Reflections on Ryan Lee Wong’s Which Side Are You On? (2022)

By Susie Ling. Posted November 13, 2022.

I just finished the audiobook version of Ryan Lee Wong’s “novel,” read by Scott Takeda. It’s funny and so thought-provoking. The story is about “Reed”, a 21-year-old who has a lot of questions about how to be an effective Asian American activist. From his father’s side, Reed is a fifth generation Chinese American; his mother is a Korean immigrant. Hmmmm, I’m guessing this “novel” is probably 80 to 90 percent autobiographical. Ryan’s father is a longtime labor activist, and his mother has been kickin’ ass for decades in the Asian American community. Ryan’s mother is best known for her work with the Black-Korean Alliance (BKA), established six years before the 1992 L.A. Riots.

Ryan’s uncles and aunt have been community leaders too. I had the privilege of knowing Ryan’s Chinese grandparents as wonderful supporters of many community organizations. Several times I said to Marshall, Ryan’s uncle, that he had the best parents ever – and Marshall never contradicts me.

Ryan Lee Wong. Photo by Mengwen Cao.

In the story, millennial Reed comes home to Los Angeles on a break from protesting a police shooting in New York. Reed is considering dropping out of college to focus on this organizing work. Reed tries to gain guidance from his parents’ activist experiences, especially on how to build multiethnic coalitions. Reed also connects with his high school BFF, his New York activist mentors, his mother’s African American BKA partner, and his own dying halmeoni. In between, he explores K-town from its massage parlors to its banchan dishes and its bars.

I was on the edge of my seat. I definitely identify with Reed. I remember being 19 – and actually also 21, 30, 45, and 60 – and wondering how to be a better activist and what to do next. I know these questions well: “Is there something I can do to make a situation better?” “Who can I trust?”, “Is this futile? Shall I quit?”, etc. Is Reed going to find some of these answers for me? (Spoiler alert: no.)

A few years ago, I had a much-coveted opportunity to interview Eddie Wong, one of the founders of the Asian American Movement. Eddie is an icon really. My goal was to understand the impetus of this 1960-70s Movement that is so important in the timeline of Asian Pacific American history. Eddie was a leader at UCLA in 1969 when the Asian American studies program was established. He is one of the main thinkers behind Roots, An Asian American Reader, a contriburtor to Gidra,  editor of East Wind, and now, East Wind eZine. He is a founder of Visual Communications and then became Executive Director of NAATA/Center for Asian American Media.

Just minutes into the interview about 1969, Eddie deflated my optimism when he said, “I was nineteen then. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

UCLA Asian American Studies Center was an important ground zero for the Asian American Movement. The 1969 cadre included Eddie Wong, Alan Nishio, Yuji Ichioka, Emma Gee, Mike Murase, and others. They did many of the firsts – from developing Asian American studies curriculum to seeding community service agencies.

As the next batch of students in the late 1970s, we tried to follow in their big footsteps. I read every issue of Gidra in hopes I would learn their secrets. On campus, Asians were then less than 15 percent of the student population and activism – and tie dye – were deemed passé. The progressive Asian Student Union was lucky to have four or five steady members. Like Reed mentioned in the book, we had deflating hangers-on. I went to a few Black Student Alliance (BSA) and MEChA meetings but there, I was a hanger-on. At the same time, there was growing immigrant diversity at UCLA. At that time, the Korean Student Association had meetings in Korean. The Vietnamese Students Association would ballroom dance. Samahang Pilipino – in the midst of the Marcos years – pledged never to allow politics at club events. The Asian fraternities and sororities wouldn’t even join our Asian Coalition. We did on-campus programming; we wrote articles for Pacific Ties; we had meetings… But did we know what we were doing? Was UCLA still the think tank of the Movement?

Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles, 1968 to 1980s at the Chinese American Museum, 2017, curated by Ryan Lee Wong.

Over the decades, I noticed that some of the Asian American movement folks – like Eddie and Ryan’s parents – keep at it. At the Little Tokyo Service Center, Chinese Historical Society, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, and other groups, the usual suspects grow older. The Movement did incorporate refreshing newcomers. The National Coalition for Redress and Reparations gained wide support for their lofty goals – and they got Reagan to sign those reparations checks in 1988! Asian Americans Advancing Justice has done fundamental work. While Joseph Ileto and Chol Soo Lee are near forgotten, we are able to remember Vincent Chin’s name.

But weren’t there a few questionable efforts? Some of the intellectual rhetoric was divisive, and some actions regrettable. Some were earnest efforts, but no longer exist. The Black-Korean Alliance, Asian Women’s Center, Amerasia Bookstore, Agbayani Village, Long Beach’s People’s Potluck and Japanese American Historical Society are now memories. And there are a lot of activists that have moved out of sight.

So, Ryan and Reed, what has Asian American activism achieved since 1969? What are the lessons learned? What, then, are the next steps? However, the question is not “Which side are you on?”.

Maybe I have to keep searching. But the book reminded me of Ryan’s nainai, Dolores Wong, who taught me something of value. She was tireless but she was also inclusive. She always took opportunity to say something encouraging. Similarly, Yuri Kochiyama was genuinely kind; she took the time to ask and write my name in her little notebook. Eddie Wong is kind.

Perhaps Eddie is right. We didn’t know what we were doing. But take some blind optimism, add some good intentions, and just keep trying together to do the right thing. Admit when you are wrong. But above all, be kind.

Thanks, Ryan, for your millennial perspective.

Published by Catapult, Which Side Are You On is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and indie bookstores.


Author’s Bio: Susie Ling lives in Monrovia and teaches Asian American studies at Pasadena City College. She was born in Taiwan and raised in the Philippines.

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