I received a community service award this week on 4/12/22 at my APALSA alumni dinner. People have asked me for a copy of the speech I made, so here it is, more or less as delivered. Some names changed to protect the innocent.
Your honors, may it please the court.
It is truly an honor to receive this award. I am glad that we are able to be together again at the Alumni Dinner after being apart for so long. I was at this podium 25 years ago as president of what was then AALSA, which is now APALSA, so my congratulations to the new co-presidents who will be continuing the legacy.
I thank my family – my wife and daughter for being knowing accomplices along the journey. Their love makes it possible for me to carry on for so long. I know that, especially with all that had happened today – my daughter’s school is in District 15, which includes Sunset Park, Park Slope, and Red Hook. Her school was under lockdown all day.
When I started at BLS as an admitted evening student, if you can imagine, I was invited to this alumni dinner. I think there were maybe a dozen people in a small buffet dining room across the street at One Boerum Place, which at that time was a four story former bank. I picked BLS because of how warmly I was received – some of them are here. Now look at you, look at us!
Like the character Evelyn that Michelle Yeoh plays in the new movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, where she tries to find her purpose in the metaverse (go see the movie if you haven’t had the chance), I’m not entirely sure I’m the one that you are looking for. I do hope for you I’m the dashing Ke Huy Quan character Waymond that is sent here to say, “you can live to your ultimate potential.”
This timeline, this society demands us to be Everything Everywhere All at Once. We are at once exotic and excluded, the smartest people in the room and the most sinister, the majority of the world’s population, yet an unseen minority, responsible for the world’s ills at the same time we’re trying to save it.
I’ve been many things – I’ve been a photojournalist, stage managed community theater, fixed printers at a design firm that shot ads for both Boboli pizza and Ensure pudding; and co-authored one of the first books on making websites with McGraw-Hill. Last year, I won a screenwriting award at the New York Asian American Film Festival 72 hour Film Shootout, a filmmaking competition.
I’ve been to many places far throughout the world – my family is Hakka Chinese from the Caribbean. My father was from Jamaica, my mother is from Trinidad. I think the furthest so far has been to Ipoh, Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh’s hometown. That trip was 24 hours door-to-door.
There are also many places near in New York, where you can find the whole world in microcosm. I live in Kensington across the street from my grade school. The neighborhood is now Little Bangladesh, yet also has a New York Times rated Thai restaurant, Polish delis, hand rolled bagels, Irish dive bars and the same Brooklyn pizza that I grew up with. A 10 minute bus ride that goes through Boro Park to the Sunset Park Chinatown stops right outside my door.
I’ve failed at many things – I was a pre-med dropout, couldn’t cut it as a classical pianist, I’ve passed 2 bar exams, but couldn’t make it past 3rd grade Chinese. I am a horrible telemarketer.
I’ve received my share of anti-Asian slurs and aggression. I’ve been told to “go back to my own country” – in 3 different countries. Thankfully not recently, but over the years I’ve been sucker punched in the face, put into a head lock, and attacked with a machete. My courtroom experiences have generally been better, but the most egregious thing I’ve experienced was being referred to as a “Mongoloid” during jury selection.
The one thing that I can tell you is true is that being present and showing up really is the most important thing in life. I can’t say that I’ve always succeeded – no one truly multitasks well. There’s many a time I’ve shown up by myself. That’s OK – it’s a time to be quiet, observe and make up one’s own mind.
Sometimes, it’s only one other person – that’s an opportunity to talk. Keep doing it and people start thinking that you might actually know what you’re doing. Especially in New York, which is really the largest small town, when you are seen, you’re representing. Eventually if you keep showing up, you can be the tipping point to making that arc bend towards justice.
This bit of knowledge I’ve gleaned from everyone’s friend, the Asian American Photographer laureate Corky Lee, who sadly passed last year from COVID. Now he was the champion of showing up! It wasn’t an official Asian American event in New York if he wasn’t there taking photos. He had an intimate knowledge of Asian American history over the last 40 years, because chances were he was there when it happened, and if not, he made it his business to know everyone, so he knew how to connect people together.
When I was a NYU student, I was taking photos for the student newspaper at an Asian Cultural Union fashion show. So was Corky. We’re chatting, and he tells me that I ought to get involved. By senior year, I was president of the Asian Cultural Union, co-founded what became NYU’s Asian Heritage Month, and probably accidently derailed a career in journalism. Timeline saved.
I have many similar stories where being at the right place at the right time made a critical choice in my life – with the judgments not rendered just yet.
The reason I’m involved in AABANY and AALFNY (the Asian American Bar and the Asian American Law Fund of New York, for those not familiar) for so many years is that it is so important to be together, to accompany each other, to not be so alone, especially these past few years. AABANY now is the largest and most prominent affiliate of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. It was founded nearly 35 years ago at meetings held at NYU and here at Brooklyn Law. So we’ve come a long way, from this point, right here.
So I have a number of calls to action for the law students here.
If you are planning to do something in public interest helping the Asian American community this summer in the New York area, apply for one of the Law Fund’s five thousand dollar scholarships. Deadline is the 15th. I want at least one of you to get the money. https://www.asianamericanlawfund.org/public-interest-scholarships/
Sign up to compete in the Thomas Tang Moot Court Competition this summer. There’s fifteen thousand dollars in prize money, you will have an important Moot Court experience regardless of whether you make the Moot Court Honor Society or not, or even if you win or not, and you will get to meet many of the APA legal community. https://www.napabalawfoundation.org/ttmc
Get involved in AABANY’s pro bono legal clinics, especially if you have language skills. It’s monthly in Manhattan and Queens, and we’re in the process of restarting our Brooklyn clinic soon. http://probono.aabany.org
Learn about Asian American history that they didn’t teach at school. Check out our reenactments at our website, https://reenactments.aabany.org . For those who prefer their reading in law journal format, Judge Denny Chin and Kathy Chin have published our latest reenactment on the last 150 years of anti-Asian hate in the US in the most recent edition of the Fordham Law Review. https://fordhamlawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Chin_April.pdf
For all of the graduating students – congratulations and best of luck on the bar exam. Look for me on at the stage at Commencement, wearing my gown and representing. I’ll be looking for you!
And to all, find your own place in AABANY – we need you, here, now in this timeline.
To quote Evelyn in Everything Everywhere: “Of all the places I could be, I just want to be here with you.”
Thank you again for this honor.