The New York Times’ Jay Caspian Kang writes about the death of Michael Deng, a college freshman, who joined an Asian American fraternity in a search to find community and a sense of identity. A search that led to his death two months later:
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.
To read the full article, go to the NYT Magazine: What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity