Conflict with a child can be painful to deal with for any parent – for an Asian American parent, when the conflict stems around one’s ethnic Asian background, it can be extra painful. If that child’s life is cut short by a drunk driver before that conflict is resolved, the pain must be unimaginable. Paul Li was put into that situation. But instead of retreating from the world, he did two things to try to ensure that other parents would be spared the pain that his family suffered.
18 year old Calvin Li had just graduated from high school and would soon start his college career at the University of Maryland. He and his friend Alex Murk left a party hosted by a parent, and the drunk driver of their car crashed the vehicle in which they were riding. While the driver and another teen survived, Calvin and Alex did not.
Before the party, Alex Murk’s father David asked if a parent would be present at the party, and the Alex answered yes. The drunk driver, Sam Ellis, received four years in prison (two for each dead person), but the parent hosting the party, who pleaded guilty to two counts of furnishing alcohol to minors, paid the maximum fine of $5000 ($2500 per charge). That penalty is tiny in proportion to the consequences of the crime and is no deterrent at all to parents who would supply alcohol to underage children. One reaction to the deaths was a proposed law known as Alex and Calvin’s law, which would enforce jail time and a higher fine to people providing alcohol to other people’s underage minors. Paul Li spoke at the Maryland House judiciary committee discussing the law, talking about seeing Calvin’s body after returning home from a business trip where he learned that his son had died.
“When I returned, he was not here. I did not see his big smile. I did not get to hug him. Instead I saw him in the morgue, eyes closed, hands cold. As you can imagine, my heart was shattered into pieces. I really wish it were me lying there, so he could walk.”
If losing a son was not enough, Calvin died before resolving a long conflict between him and his father Paul over their Asian heritage. Calvin would deliberately do poorly in math and science classes and focused on athletics as not to appear to be a stereotypical Asian American student. He refused to eat in Chinese restaurants and expressed great reluctance to visit Asia with his family. I have had issues with my own children’s disdain for their Filipino heritage, so I can understand the stress of that situation. But to lose a child and never having that conflict resolved – that would be beyond anything I have experienced. Rather than draw into a defensive shell (which would probably be my reaction), Paul Li endowed an Asian American studies program looking at second generation issues. He hopes that the Calvin J. Li Endowed Fellowship in Asian American Studies promotes understanding of issues like his son faced so other parents like himself could possibly understand what affects their children.
I wish I understood him better so I could support him better so he didn’t have to behave in such radical ways. That’s my regret. I didn’t understand him.
As parent, you expect that your children will outlive you and not the other way around. In the face of such loss, it would be easy for someone with the privilege and position of Paul Li to indulge himself with a hundred other distractions to avoid reliving painful memories. Instead, he worked to try to ensure that other parents would not have to suffer what he went through. While the alcohol bill he testified about was somewhat weakened, he has turned his personal negative into a positive for others – I only hope that I would have that kind of vision and strength if I was placed in the same situation.
(photo credit: courtesy of Montgomery County State Attorney’s Office and WTOP)