A father realized one of his biggest regrets after his son’s fatal car crash and is now committed to helping Asian immigrant parents avoid his mistake.
While on a trip to China in June last year, Paul Li received tragic news that his 18-year-old son was one of the victims in a fatal high-speed car wreck. Li, an investment analyst from Rockville, Maryland, had tried convincing his son to join him on his trip to China. According to Washington Post, his son declined his offer and told him:
“Dad, don’t worry about me. I will work hard, and I will be successful, and you will be proud of me.”
On June 25, 2015, Sam Ellis left a party in North Potomac where he had been drinking and crashed his car into another vehicle that killed Li’s son, Calvin, and a fellow classmate, Alex Murk. Ellis, a one-time star quarterback at Wootton High School, pleaded guilty on two charges of vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Calvin, an extroverted football player and recent graduate at Wootton High School, had been admitted to the University of Maryland in College Park where he would have attended as a freshman. Friends remember Calvin as a football fanatic who was charismatic, upbeat and funny.
He was the wide receiver No. 7 on his high school football team and once had aspirations of becoming a professional football player. Li recalled crushing his son’s dreams during his middle school years when he told Calvin:
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“Son, you go back to study. You’re not going to be a football player. You are Chinese.”
That moment would become one of his greatest regrets. Li, a Chinese immigrant who arrived to the United States during his twenties, reflected after his son’s passing:
“If I knew what I know now, I would’ve been a much better parent.
“When I look back, I cannot forgive myself. Even though I know maybe in reality he would not be a football player. But it was just the way I shattered his dream when he was small … And I know for sure, there are other Chinese parents who are doing the same to their children right now. And I don’t want that to happen.”
Li recognized his son’s struggle to reconcile the dual Chinese and American cultures in which he was raised. As a child, Calvin attended Chinese school on the weekends and excelled in Mandarin. However, as he grew up, Calvin began distancing himself from his parents’ cultural traditions and values.
As a teenager, Calvin strove to be more Americanized and had no interest in eating out at Chinese restaurants with his parents, listening to Chinese news or traveling to Asia. He wanted to break away from the kind of stereotypes that are linked to Asian Americans such as academic excellence in math and science. Li said:
“So his [Calvin’s] way of doing that was to distance himself from anything Chinese. I felt that’s not the right way of dealing with identity, but at the time I was not aware of this issue. I was not understanding enough to help him. I was just forcefully saying, you know, ‘You’re a Chinese kid.’”
Calvin associated with few other Asian students in his social circle and while he maintained good grades, his passion wasn’t academics. Li struggled to understand his son’s avoidance of his cultural heritage and desire to adopt an all-American attitude growing up.
“Society often thinks, Asian kids — they’re doing well in school, they’re working hard they tend to be overachievers, they don’t have any problems. But in fact, they do have problems, and many of the problems are overlooked by not only their parents but also by the society.”
In March, Li established a foundation name for his son and announced that he will be donating $1.2 million over the span of three years for a University of Maryland fellowship. The fellowship will be dedicated to studying the kinds of issues facing the children of Asian American immigrants involving family dynamics, identity formation and cultural gaps.
Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at University of Maryland, believes such families will benefit from the research findings that will be presented at lectures and community workshops.