[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Yung Wing.
I’ve written a lot, starting with that linked post (still one of my favorite blog posts to date) and continuing into my third book and this piece, about Yung Wing’s amazing story and the many significant and powerful American stories to which it and he connect. Yung’s work founding the Chinese Educational Mission exemplifies his contributions to American identity on many levels: from the idea for the school, to bring more than one hundred young Chinese men to America and help create a trans-national and cross-cultural community through such connections; to the requirement that the students be allowed to attend West Point as part of their experiences; to the Celestials, the baseball team that the students formed and through which some of their most inspiring and heartbreaking (and profoundly American) moments occurred.
But Yung’s individual story and life feature many equally amazing American moments, and I want to reiterate and highlight two here. The first is his attempt to volunteer for the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War. Yung had been in America for less than two decades at that time, had graduated from Yale only a decade before (in 1854), and was still ostensibly a diplomatic representative of the Chinese government; yet at this moment of extreme national crisis, when many of his fellow Americans would choose to buy their way out of enlistment, Yung volunteered to serve. He was turned down, which just goes to show how frequently our official national narratives (of patriotism and much else) have failed to recognize the best of what our nation is and can be. But official bigotry shouldn’t and can’t elide his individual patriotism and courage. (Which could also help us better remember the Chinese Americans who did serve in the Civil War.)
The second moment I want to highlight came even more directly in response to such official bigotry. As I traced at length in that blog post, the discrimination leading up to and culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act destroyed Yung’s American life on two significant levels: it forced the closure of the Mission and the departure of its students; and it led to the revoking of Yung’s citizenship and his own forced exile from America, during which (among other tragedies) his wife Mary passed away and his sons were fostered to another family. But when his younger son Bartlett was graduating from Yale in 1902, the next stage in the family’s multi-generational American story, Yung returned to attend; he came as a diplomatic guest, but from what I can tell he then stayed as an illegal immigrant, spending much of the final decade of his life in Connecticut (with, I devoutly hope, his sons). Am I arguing that an act of illegal immigration—during the first years when that concept had any meaning—was an inspiringly patriotic American act? You’re damn right I am.
Next nominee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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