Transcript of ‘Yellow in a White World’

Globalization of Yale University began early. To mark the 150th anniversary of the graduation of the first Chinese student Yung Wing from Yale, Asian American Cultural Center and other organizations launched a lecture series. The first lecture entitled, "Yellow in a White World", was delivered by Harold Koh, Dean of the Yale Law School on September 27, 2004.

Transcript of 'Yellow in a White World'

Harold Hongju Koh
Monday, September 27, 2004

Thank you, Peter, for that most generous introduction. As the father of a happy Yale freshman, let me say that Yale College is very lucky to have a dean like you.

I also want to thank the Asian American Cultural Center for organizing this event, and the offices of the President, the Secretary, the Graduate School, and the Association of Yale Alumni for all joining hands to make this lecture series happen.

Let me start with an embarrassing confession. I have lived in New Haven for 43 years, and I have taught at Yale for nearly 20. But until recently, when I was asked to give this lecture, I had never ever heard of Yung Wing.

Or at least so I thought. More on that in a little while.

Who, exactly, was Yung Wing? Yung Wing was the first Asian to graduate from Yale. He could well have been the first Asian to obtain a bachelor’s degree from any university in the United States. And so, in a very real sense, he is the spiritual ancestor of every one of us of Asian heritage who studies or works here at Yale today.

By all accounts, Yung Wing was a remarkable person. Born near the island of Macao in Guangdong Province in 1828, when he was just seven years ago, Yung Wing was brought to meet Mrs. Gutzlaff, the wife of an English missionary who had opened a Christian school near his home. Apparently, Mrs. Gutzlaff bore little resemblance to the gorgeous Deborah Kerr we all saw in The King and I, who cheerfully sang “Getting to know you,” to a smiling throng of Asian children. Instead, Mrs. Gutzlaff was a huge and frightening woman. As Yung Wing later recalled in his autobiography, My Life in China and America, as Mrs. Gutzlaff “came forward to welcome me in her long and full flowing white dress . . . I actually trembled all over with fear at her imposing proportions. . . . I clung to my father in fear. . . . [A] new world had dawned on me.”

From that day forward, Yung Wing had become a yellow man in a white world.

At the beginning, Yung Wing hated his English school so much that he tried to run away from it. But overcoming his fear, Yung Wing soon progressed from Mrs. Gutzlaff’s school to another missionary school, where he came to meet a minister called Samuel Robbins Brown, who held his doctorate in divinity from Yale. In 1845, Yung Wing began to dream about crossing the Pacific. He wrote an essay for his school called “An Imaginary Voyage to New York and Up the Hudson.”

Just two years later, Yung Wing made that voyage for real, when he accompanied Dr. Brown to the United States to enroll in Monson Academy in Massachusetts. Like Dr. Brown, the principal of Yung Wing’s new school, the Rev. Charles Hammond, was a Yale graduate. And so it came to pass that in 1850, with financial aid provided by a scholarship by the Ladies Association of Savannah, Georgia, where Dr. Brown’s sister lived, Yung Wing became the first Asian ever to enroll at Yale College.

As you can imagine, mid 19th Century Yale was not an easy place for Yung Wing. His Yale class had ony 98 members. It had precious few people of color, no women, and virtually no non-Christian. As the only yellow in a white world, Yung Wing was at best, a curiosity, at worst, a freak.

During his freshman year, Yung Wing wore his Chinese tunic and wore his hair in a topknot, but by second year, he was dressed and groomed like an American. Like many freshmen, he sweated over his studies until midnite every night. He worked so hard that he took little or no exercise. He had almost no social life. His sophomore year he almost flunked differential and integral calculus, which his autobiography said he absolutely “abhorred and detested.” To pay his tuition, he worked as a waiter in his residential college, as well as a librarian in one of the college debating societies. Yet remarkably, in the words of an admirer, the Rev. Joseph Twichel, he “made a sensation that was felt beyond the college walls by bearing off repeated prizes for English composition.” Imagine that, coming from China in 10th grade and winning the Yale Prize for English Composition just a few years later!

Asia and its needs were never far from his mind. Yung Wing took long walks with his classmate, Carrol Cutler, who later became president of Western Reserve College (now Case Western Reserve in Cleveland). They discussed how to ensure that the rising generation in China would have the same advantages that Yung Wing had enjoyed. They came up with the idea of an educational mission, whereby the Chinese government would send hundreds of students like Yung Wing to America for their education.

When Yung Wing graduated in 1854, 150 years ago, he sailed for Hong Kong on a voyage of 151 days. When the Chinese pilot came on board in Hong Kong Harbor, and spoke to the passengers, Yung Wing was shocked to discover that he could understand what the pilot said only with great difficulty. When he himself spoke, he could not make the pilot understand him. Yung Wing found himself so changed by his Western experience that he now felt out of place everywhere, even in his own homeland.

Like many who navigate two cultures, Yung Wing felt caught between two stools. In America, he felt Asian, but in Asia, he felt American. Yung Wing became a naturalized citizen of the United States during his junior year at Yale, but when he came back to attend his 10th reunion at Yale in 1864, he volunteered to fight in the Union Army. His offer was declined. Not only had he almost forgotten how to speak Chinese, but having left as a young boy, he now had no friends in China. In the words of Dr. Twichell, “he could not fail to encounter among his own people, prejudice, suspicion, hostility.” With this history, Yung Wing could easily have been forgiven had he given up any grand plans and simply sought to fit back into Chinese life. But instead, he continued to engage in various projects to promote China’s modernization. He went to work for the tea and silk business for ten years, and in 1864, he entered the service of the Qing Dynasty Chinese government. Because of his English language skills, he was commissioned to purchase machinery and arms in the United States for the Chinese military. In 1870, the so-called Tientsin Massacre occurred, in which a Chinese mob murdered a large number of male and female French Roman Catholic Missionaries. To compensate, the Chinese Government appointed a commission to figure out how to make compensation. Yung Wing--remembering his discussions years earlier with his friends at Yale--submitted a proposal to the high commissioners suggesting that the Chinese government send more than 100 Chinese youths abroad, to facilitate mutual cultural understanding and thereby to develop the reach and resources of the Chinese empire.

And so it was that in the late 1870s, the so-called “Yung Wing mission” began, whereby some 120 Chinese boys and girls came to the United States to study at schools and colleges throughout the Northeast, including Yale. The leader sent to supervise the mission was Yung Wing himself. And so in 1872, 18 years after his college graduation, Yung Wing returned to New Haven to set up the mission. He eventually made his headquarters in the city of Hartford. There, Yung Wing started Hartford's progressive and innovative Chinese Educational Commission School. Three years later, he married an American woman, Miss Mary Kellogg, of Avon, Connecticut. And in 1876, Yung Wing received an honorary degree from Yale Law School, which probably makes him--I now realize --the first Asian ever to receive a degree from the school of which I am now dean!

Fearing that the students were becoming too Americanized, Chinese conservatives abruptly terminated Yung Wing’s mission in 1881. But during the nine years that the Chinese scholars studied in Hartford, they gave China her first generation of the 20th century railroad builders, engineers, medical doctors, naval admirals and diplomats. In the decades that followed, many of the students of Yung Wing’s mission went on to play important roles in China’s development.

As for Yung Wing himself, he continued as a full-fledged diplomat. In 1874 he went to Peru to investigate the affairs of Chinese laborers; in 1878 he was appointed Assistant Minister Resident of China to Washington. In 1882, after the Chinese students were recalled, and the educational scheme abandoned, he returned to China, and was appointed an official and as of Kiang Su province; When his American wife Mary grew ill, he returned to Hartford, where he nursed her until she died in 1886. Both Yung Wing and his wife now lie buried in the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. Their two sons, Morrison and Bartlett, both went to Yale, and his grandson, Frank, who lives in Hong Kong, returned to Yale four years ago for the unveiling of his grandfather’s portrait.

I have told this story in some detail, because very few of us here know it. I myself did not know it. Perhaps in Yung Wing’s story you heard echoes of your own life. Let me tell you how his tale resonates with mine.

My own parents came to the United States from Korea about 100 years after Yung Wing. My father was one of the first Koreans to study law in America.

Like Yung Wing, my parents came away from their educational experience determined to promote mutual understanding between Korea and the United States. When, in 1960, the first democratically elected government came to power in South Korea, my father Dr. Kwang Lim Koh, was appointed first as Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, and then as Korean Minister to the United States in Washington. And when, in 1961, a military coup overthrew my father’s democratic government, my parents turned for help to Walt W. Rostow, then the Deputy National Security Adviser to the President. Through Walt Rostow’s intervention with his brother, Eugene, the Dean of Yale Law School, my parents received positions teaching East Asian Law and Society at Yale Law School, the first such course ever offered in this country. And so it was that in 1961, 43 years ago, my own family moved here to New Haven, and I first entered the halls of Yale Law School.

Like Yung Wing, my parents helped hundreds of Korean students come here to study. Countless Korean students ate dinner at our house. In 1952, my parents founded East Rock Institute, a nonprofit organization on Dwight Street, that has as its mission promoting cultural understanding between East and West. Starting thirty years ago, they began an annual conference on Koreans and Korean-Americans, which last year ripened into the national conference of Korean students, KASCON, that was held here at Battell Chapel. Both of my parents also went on to teach at universities here in Connecticut, where my father became fascinated with the story of the Yung Wing Educational Mission and aggressively sought after its history. My father’s students wrote term papers about the later history of the Chinese students who came to study in Connecticut as part of Yung Wing’s mission. The daughter of one of the Yung Wing students became my father’s colleague and told my father many personal stories about the various Yung Wing students. Some apparently became ambassadors--one even became the Chinese ambassador to Korea--others became government officials and educators. And so it was that while preparing for this lecture this past weekend, I suddenly realized that Yung Wing was not a stranger to me after all. I had actually first heard of Yung Wing at the family dinner table 35 years ago.

What does Yung Wing’s story tell us? It tells us what it means to be yellow in a white world.

His is a story of choices, a story of hope, a story of obligation, and a story of obligation. Let me say a word about each of these.

First, and most obviously, Yung Wing’s story is a lesson about making our own, difficult choices. How easy it would have been for Yung Wing to stay in China his whole life. How easy it would have been for him to return there from Yale, and never venture back. Instead, he made hard choices and took risks. He consciously placed himself between two cultures, although the price was that he never felt truly at home in either place.

I told you that my father was an international lawyer, a professor, and a diplomat. When I was a boy, you might have imagined that he would have wanted me, his son, to also be an international lawyer, professor and a diplomat. But one day when I was in elementary school, we were watching the lawyer show Perry Mason on TV; I turned to my father and asked whether maybe I, too, should consider a career as a lawyer. My father turned to me and said just two words: “Study Physics.”

His words had a profound influence on me. I followed them for nearly ten years. But it was not until later that I realized the four assumptions that underlay what he had said. His first assumption: law is a confrontational profession and confrontation is not our way. We are Pacific people, in both senses of that word. We believe not in confrontation, but in harmony and order. Law is not for us, because conflict is not our way.

Secondly, English is the language of the law, and English is not our language. We cannot study law, because law is not our language.

Third, law is for insiders and we are basically outsiders in this country. Law rests on an old boy network and we are new boys in this country.

Fourth and finally, law is not an exact science and we will suffer from inexactness. How often did I come home to find on my desk a New York Times story that said “Chinese Physicist or Japanese Mathematician wins the Nobel Prize?” If an Asian is a better mathematician or scientist, he seemed to say, the numbers will not lie.

Now if you think about it, each of these was also a reason why my father favored physics as my profession. Physics was not confrontational; it had its own harmony and order. Physics was a universal language, and we could speak it as well as they. Physics was a profession that is open to whites and Asians alike, and no one could discriminate against you, because the numbers don't lie.

His position had its logic. The Asian part of me accepted it, but the American part, of course, rebelled.

I thought, “maybe I am not like them, Dad, but I am not just like you either. Maybe you feel uncomfortable with the adversary process, but I was accustomed to debate, to speaking up for rights. And to the extent that law requires not just confrontation, but pacific dispute resolution, it was something I could do. An insider’s network may rely on politics, but I felt I could do that kind of politics. And finally, it did not matter that law was not an exact science, because, as it turned out, I was not very good at exact sciences!” And so I told him that I did want to be a lawyer, that being a lawyer was consistent with my Asian-American identity. For better or for worse, it was my choice. And it is a choice that I feel better and better about every day.

The irony, of course, is that my ultimate career choice pleased my father far more than his own proposal. When I first told my father that I was going to work as a lawyer, he said, “In Korea, law is the second most despised profession.” I asked, “what is the most despised profession?” He said, “being an actor.” And then, when I went to work for the Justice Department, he asked, “who's your client?” I said, “Ronald Reagan, I guess.” He looked at me and said, “You mean to say that you're a lawyer for an actor?”

But then, when I came to Yale to become an international law professor, he said, “Well, finally you're a teacher. A sensei. In Korean, a sonsaengnim. You are professor, an international lawyer, and maybe someday you will be a diplomat. Just like your father.”

There is a second lesson that we learn from Yung Wing, and that is a story of hope, of the possibility of overcoming discrimination. Exactly 100 years after Yung Wing graduated from Yale, the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. Even today, fifty years later, the struggles of Brown are still with us. I was born in 1954, just seven months after Brown was decided. And so I have lived my entire life in Brown’s shadow. I first felt the challenges of Brown in 1959, when my father went to the Korean embassy and my family moved to Takoma Park, Maryland. My older brother came home from his first day of elementary school to tell me that his third grade class was half white and half black. When recess time was called, the black kids and the white kids had silently divided into different baseball teams and started playing with each other. As an Asian, my brother literally did not know what team he was supposed to be on. And so he had sat alone for all of recess, understanding for the first time what it meant to be isolated by segregation.

Five years later, we had moved here to New Haven to attend the Edgewood Avenue School in Westville. During my sixth-grade year, students from the Winchester School in inner-city New Haven were bused into our class. The boy who arrived was a short and wiry African-American named Richard. For the first few days, we sat inches apart, eying each other warily. On the third day, he leaned over and said, “Man, this classroom is much nicer than the one we were in.” By the end of the year, we were friends. And I had learned both how integration can breed understanding, and how separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal.

One day, Richard asked me who was the greatest baseball player of all time. I told him, “Babe Ruth.” He said, “Man, you’re wrong!” (For some reason, he always called me “Man,” even though I was only 10 years old). I asked him, “So who do you think is the greatest baseball player of all time?” He answered, “Jackie Robinson, Number 42.” When I asked him why, he answered, “Because Jackie did everything Ruth did and at a time when everyone wanted him to fail.” His answer moved me, and from that day forward, whenever I am asked who the greatest baseball player was, I answer, ”Jackie Robinson.”

I remembered that story years later when I read Richard Kluger’s unforgettable masterpiece Simple Justice. By that time, as a budding lawyer myself, I was as moved by the story of the lawyers as by that of the clients. I read about the stirring partnership between African-American lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Spotswood Robinson, and Constance Baker Motley and white attorneys like Jack Greenberg and future Yale Law Professors like Charles Black and Lou Pollak. I read about how the lawyers in Brown argued cases in towns where they could not eat at the local restaurants, where they could not sleep at the local hotels, how they typed briefs in the back of their cars, cited cases from memory because they had no libraries, and nevertheless won case after case after case, finally culminating in the unanimous victory in Brown. I decided that like Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall must have been the greatest American lawyer of all time, because he did everything that Daniel Webster did-- and won a promise of equality for millions--at a time when so many wanted him to fail.

Like Thurgood Marshall, Yung Wing was a pioneer. When he was at Yale, think of how lonely he must have been. Think of how discouraged he must have been when the Chinese government recalled his mission to China. How could he have imagined the changes that have come in the years since? When Yung Wing came to America, there were only a handful of Asians in the entire country.

When I attended law school a century later, there were still almost no Asians in my class. At Harvard Law School in the late 1970s, the entire Korean-American Student Society consisted of two people: my sister Jean and me. Whenever the names of Asians appeared in the cases--names like Yick Wo, Fong Yue Ting, Wong Wing, Wong Kim Ark, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Fred Korematsu--they were always litigants, and never lawyers. On the rare occasions that these cases were mentioned, my classmates would snicker. And as I read the history of Asian-Americans in the Supreme Court, I read a record of almost unbroken sadness. It was a story not of victors and justice, but of victims and injustice. It was the story of Americans who had been treated as foreigners. In Justice Jackson’s words from his Korematsu dissent, they were Americans victimized “because they were born of parents as to whom they had no choice and because they belonged to a race from which there is no way to resign.”

Now, if you look out over our classrooms, you see a very different picture. In the 2000 Census, more than 10 million Asian-Americans are listed, nearly a 50% growth in the previous decade. Asian-Americans now constitute nearly 4% of the U.S. population: there are 2.4 million Chinese Americans, 1.9 million Filipino-Americans, 1.7 Indian Americans, 1.1 million Vietnamese Americans, 1 million Korean Americans, and close to 1 million Japanese Americans.

When I went to the Yale freshmen parents gathering, Asians were everywhere. One fellow parent turned to me and said, “I understand that the faculty here at Yale is excellent.” What could I do? I just nodded, sagely.

And our students today are having a different kind of Asian experience, a Pan-Asian experience. They are not a collection of minorities within minorities. They band together and enjoy their Asianness together. For me, this is symbolized by the yearly gathering of our Pacific Asian and Native American Law Students Group, which takes place at East Buffet. It is a sprawling, raucous Pan-Asian gathering in which Asians of all stripes--by birth, by marriage, by adoption, and by choice--exchange cuisines and enjoy being together.

And the world in which our students now live is not nearly as white as it once was. There is a huge rise in the Latino population, a noticeable increase in Native Americans and foreign students. America is a strikingly diverse country: along with Canada and Australia we are one of the only successfully diverse nations on earth. Having visited Bosnia and Kosovo, where ethnic groups cannot live together without fighting, I cannot tell you how important it is that we not take this ethnic diversity for granted.

There is a third part of Yung Wing’s story, and that is a story of obligation. Notice that he did not simply pursue his private interests. Instead, he felt a sense of public service, of obligation to his community. In the words of the filmmaker, Spike Lee, he felt a duty to uplift his race. What is the content of this obligation? We must, as my friend David Wilkins argues, move from the is of race consciousness to the ought of making it an obligation to do something about your race, an obligation located in a sense of community and solidarity which is the source of our strength and our distinctiveness. Let me suggest four images: our obligations to be a bridge, a ladder, a beacon, and a boat.

For me, the main reason I chose law over physics was that fate had placed me between two cultures. As a physicist, that fact would have been a curious irrelevancy. Instead, by pursuing a career as an international lawyer, professor, and diplomat, I have tried, like Yung Wing, to build a bridge between our two cultures.

Yung Wing saw himself not just as a bridge, but as a ladder: a support and mentor for other Asian students on their way up.

Our third obligation is to serve as a beacon. As Asians, we inevitably stand out in a white world. Let me suggest that if we are distinctive, if we must stand out, then perhaps we have a special obligation actually to stand out, to serve as a beacon and role model for others.

And to whom do we owe our obligations? After I earned tenure, I was asked by my students to start an International Human Rights Clinic, which brought suit against the U.S. government on behalf of Haitian boat people, seeking asylum in America. I was stunned at how many Asians said to me, “Why are you fighting for the Haitians? Why don’t you work for our people?” And I would say to them, “Do you mean to say that in the Haitian exclusion, you don't see the Chinese exclusion? In the Haitian internment, you don't see the Japanese internment? In the Haitian boat people, you don't see the Vietnamese boat people? In the Haitian refugees, don't you see Cambodian refugees? In the quest for Haitian democracy, don't you see Korean democracy? If you don't see the principle, then you don't understand the point--that maybe we all came in different boats, but we're all in the same boat now.” And it is our obligation, I submit, to offer that welcoming boat to others.

Fourth and finally, Yung Wing’s story is a story of accomplishment. His is not just a single accomplishment, but a legacy of accomplishment. His story tells you how one person--even a solitary yellow in a white world--can make a difference. Just look at the number of ways here at Yale, that the legacy of this one man continues. In one of his last acts, Yung Wing donated his Chinese book collection, which at the time consisted of more than 1200 volumes, to Yale, where it now forms the nucleus of Sterling Memorial Library’s East Asian Collection, one of the finest in the West. In 1901, the Yale Foreign Missionary Society was formed to promote one-on-one contacts and English language instruction by recent Yale graduates in China. In 1943 that Association was renamed the Yale-China Association, which to this day sends dozens of recent Yale graduates annually to teach English and American studies.

Asian Americans now constitute 13-15% of the Yale student body. 10% of the foreign students who study here are of Asian ancestry.

At Yale Law School, where I teach, another legacy of Yung Wing is the Law School’s China Law Center, which is devoted exclusively to increasing understanding of China's legal system and supporting China's legal reform process. To these ends, the Center sponsors research, academic exchange, and projects with legal experts in China on judicial reform, administrative law, and legal education--and has brought a number of leading Chinese scholars to study here.

My point is this: people like Yung Wing can change institutions. Institutions can build legacies. Legacies can make history.

And to show how events can come full circle, this year, 43 years after my family first arrived in New Haven, my sister, Jean Koh Peters is a professor at Yale Law School, where this summer I became the Dean. And this fall my daughter Emily entered the Yale class of 2008, from which she will graduate exactly 60 years after my parents first came to America, and more than 150 years after Yung Wing. And just a week before her classes began, the presidents and vice-presidents of 12 of China’s leading universities came to New Haven for an intensive two-week session on the American university. And so it was that in late August, I had the incredible experience of sitting in Woolsey Hall--still yellow in a white world--but now finding myself not just an American citizen and a lifelong resident of New Haven, but also the Dean of Yale’s Law School, the father of a Yale freshman, the brother of a Yale professor, listening to my friend, Yale’s president Rick Levin, describe a modern-day Chinese mission to New Haven as proof of Yale’s 21st century commitment to globalization.

In the end, what Yung Wing’s story and mine tell you is just how open a society America still is. A few years ago, when I was representing the United States government at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, I sat at dinner next to the Bangladeshi Ambassador to the United Nations. We struck up a conversation, and told each other our life stories. At the end, he looked at me and said, “So what you are telling me is that your father was an Ambassador to the United States. And in only one generation, you have become an Ambassador from the United States. In Bangladesh that could never happen. America is the only country in the world where that could happen, and that I have to believe, is why you are the mightiest nation.” Your openness, your diversity, he was telling me, is the source of your moral power.

So that, my friends, is Yung Wing’s message to us. His story tells us what it means to be yellow in a white world. His is a story of choices, a story of hope, a story of obligation, a story of accomplishment. And it is, in the end, a story of Justice: the justice that Asian Americans seek, and the justice Asian Americans can create. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it arcs toward justice.”

If Yung Wing were here, I think he would have to agree.

Thank you.

Harold Koh, Dean of the Yale Law School, delivered the first lecture in this series.

© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization