Growing up, Jennifer Wu’s father drove a station wagon that had a big rearview mirror and red vinyl seats. Attached to the rearview mirror was an air freshener that made the whole car smell like pine. One day, Wu’s father hung an American flag from the bottom of the Christmas tree-shaped air freshener, but it had no function; it didn’t make the car smell any better. When Wu asked her father about it, he said “Even though we are American, people might think we are not American.”
Wu spoke with Epicenter’s community reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado about how anti-Asian sentiment shaped her upbringing and why she feels it is more important than ever to support her community.
It dawned on Wu that her parents did not want to be perceived as Asian. It was the 80s and during that time there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment. The Detroit auto industry had established rhetoric that Japanese automakers were taking away their jobs, and much like today, anti-Asian hate crimes were on the rise. Wu remembers the case of Vincent Chin an autoworker who was beaten to death by two men, Chrysler plant supervisor Ronald Ebens and his stepson, laid-off autoworker Michael Nitz in Detroit, Michigan, because they thought he was Japanese — he was Chinese, and no one went to jail for his death.
“That was the first moment in my life, I remember even thinking about what I looked like. We were Chinese and we ate Chinese food and we spoke Chinese at home — Chinese was my first language. But as a kid I never looked in the mirror and appreciated what I looked like,” she says. “I remember being confused and thinking, ‘What does that mean? That I don’t look American?’”
The fear of being perceived as Asian and being attacked for it would seep itself into other aspects of Wu’s life. She remembers her parents being afraid to open the front door, untrusting of anyone who might knock, whether it was a postman or a neighbor.
“I don’t think it is a complete accident that I became a lawyer because I think part of my journey was wanting to understand what rights I have for myself and I wanted to learn how to protect myself,” she says.
As she pursued a career in law, Wu always gravitated toward representing people who she thought were underrepresented. Now, she is a partner at the law firm Groombridge Wu. Her job consists of her working on patent litigation for biotechnology and tech companies, but she also has an active pro bono practice representing victims of anti-Asian hate.
During the pandemic when anti-Asian hate crimes were on the rise, Wu often heard that someone was spit on or yelled at for being Asian. Wu faced discrimination herself when delivery workers would not deliver a dryer to her home simply because she was Asian. Shortly after, she was put in touch with the family of Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old who was attacked, and later died, for being Asian.
“The reason that I did it was because I had this feeling that the victims were just like my parents and that they wouldn’t know how or why to stand up for themselves in a very real way to talk to people,” says Wu. “The victims that were being attacked were Asian Americans that existed in corners of our society where they didn’t trust in institutions that we should trust. Like hospitals, the police, or like my parents, the postman.”
Cultural understanding is key
Throughout her time as a pro bono lawyer, Wu has learned many lessons along the way. One of them is the special task it is to work with undocumented immigrant families. Since systems of help and justice are designed for those who are American citizens, one must understand who they are working with in order to help, she says.
“We have a generation of immigrants and also non-immigrants whose faith in society is so broken that when things happen to them, their first reaction is to not say anything because they don’t want to get into more ‘trouble’ even though they are the victim,” Wu says.
Wu recalls the widow of Yao Pan Ma. She was notified that her husband was in the hospital after being beaten up while she was working her job as a 24-hour caretaker. Rather than rushing to his side, she waited for her shift to end before going to the hospital. Oftentimes victims who happen to be immigrants don’t know how and when to speak up for themselves, especially to figures of authority like employers.
When news of a hate-crime breaks, everyone from politicians to nonprofits and well-meaning neighbors are trying to help, but oftentimes their lack of understanding of the victim’s culture and perceptions of society can do more harm than good. For example, Wu says a GoFundMe campaign is a lot of people’s go-to, but undocumented immigrants cannot access money donated through a GoFundMe account. In order to do so, they must have a social security number. For families who are already in a vulnerable state and distrusting of institutions, a GoFundMe may not be the best way to help.
“[For these families] this is the worst kind of lottery. The lottery no one wants to win, it’s like the death lottery, life insurance almost,” she says. “For someone who’s been living off food stamps, it changes your life. But there is no one there to guide you through it and it comes with a great deal of loss.”
What does justice mean to you?
When a family experiences an anti-Asian hate crime, they are often thrown into a media frenzy. Everyone has a say on what should be done, but Wu has learned to step back and let the families she works with decide for themselves.
“One of the big things about loss, is that if you’ve lost someone, you’ve lost control,” she says. “They way we would treat the client — which is different than they have ever been treated — we would ask ‘What does justice mean to you?’”
Wu believes that this gives families agency over their situation. For some clients, justice meant for everyone to ‘go away’ and for them to live their lives in peace, for others it meant getting a hate crime conviction, for others it meant having someone to listen to them and give them a hug when they cry.
“My job as a lawyer is to listen to the client and give them what they think justice means to them, even if it is not what the community thinks and even if it’s not what the D.A. thinks or what other people think. I’m just there for them,” Wu says. “We will speak the truth that is your truth, rather than trying to impose our own views on a situation that honestly very few of us can understand.”
Importance of Empathy
Being an Asian woman has allowed Wu to connect with the families she works with culturally, but she has learned that empathy goes much deeper than her identity.
“I don’t come in and tell them what they should do, but I come in and try to listen to what they need. It’s a different approach. I’m not saying a man or a non-Asian person couldn’t take that approach,” she says. “But many of them, I think they see I feel their pain and I treat them like family.”
Oftentimes, families who are victims of hate crimes are thrown into a media firestorm after news breaks. Everyone wants an interview, people want to sue the city and organizations want to see their version of justice be achieved — but Wu puts herself in the family’s shoes and makes sure to listen to what they need, not what they should do.
“[I ask myself] how it feels to be someone else and how can I help,” says Wu.
Portraying people as people
Wu has also learned that when a tragedy occurs, people tend to focus on the attack itself rather than the victim. At a time when a family is grieving, it’s important to highlight the lived life of a person rather than repeating the way they died over and over again.
Wu recalls how meaningful it was for her client, Justin Go, father of Michelle Go, to write a guest essay for the New York Times that focused on the life of his daughter rather than focusing on the tragedy of her death. “We were overcome by how others saw her and knew her only by her death. The Michelle we knew was a high school cheerleader, always smiling and up for adventure; she was the very definition of being alive. Michelle should be remembered for how she lived, not for how she died,” he wrote.
“If someone were to talk about you as a tragedy versus the light you bring into the world, it can be very painful for the parent and very tragic and almost like another death. Maybe parents are not ready for the world to remember their child as something that they don’t see their child as,” says Wu.
The same happened for the husband of GuiYing Ma, whom Wu also represented, who wanted people to remember the love story he shared with his wife, rather than the brutal attack with a rock that led to her death.
“Because of the shocking circumstances of how these Asian victims are dying — in the subway, or by being beaten on the head with a rock. The gruesomeness just shocks the nature of the death,” says Wu. “The media can focus on things that for the family aren’t helpful to the grieving process.”
Community is vital
“The most important thing is to have community. If you can build community, you could survive anything, whether it’s a happy event or a sad event,” Wu says.
The community is what has helped people get convicted but it is also what ultimately prevents an attack like this from happening to someone else.
When GuiYing Ma was killed, many of the witnesses ran away out of fear. Only one young Hispanic man stayed. He was able to identify the killer which ultimately led to the killer’s arrest. At the proceedings, Ma’s husband, Zhanxin Gao, did not understand any English and neither did the witness. They were introduced to each other by their translators, but in the encounter words were meaningless. They understood what the other person meant to each other and they hugged.
“In a strange way, it’s been very demoralizing to see these attacks, but it’s also been life affirming to see how many people are helping,” Wu says.
Oftentimes Wu sees a lot of attention is placed on the victims and perpetrators but not on the community members who helped the victims and are helping them get the justice they need. Wu also believes it’s important to keep your community close, because it’s what will help people build trust with the world around them.
“If there is one thing I would encourage people to do, it would be to build community so that you can develop trust in society and institutions,” she says. “Those ties that bind are also the ones that can save us.”