A family faces racism at a memorial: “Hey. This is America.”

The author, James Hong (left), with his parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam almost three decades ago. (Photo courtesy of James Hong)

My family and I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial Waterfront Park in Port Angeles.

A steel beam retrieved from the site of the World Trade Center in New York sits as a centerpiece in a majestic park that overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Originally known as Francis Street Park, it was renamed in 2017 to honor the sacrifices that were made and those who perished on Sept. 11.

A group of young white adults were hanging out at the park; one of them was taking a piss in the bushes.

“Hey. This is America,” one white boy said as we walked past.

“‘Merica,” echoed his white friend.

Their other friends said nothing. My family and I ignored their taunts and kept going, but the further away we got, the louder those two became. “I love Kim Jong Un!”

I hoped my parents didn’t hear any of it.

But if they did, I hoped they wouldn’t understand what it meant.

My parents are smart people but I wanted them to be ignorant… just this once.

They came to the United States over 30 years ago as refugees from the Vietnam War and in the decades that followed, learned to navigate language and cultural barriers while raising a vibrant family. In fact, I draw strength from their experiences in my own professional work advancing social justice and undoing racism.

Yet for all my organizing and advocacy, I regret not being able to shield them from these random acts of violence.

Even though this incident spanned about ten seconds, racism has a sick and nasty way of lingering. I am still thinking about it days later. What could I have done differently if I were to relive that moment?

1. Punch those white boys in the face.
2. Insult and belittle them in return.
3. Outsmart them with my logic, reason and wit.
4. Punch them in the face (there were a lot of faces to go around).

The two white boys who tried to make my family feel unwelcome clearly did not think through the irony of the situation. I pity them. The white boy who was literally pissing at a 9/11 Memorial thought he was more American than us? The other white boy who yelled “I love Kim Jong Un,” thought he was a patriot?

One of my friends told me later, “This should NOT be happening and even though we, people of color, constantly bring these things up and shed light on them, it still happens.”

My friend is right and I was reminded it’s not my responsibility to fix a white person’s racism. The only way for our country to sincerely address racism is for white people to stand up and call it out. Those two white boys had friends who were silent through it all. And through their silence, and lack of courage, they allowed racism to persist unchecked.

That’s cowardly.

Make no mistake, my family and I were terrorized at the 9/11 Memorial Waterfront Park. They tried to intimidate us with a few trite words but my words are much more powerful. I descend from a family of refugees and we’re resilient as fuck.

The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Vietnamese Friendship Association.

10 Comments

  1. Kudos to you and your parents for taking the high road. As difficult as it was to ignore the taunts, you showed more class and dignity than they will ever achieve.

  2. I am so sorry that this happened in my town. I love Port Angeles, and I want everyone else to love it too! These thugs should be put in their place. What day and time did this happen?? There are surveillance cameras in the area, and maybe these thugs could be brought to justice. This is a hate crime plain and simple.

  3. As someone who lives in Port Angeles I’d like to apologize for the idiots that you encountered! I am sorry and embarrassed that this happened to you and your parents.

  4. Please know those punks DO NOT represent all of us in Port Angeles. I also get the discrimination and hateful language but for a different reason. All I can do is hope one day they realize their actions are hurtful.

  5. I am sorry that you and your parents were treated to this bigotry and racism here in Port Angeles!! It is very upsetting to me that this is still happening anywhere but i know it does to anyone that is of any color other than white. I was raised in a far more ethnically diverse area and realized when i moved here how “white” this area was, which suited my ex-husband but not me. I raised my two sons to love, respect and embrace other cultures and they do to this day! Please know that these ignorant white, i will say trash, young jerks do not represent all white people of Port Angeles. You and your parents are very much welcome here by many of us!!

  6. James, Your story sickens me as well as makes me feel ashamed. I’m so sorry that this happened to you and your family while visiting Port Angeles. From the bottom of my heart know that I’m sorry and that our community isn’t this way as a majority. Thank you for sharing your experience so that others can hear your story and know that this is still happening. We need to speak up as long as this type of thing occurs! This is not o.k. ! All the best to you and your family! Mary

  7. The treatment of immigrants in a country that is made up of immigrants is just dumbfounding.
    No disrespect to the Native Americans. Unfortunately they to are treated as lesser humans also by the white population of bigots.
    Land of the Free? Certainly the home of the brave. For to be a minority and live here is certainly at times an act of bravery. More so for some than others.
    PAX TO ALL MY AMERICAN BROTHERS AND SISTERS.

  8. As a resident of Port Angeles, I want to apologize to you and your parents. This is embarrassing, sad, and beyond pathetic. I hope you choose to return to Port Angeles and know that you, and especially your parents, are welcome in PA. Best to you and your family.

  9. White+male+extremely ignorant + losing social position + fear + in a group = pathetic inexcusable behavior.

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