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Q+A with Helen Zia

Helen Zia

May 2023

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Helen is a prominent organizer for human rights, peace, and countering hate, violence and homophobia. Her numerous publications, books, articles, essays and anthologies have received awards and national recognition. Helen is also the appointed executor of the Vincent Chin estate, and national spokesperson for the Justice for Vincent Chin Campaign. Helen is an Executive Producer on our upcoming series based on the landmark Vincent Chin story.

Q: How are you?

Last summer was the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin. We’re getting this story told as a TV series, and I never would have imagined 40 years ago that we’d be talking about this now and that it would have so much meaning for all communities, because that was such a multiracial, multicultural, united campaign.

Q: You’ve had such an incredible past. Can you tell us how you came to your activism?

I had a pretty ordinary experience as a child of immigrants from China. In those olden days there were very few Asians in America. We were never, never, never on TV or the movies except as the enemy or as that houseboy on Bonanza. So I grew up as an Asian American girl feeling completely invisible. The saving grace was that I also grew up at a time of incredible social movements. As a little girl all these things spoke to me. Somewhere inside, I knew I wanted to be part of making a difference. Making change. Envisioning a world that was different from the world I was facing and certainly the world that every young person today is facing.

Q. What was your childhood like?

I have to say I grew up as the kid of immigrants in a very “traditional” family, which meant that my father was God. My mother served God. And children were never, ever to speak up or counter God in any way because God was very wrathful. So as an American born Asian kid, I was thinking – “how do I escape this?” And for me, that was going to college. My family had no means whatsoever, and that meant there was no money for college. I knew if I was going to escape this very insular life, I’d have to figure out how to get a scholarship. So that’s what I devoted my childhood to. And if I may make a little editorial comment here – people talk about this model minority achieving Asian American thing. It’s an achieving immigrant thing. The kids of immigrants live through this. They see the sacrifice and the lack of anything except for survival. So it’s really the children of immigrants of all kinds that look to make their parents’ lives a little better. That was my path. Going to college was my ticket to freedom, and as soon as I got there I knew I wanted to be part of these movements that I’d seen on the news. I looked for activists, for people who looked like me, since there were so few of us, and I found these other Asians who were born in America who were having experiences like mine – with one foot in two worlds.

Q: How did you get involved in the Vincent Chin Estate?

I guess I have to start with how I got to Detroit. My friends said that if I wanted to make social change in America, I had to go to the heart of America, so I went to Detroit to join the labor movement and hand out flyers. I got a job at a Chrysler factory – best pay I’d ever had until then: minimum wage was $1.50, I got $10 an hour doing unskilled labor. I had health insurance for the first time. That’s why it was so devastating when the auto industry fell out. People lost their homes, lost it all. I saw how Japan got blamed for that. Why? They made fuel efficient cars and people didn’t want the Detroit dinosaurs anymore. People who looked like me had to look over our shoulder when we walked around. When I read the Vincent Chin story in the newspaper, I knew there had to be more to this story than the tragic killing of a bridegroom on his bachelor party night. His Asian face was there. That day I cut the article out and said, ‘I’m going to watch this and tell this story.’ When the killers got no jail time and only probation, I called up the people in the newspaper article – spokespeople from the Chinese community – I picked up the phone and said, “What can I do?”

Q: You’ve done it all – medical school, construction labor, auto worker, organizing, writing – How are you emboldened to do all these things?

When I thought of becoming a writer and a journalist, I had no background or internship on any of those things. I had been in unemployment lines. My friends were in unemployment lines. I’d been to their homes – Black, Arab, white coworkers, and their stories weren’t being told. In fact, they were getting blamed for being so lazy and that’s why American cars were so bad. Those were the stories being told. I was watching the news one day and I was so angry I actually said, ‘This sucks. This is so effed up.’ I got up and turned off the TV. It wasn’t that I said ‘I want to win a Pulitzer prize’. I just knew I could do better. I knew because there was nobody else doing it. Nobody was telling these stories. I wanted to write about the collapse of the auto industry and the changing labor market and labor unions. I wrote a lot of stories before I was finally able to write the story about the labor movement.

I always tell college students, there is no such thing as a mistake in life in terms of a wrong decision. I went to medical school. I spent two years there and then spent the next twenty years paying off those two years. I don’t think of it as if I made a terrible mistake, because it took me to my next phase. Life is a series of adventures, and you get to wherever you wanna go by walking those steps. A wise woman once told me, “you make the road by walking it.” There’s no point in having regrets. You learn, and then you move on.

Q: You’ve pushed forward work for the Asian American community, as well as women’s rights and the LGBT community. How has that intersectional approach been received?

We’re all intersectional beings, but as a culture we pigeonhole things. We get asked, ‘in what section of the bookstore is this going to be?’ As a storyteller, as a writer, I gravitate towards complicated stories. As an Asian American girl, a daughter of immigrants, a queer person of color. As someone who cares about a lot of things in the world. As an activist. It’s all about connecting the dots. The intersectionality is all about how we connect those dots for ourselves. If we sit down and have a conversation with our mother, our grandfather. For somebody who is not reading all of the many things online about climate change, or racism – how do you explain it to them in a way that matters to them? You have to start at the kitchen table.

Q: What kind of stories are important now, especially with the communities you’ve been working with?

Writing about history gives me optimism to keep going, because we know that history moves in cycles. The violence in the news every day is very disheartening. The inability of communities to have conversations with each other and find places of unity to move forward. The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice if we make it bend. That’s where the agency, and the storytelling, and representation, and media comes in. Giving people the imagery of people coming together. People of all kinds of ordinary backgrounds that a viewer can relate to and think, ‘Hey, that’s not so different from my life, and look, they were able to do something about it.’ To me, that’s the whole point of this Vincent Chin story in a TV limited series. Yes, it’s an Asian American story but there’s going to be people of all different backgrounds working together. The message we always get is that we’re a divided country. We need to tell those real stories that show the dynamic movement of people who find ways to work together and overcome fears and prejudices. Those are the stories that I would like to see more of. We have to show not only optimism and hope, but how it gets done, in ways they can connect to. Not dystopian futures, but futures of people who actually do something with where we are.