could pay bail and who would be headed to jail. The lawyers whispered instructions to their clients, who tried to put on a brave face for their visibly shocked parents. Lam and Wong left with their lawyers. Kwan and Lai, who could not come up with bail at the time, were escorted to a side room and handcuffed. (Kwan would eventually make bail, as would Li, for a lesser amount, $150,000.)
Outside, as the press waited for Kwan and Lai to be led to a waiting police car, I spoke to an Asian television-news producer who had also made the trip from New York. ‘‘I’m just imagining what my parents would think about all this,’’ she said. We had one of those talks common among people of any marginalized group, in which it’s possible to unload your neuroses without having to explain everything. I told her, absurdly, that if I had been charged with murder, I would have faked my death so my parents wouldn’t know.
The families of the defendants straggled out the front door of the courthouse, some holding up their forearms to shield their faces from the cameras.
‘‘What are they thinking?’’ the producer asked under her breath.
Chun Hsien (Michael) Deng, like the Pi Delta Psi brothers charged with his murder, was a Chinese-American student from the outer boroughs. His father, a businessman in China, secured one of the visas allotted by the Immigration Act of 1990 for highly skilled workers and moved with his wife to Long Beach, a waterfront Long Island town near the southern end of Kennedy Airport. She found the transition more difficult than she had imagined. ‘‘I was pregnant and had food cravings — American food was so bland to me — and I always felt hungry,’’ Ms. Deng told me in a mix of English and Chinese. (She requested that her first name be withheld because the Dengs want to maintain as much of their privacy as possible.) Long Beach did not have any semblance of an Asian community or any acceptable Chinese restaurants, so the expecting couple moved to Flushing, a neighborhood in northern Queens full of immigrants.
When Chun Hsien was born in 1995, his mother realized that he would need an American name. She found a ranking of the most popular names for American boys and chose ‘‘Michael’’ when she saw it at the top. While Michael’s father flew to and from China for work, young Michael and his mother trudged through the mundane adjustments and small humiliations of life in America — new grocery stores, new bus systems, a Balkanized gathering of fellow immigrants who may look like you but who are not like you in the ways that matter.
Michael quickly became ensconced within the Asian bubble of Queens. In 1990, Asians made up 22.1 percent of Flushing’s population. By 2010, that figure topped 70 percent. The population began to creep out into nearby middle-class neighborhoods like Bayside, where the schools were better and the relatively spacious houses sat on quiet streets with tidy, uniformly rectilinear front lawns. By the time Michael entered Middle School 74, in Bayside, the school’s population was majority Asian.
Michael’s mother left her job and studied up on the subjects Michael was taking in school. ‘‘Math and science, of course I could help him with that,’’ she said. ‘‘But English and history — those things — I could only encourage him and try to keep up.’’ In his free time, Michael roamed the handball courts in Bayside and became a formidable player. In eighth grade, he took the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test and placed into Bronx Science, which is in New York’s top tier of selective public schools, with Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.
Like Middle School 74, Bronx Science’s student body is majority Asian. There are all-Asian cliques from Flushing, all-Asian cliques from Manhattan, all-Asian cliques from Sunset Park in Brooklyn. These groups might be created by immigration patterns, school districts and real estate developments, but they are reinforced through long hours in standardized-test tutoring, weekends spent at Chinese- or Korean-language classes and long subway trips up to the Bronx.
It was on one of those long rides that Michael got to know William Yuan. They recognized each other from art class and decided to skip school to play handball. The boys became fast friends.
Deng and Yuan were popular enough — not quite in the party crowd at Bronx Science but not quite nerds. When I asked Yuan what he and his friends had done for fun, he began to describe a life that would feel very familiar to anyone who grew up in any of the Asian enclaves in the United States: boba shops, Pokémon, study groups, rich F.O.B.s (Asian immigrants who are ‘‘fresh off the boat’’) and the uneven attention from parents who feel the need to pressure their children but who, because of the language barrier and cultural ignorance, often don’t know what they have become.
‘‘We’d play League of Legends’’ — a multiplayer computer game — ‘‘and play handball and eat,’’ Yuan said, describing a typical weekend. ‘‘I know it might sound like a simple life, but it never felt all that simple to us. When we hung out, we hung with almost all Chinese kids, but it wasn’t racist or anything. I guess it’s human nature to hang out with people who are like you.’’
When it was time to choose a college, Deng was faced with a choice between following Yuan to Stony Brook University on Long Island or going somewhere more local. He didn’t want to leave his mother, so he decided to enroll at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York and a commuter school whose entire campus consists of a handful of buildings near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Most of Baruch’s students live off campus, but Deng wanted a college experience that felt a bit more like what he had seen in the movies — pranks, girls and freedom from parents — so he moved into the nearby dormitories. His assigned roommate was Jay Chen, an 18-year-old freshman from Long Island. Deng and Chen tried to build their own small version of campus life, with Deng taking the cockier, worldly lead and Chen playing his sidekick. Two years after Deng’s death, Chen recalled their time together in a letter addressed to the memory of his old roommate: ‘‘I remember on my birthday, freshman year, you brought home a six pack of Corona for us to celebrate. I never questioned how you were able to get your hands on it, but I was just glad you did. Of course, being the type of people we were, we didn’t have bottle openers. Obviously the most important thing to do at that moment was to figure out ways to open a bottle without a bottle opener. Thanks to you, I now know about 900 different ways to open a bottle without a bottle opener.’’
What little social life existed on campus at Baruch was dominated by its tiny Greek system, and freshmen, especially those who showed any interest in campus life, were aggressively recruited. At night in their room, Deng and Chen lay in their beds and debated whether to rush one of two big Asian-American fraternities at Baruch, Pi Delta Psi and Lambda Phi Epsilon. Chen decided fraternities weren’t for him. Deng chose Pi Delta Psi.
‘‘Michael would come home and tell me about all the people he had met,’’ Chen said. ‘‘He seemed enthusiastic at first. But as pledging continued, he seemed to get more tired, and he became less of his normal self. We spoke less. Every time he came home, he was absolutely exhausted and usually fell straight to sleep.’’
On Thanksgiving weekend, Deng went home to Flushing. His new friends from Baruch, many from families who lived nearby, came and went from his house. Deng had started dating a member of one of Baruch’s Asian sororities who grew up a few miles away from the Dengs in Queens. She told him that her family did not eat turkey on the holidays, so Deng had his mother cook more than usual and took a box of leftovers to her house. He did not tell his mother, his girlfriend or Jay Chen about his coming trip to the Poconos.
“Asian-American’’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America. Michael Deng and his fraternity brothers were from Chinese families and grew up in Queens, and they have nothing in common with me — someone who was born in Korea and grew up in Boston and North Carolina. We share stereotypes, mostly — tiger moms, music lessons and the unexamined march toward success, however it’s defined. My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.
Discrimination is what really binds Asian-Americans together. The early scholars of Asian-American studies came out of the ‘‘Third World Liberation Front’’ of the late ’60s, which pushed against the Eurocentric bent of the academy. When Asian-American-studies programs began spreading in California in the early ’70s, their curriculums grew out of personal narratives of oppression, solidarity forged through the exhumation of common hardships. ‘‘Roots: An Asian-American Reader,’’ one of the first textbooks offered to Asian-American-studies students at U.C.L.A., was published in 1971; the roots of the title referred not to some collective Asian heritage but, the editors wrote, to the ‘‘ ‘roots’ of the issues facing Asians in America.’’
The project of defining Asian-American identity was largely limited to Ivy League and West Coast universities until 1982, when Vincent Chin, who worked at an automotive engineering firm in Detroit, was beaten to death by assailants who blamed Japanese competition for the downturn in the American auto market. When Chin’s killers were sentenced to probation and fined $3,000, protesters marched in cities across the country, giving rise to a new Pan-Asian unity forged by the realization that if Chin, the son of Chinese immigrants, could be killed because of Japanese auto imports, the concept of an ‘‘Asian-American’’ identity had consequences.
‘‘His death was this great moment of realization,’’ Christine Choy, a Korean-American filmmaker and former member of the Black Panther Party, told me. ‘‘It galvanized a lot of people who said they can’t stand by anymore and let things go without any sort of legal or political representation.’’
Chin’s death came at the beginning of a huge demographic shift on college campuses. The children of the hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants who flooded into the country after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had grown up. Between 1976 and 2008, the number of Asian-Americans enrolled in four-year colleges increased sixfold. Many of these young men and women had graduated from the same magnet schools, attended the same churches, studied together in the same test-prep classes, but their sense of Asian-ness had never been explained to them, at least not in the codified language of the multicultural academy.
They found themselves at the center of a national debate on affirmative action. In the mid-’80s, students and professors began to accuse elite colleges like Brown, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, of using a quota system to limit the number of Asian-American students. As colleges responded with denials, a movement began on campuses to demand the creation of more Asian-American-studies programs and Asian-American clubs, student organizations, social clubs and, eventually, fraternities. The debate remains open and tense. In 2014, a group that opposes affirmative action sued Harvard, accusing it of discriminating against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. That suit, which is still unsettled, inspired a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups to file a complaint against the university the following year. Both cases received renewed attention this month when the publication of a Department of Justice memorandum led to the disclosure of the agency’s plans to investigate the 2015 complaint.
‘‘Who Killed Vincent Chin?’’ a 1989 documentary directed by Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña, was shown in Asian-American-studies classes across the country. Over the next decade, a rhetoric took hold that argued for a collective identity rooted in both the death of Vincent Chin and the debates over affirmative action, but it still felt strange to those who had grown up Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino. Whether expressed through scholarship or private, daily conversation, this vocabulary was imprecise and cloistered within the academy. By the early ’90s, when the Los Angeles riots thrust Asian-Americans onto the national stage, the brio of ‘‘Roots’’ had mostly been supplanted by a shy, scholarly neurosis that sought to figure out why Asian — particularly Korean — businesses had been targeted by rioters, but lacked the platform or the confidence to ask.
The modern Asian-American fraternity was born out of the protests of the ’80s and the growing alienation that Asian-Americans felt on campus. Of the 18 Asian-American fraternities and sororities recognized by the National Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Panhellenic Association, 16 were founded between 1990 and 2000. Their mission statements promise the ‘‘making of successful leaders,’’ as well as a commitment to service and ‘‘community awareness.’’ The messages from the fraternities and sororities are remarkably similar — unity to achieve unexpected success, brotherhood and sisterhood devoted to establishing a professional network of high-functioning alumni. Initiations tend to promote a vague vision of Pan-Asian identity that reflects the history of Asian-American scholarship and activism, but whose urgency has been hollowed out by years of apathy.
In 1994, the same year Michael Deng’s parents immigrated from China, 11 students at Binghamton University founded the first chapter of Pi Delta Psi. By 2000, the fraternity had chapters at 11 colleges in four states. In those early days, the brothers pieced together a mission from bits of what they had been learning in Asian-American-studies classes. Each fraternity chapter’s ‘‘educator’’ developed a curriculum for pledges. Some weeks were devoted to more predictable topics like ethnic foods or the origin of Asian flags, but the focus was overwhelmingly on instances of racism experienced by Asian-Americans. Over the last two decades, the curriculum has been updated modestly, depending on the chapter. There is, for example, a ‘‘function’’ — the fraternity’s term for an educational activity — in which pledges research and write reports on the murder of Vincent Chin. Another function centers on the Los Angeles riots and their catastrophic impact on Korean small-business owners. Around the time of Deng’s death, there were plans to introduce a function highlighting the death of Danny Chen, a young man from Manhattan’s Chinatown who committed suicide after a military hazing incident. ‘‘It was kind of like taking a half-course credit,’’ Lex Ngoto, a Pi Delta Psi alumnus from New York University who now works in banking, told me. ‘‘We would even meet in classrooms and get assignments and reports. Then we’d get tested by the brothers, and if we missed a question, we’d have to do push-ups.’’ He continued: ‘‘I ended up appreciating it. I hung out with Asian kids in high school, but we weren’t really aware, if that makes sense. Learning about what happened to us — you know, Asian people in America — it awakened me to a lot of things.’’
This was a common refrain among many of the Pi Delta Psi alumni I spoke to: kinship through a common history of suffering, consciousness through education. They also told of pledge functions that sound much more like typical, if sometimes even laughably innocuous, hazing. While always dressed in black sweats or military fatigues, they took part in trust falls, scavenger hunts and the ‘‘divide and conquer’’ function, in which pledges were dropped off in different locations without their cellphones and instructed to find one another at a predetermined meet-up spot. Before ‘‘crossing’’ into brotherhood, the pledges were subjected to ‘‘hell week,’’ deprived of sleep and made to carry book bags typically filled with bricks, concrete blocks or bowling balls.
Not all Pi Delta Psi pledges experienced a profound racial awakening. A former member of the University at Buffalo’s chapter told me that he was more ambivalent about the fraternity’s cultural curriculum. ‘‘The fraternity says they are about raising awareness of Asian-Americans, but it’s all [expletive],’’ he says. ‘‘It’s really just about partying and feeling like you belong to something.’’ All the Pi Delta Psi alumni I spoke to said push-ups were one of the most common forms of physical punishment. The University at Buffalo brother recalled being blindfolded for hours during his initiation ceremony and shoved into the dirt. Everyone recalls being roughed up in a ritual called the Glass Ceiling.
On the wet December morning in 2013 when he planned to break through the Glass Ceiling, Michael Deng wore a black hoodie, black sweatpants and combat boots. In his backpack, he carried a bottle of water and a notebook in which he had written out some of his thoughts on the oppression of the Asian peoples in America.
The night before, Deng drove with some classmates from New York City to a house on Candlewood Drive in Tunkhannock Township, a tiny community in the Poconos. The place, which had been rented for the weekend, was big and plain in the sprawling style found in towns where acreage is no object. A line of spindly young trees marked the border of a grassy, flat backyard where Deng and his fellow pledges would be initiated into Pi Delta Psi.
As older brothers from Baruch and St. John’s University in Queens arrived throughout the night, Deng and the pledges served food, dealt cards and performed some of the fraternity’s initiation rituals, including the ‘‘Bataan Death March,’’ in which, in some Pan-Asian effort to understand the hardships inflicted upon Filipino P.O.W.s by the Imperial Japanese Army, they dragged themselves across the ground on their elbows.
Sometime after midnight, the brothers gathered for the Glass Ceiling, one of the fraternity’s most hallowed rituals. Also known as the Gauntlet, or just the ‘‘G,’’ the ceremony varies from chapter to chapter, but it typically plays out in three stages: First, a pledge is blindfolded and separated from his assigned ‘‘Big,’’ an older fraternity brother, by a line of brothers whose arms are linked together. For the most part, this line signifies the barrier between glumly accepting America’s vision of emasculated, toadying Asian men and the great promise of success and masculine fulfillment. As his Big calls out his name, a pledge, or ‘‘Little,’’ crosses his arms across his chest and walks toward his Big’s voice. He soon runs into the line of brothers, who call him ‘‘chink,’’ ‘‘gook’’ and whatever other racial slurs they can muster. The verbal abuse lasts for 10 minutes or more. In the second stage, the pledge is instructed to push through the wall of brothers, who in turn shove him back toward his starting spot. The third stage isn’t much different from the second: The pledge is still wandering blindfolded toward his Big’s calls, but instead of being pushed, he is knocked to the ground or, in some chapters, even tackled. Once the pledge educator determines that the pledge has had enough, he calls for a halt and may ask, Why did you not ask your brothers for help?
I did not know to ask, the pledge responds.
Ask your brothers for their help, the pledge educator instructs.
The pledge asks for help. His brothers form a line behind him and, in solemn unison, guide him to his Big.
While all this is happening, the pledge is supposed to be thinking about his parents and the sacrifices they made as immigrants, the humiliations they faced and the oppressive invisibility of Asian lives in America. The pushing, the tackling and the racial abuse are meant to be the physical expression of their struggle. That final walk, in which the pledge is shepherded to his Big by all of the fraternity’s members, is intended to teach him that solidarity with his fellow Asians is his only hope of making it in a white world.
Officially, the national fraternity does not allow the sort of tackling that took place during Deng’s initiation. A lawyer representing Pi Delta Psi refers to it as ‘‘a direct violation of the fraternity’s policies.’’ But every former member I spoke to, from several different colleges, told me that the Glass Ceiling is deeply ingrained in the fraternity’s culture. ‘‘In reality,’’ Daniel Li told the court, referring to the ritual’s rendition at Baruch — he was the president of Pi Delta Psi there at the time of Deng’s death — the national Pi Delta Psi leaders ‘‘knew what was going on.’’
Deng was the last of his pledge class to go through the Glass Ceiling. He made it through the first two stages, but in the middle of the third he got up unsteadily after one tackle. Then, according to testimony later given by Li, the pledge assistant Kenny Kwan, starting 10 to 15 feet away, ran at full speed into Deng and slammed him to the ground. Deng did not get up.
Li, 21 at the time, would later tell prosecutors that Deng was making ‘‘groaning sounds.’’ According to Li, Sheldon Wong, who was 21 and the pledge educator, picked Deng up and, with others’ help, carried him inside the rental house. Charles Lai, who was 23 and Deng’s Big, told detectives that Deng’s body felt ‘‘straight like a board.’’ Fraternity members stripped off his clothes, cold and wet with frost, and laid him down by the fireplace and covered him with a blanket. At 5:05 a.m., the police timeline indicates, one brother called his girlfriend, a nurse, to ask what she thought could be causing Deng to be so unresponsive. Eight minutes later, another brother Googled ‘‘conscious’’ and ‘‘unconscious.’’ At 5:55, a fraternity brother named Revel Deng texted a friend four times to ask about his grandfather’s fatal fall down the stairs. During this period, none of the three dozen brothers in the Poconos called 911. Nobody summoned an ambulance because, according to a statement given to detectives, someone had looked up how much it would cost and determined that the price would be too high.
Around 6 a.m., Wong, Lai and a third brother drove Michael Deng to the emergency room of Geisinger Wyoming Valley hospital. Shortly after they arrived, at 6:42, Deng’s mother received a call from the hospital telling her that her son was in a coma and asking if he had any medical allergies. The hospital also contacted the local police.
As Lai waited for an update on his Little’s condition, he started sending texts, the police later discovered, to the national president of Pi Delta Psi, Andy Meng, the brother of Grace Meng, a congresswoman who represents the heavily Asian Sixth District in Queens. At 7:25 a.m., Lai texted Revel Deng: ‘‘Put everything away.’’ Lai told a detective at the hospital that he had been in contact with a brother at the national fraternity; texts on Lai’s phone showed that Andy Meng encouraged the hiding of fraternity items.
Andy Meng’s lawyer, Michael A. Ventrella, says Meng is cooperating with police. ‘‘He was not at the scene,’’ according to Ventrella, ‘‘and only found out about it after the incident. Under his watch, the fraternity had previously handed out strict guidelines prohibiting the actions that took place.’’ (Revel Deng, Lai and Lam refused to comment for this article.)
Michael Deng died the next morning with his mother by his bedside. A forensic pathologist later determined that he had died from multiple traumatic injuries to the head and that the delay in treatment had ‘‘significantly contributed’’ to his death.
The second court date for the brothers of Pi Delta Psi was held in late November 2015, in the big courthouse in Stroudsburg, a 25-minute drive from Pocono Pines. Kwan, Lam and Wong all wore what looked like the same suits they wore one month before and came accompanied by the same fidgeting chorus of lawyers. Charles Lai showed up a little bit later in prison grays and handcuffs: His family had not been able to come up with bail. He nodded almost officiously at his brothers, as if to apologize, but spent the first part of the proceedings staring intently at a far wall. A police officer testified about the cover-up, the lawyers filed some motions and then the prosecutor’s office called Daniel Li, now the former president of Pi Delta Psi at Baruch, to the stand. Over the course of a halting, agonizing hour of testimony, Li said he had seen Lam, Lai and Kwan tackle Deng in succession, leaving him unconscious after the last hit. While everyone was trying to figure out what to do, Li said, he had gone to sleep and missed the entire cover-up.
As Li testified, the four remaining brothers slumped in their chairs and stared at their hands. There were none of the courthouse theatrics that they must have seen in Mafia movies when a rat takes the stand; no one glared at Li or whispered angrily to their lawyers. Instead, an awkward hush fell over the courtroom, in part because Li couldn’t make it through an answer without being reprompted by the prosecutor, but also because the lie of solidarity was being unraveled and laid out in front of the young men who had been stupid enough to believe in it. For Li’s cooperation in the case against his four brothers, the State of Pennsylvania reduced the charges against him — they no longer include murder — and delayed his court proceedings.
On a Sunday morning in May 2016, I received a text message from a Korean rapper friend named Rekstizzy. Rek, as he’s better known, grew up in Queens and, like Michael Deng, graduated from Bronx Science. Today Rek lives in Los Angeles and runs a campaign to reclaim the cartoon frog known as Pepe from the so-called alt-right. But back when he first reached out to me in 2012, during the height of Jeremy Lin’s brief magical run with the New York Knicks, he was all about representing Asian Queens. This included a cultural blog for Asian-American men called Gumship and a YouTube series in which Rek tried to introduce stoic men to the joys of cute products like Hello Kitty. Rek, who considered joining Pi Delta Psi when he attended Binghamton, told me in his text that he was partying in Las Vegas with some ‘‘random frat dudes.’’ One of them had confided to him about the murder charges against him and how helpless and lost he felt. It was Kenny Kwan, the Pi Delta Psi brother who had wept in the courthouse.
A few days later, Kwan called me at home in Brooklyn. He said he had heard that an Asian writer was going to write about the case from an Asian perspective. I told him that I was, indeed, an Asian writer. He paused and asked if I knew someone who could help him get his story out in a way that wasn’t biased against Asians. I told him that I’d be happy to talk to him, but I wanted to be clear: I wasn’t working on an article whose aim was to exonerate him and his brothers, and he should talk to his lawyer before calling me back. Over the past year, I’ve found myself wondering what exactly Kwan might have meant by an ‘‘Asian perspective.’’ Was he asking for fairness or was he asking me to choose sides?
Kwan never called back, but he wasn’t the only Baruch brother who wondered if there might be some value in talking to me. Months before, I met Sheldon Wong at his lawyer’s office in Lower Manhattan. Wong is tall and handsome, with sharp cheekbones and a puckered mouth that twitches when he’s anxious. At the arraignment in the Poconos, Wong stared at a spot on the carpet as his fraternity brothers squirmed and slouched and tried to screw on brave faces. During our meeting, Wong switched between what looked like nerves and a quiet earnestness. In those more candid moments, I could see why he had taken on the role of pledge educator — why, he said, his mother had encouraged him to seek a career as a psychologist.
His life, at least on the surface, wasn’t much different from Michael Deng’s. He was born in Flushing but spent his early childhood in a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens. His mother, who immigrated from Hong Kong to New York as a teenager, left his father, a construction worker, when Wong was 5 and moved the two of them to Flushing, where she worked as a waitress. ‘‘When I was in Jamaica, most of my friends were the Italian kids in the neighborhood,’’ Wong said. ‘‘When we moved to Flushing, there weren’t as many Asian kids as there are now. I was still one of the only ones. Most of my friends were black or Hispanic — I just hung out with whoever I was around at the time.’’
Wong attended Middle School 185 in Bayside, just a few miles from Deng’s childhood home. ‘‘The Asian kids hung out with each other,’’ Wong said. ‘‘The cliques went by race and extracurricular activities — sports, clubs, whatever. As the years went by, I noticed it was harder for kids to branch out and talk to people outside their race.’’ He continued in a careful, almost scholarly way: ‘‘I know New York is supposed to be this melting pot, but if you’re from Queens, it’s more like a bubble. The people you meet are pretty similar to yourself.’’
In the spring of his freshman year at Baruch, Wong was approached by a ‘‘neophyte’’ (the word for a newly anointed brother) in Pi Delta Psi. Given Baruch’s commuter-student culture, where most students socialized with their friends from city high schools, Pi Delta Psi’s recruitment strategy was to approach all eligible males, even some non-Asians, and ask them to join. Wong went to a meeting, got along with a few of the guys there and decided to give the fraternity a shot.
Until he pledged Pi Delta Psi, Wong said, he did not know how badly his people had suffered. He did not know about the death of Vincent Chin. He did not know about Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court case that upheld Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps. As he immersed himself in Pi Delta Psi’s misshapen yet still revelatory history of Asian-American oppression, he grew increasingly frustrated with the gaps in his New York City public-school education. Wong said the omissions were unfair. ‘‘I didn’t understand why we wouldn’t focus on a certain ethnic group or why we would ignore it,’’ Wong said. ‘‘Sometimes, it felt like things that happened to Asians were less important.’’
The new education changed him; the silence that separates so many immigrant children from their parents began to close. For the first time in his life, Wong talked to his mother about her early days in the United States, the fear she had felt in a country where she did not speak the language, the small yet persistent flare-ups in which she could feel both her invisibility and her irrelevance in a country dominated by whites. He said he never felt closer to his mother than in those early days of his awakening. ‘‘You know how it is with Asian parents,’’ Wong said. ‘‘If you don’t ask them about their lives, you won’t find out.’’ He started to feel as if he were part of something. Wong was offered a ‘‘bid’’ and began Pi Delta Psi’s pledging process, where he learned more about the oppression of Asian-Americans, the same lessons he would teach Michael Deng a couple of years later.
On May 15, three and a half years after Michael Deng’s death, Kwan, Lai, Lam and Wong again filed into the Stroudsburg courtroom, where dark oil paintings of dead men hung on the walls, framed by dusty red drapes. Just two weeks before, eight brothers who belonged to Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity were charged with manslaughter in yet another hazing death, this one involving an 18-year-old pledge named Timothy Piazza. The similarities between the two cases — Piazza, like Deng, died after going through something called ‘‘the gauntlet’’ (though physical abuse was not part of the ritual) — brought out more reporters than might have been expected, and as they set up in the hallways of the courthouse, many of the questions were about Penn State.
Kimberly A. Metzger, an assistant district attorney, sat at the table reserved for the state. She leaned back in her chair, staring out at the gathering gallery. The families squirmed, and their narrow, wooden seats creaked, but there were none of the consoling or furtive glances among the defendants that there had been on earlier court dates. They did not look at one another as Metzger briefly summarized the roles they had played in Michael Deng’s death — the tackles, the text messages, the delays in seeking medical help, the scramble to dispose evidence that would tie them to Pi Delta Psi. When the judge asked if they were aware of what their pleas meant, they said ‘‘yes’’ in meek unison.
The Pi Delta Psi brothers pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and hindering apprehension. (About 30 members of Pi Delta Psi, including Andy Meng and Revel Deng, are still facing lesser charges connected to Michael Deng’s death. The fraternity itself has also been charged with third-degree murder and other crimes. And the Dengs have filed a civil suit against the defendants.) Lai, Wong, Lam and Kwan will not be sentenced until the end of this year. According to Pennsylvania guidelines, the recommended sentence for these charges for a defendant with no criminal record is 22 to 33 months.
Asians are the loneliest Americans. The collective political consciousness of the ’80s has been replaced by the quiet, unaddressed isolation that comes with knowing that you can be born in this country, excel in its schools and find a comfortable place in its economy and still feel no stake in the national conversation. The current vision of solidarity among Asian-Americans is cartoonish and blurry and relegated to conversations at family picnics, in drunken exchanges over food that reminds everyone at the table of how their mom used to make it. Everything else is the confusion of never knowing what side to choose because choosing our own side has so rarely been an option. Asian pride is a laughable concept to most Americans. Racist incidents pass without prompting any real outcry, and claims of racism are quickly dismissed. A common past can be accessed only through dusty, dug-up things: the murder of Vincent Chin, Korematsu v. United States, the Bataan Death March and the illusion that we are going through all these things together. The Asian-American fraternity is not much more than a clumsy step toward finding an identity in a country where there are no more reference points for how we should act, how we should think about ourselves. But in its honest confrontation with being Asian and its refusal to fall into familiar silence, it can also be seen as a statement of self-worth. These young men, in their doomed way, were trying to amend the American dream that had brought their parents to this country with one caveat:
I will succeed, they say. But not without my brothers!
Michael Deng’s family still lives in the sparsely furnished two-story home in Queens where he spent most of his life. Inside, the only concessions to decoration are a glass cabinet and, on the mantel, a forest of Michael’s trophies. As I spoke with his mother — we sat on leather couches that had been meticulously cleaned and bore none of the markings of children in the house — Michael’s father, his thinning hair dyed and slicked back, his hands resting anxiously on his knees, sat nearby. Whenever she started talking about anything other than her son’s early years, she switched from Mandarin to English, a language Michael’s father had not yet learned. She was heeding his doctor’s orders: He had recently had heart surgery and had been advised to stay away from any sort of anxiety-inducing activity, including conversations about his dead son.
Michael’s mother took me upstairs to what had been his part of the house: a bedroom with the blinds drawn and a study room with an ornate dark wooden desk that looked as though it had been salvaged from a TV lawyer’s office. She said she hadn’t touched the rooms since Michael left for Baruch. SAT prep books and a handful of composition notebooks lined the bookshelves in which Michael, in neat, rounded handwriting that slanted a bit to the left, had written out his thoughts on the Ace style of handball, breakdowns of New York City’s Specialized High Schools and his observations about the world around him. In October 2008, when he was in eighth grade, he wrote, ‘‘Wearing a winter coat, going to Alley Pond Park, getting under a tree (to hide from the snow) and watch the snow fall down to the trees and ground is my favorite way to pass time in winter.’’
His mother told me about the night she spent at the hospital in the Poconos. Her son was already past saving, but she decided to keep him breathing so that his father would have time to arrive from China. That night, she stayed by Michael’s bedside and stuck acupuncture needles in his arm in a desperate attempt to save her son. ‘‘You don’t believe that this could happen to such a big healthy, happy boy,’’ she told me. ‘‘I learned acupuncture back in China, and I thought maybe it will help his comeback. The doctors knew he was already gone, so they let me do it, because they wanted me to have that moment of hope that I could bring him back.’’
An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of a university. It is University at Buffalo, which is part of the State University of New York system; it is not University of Buffalo.