Organizing the Asian American Community: Lessons From An Asian Frat (Part 1)

“Brother: L L L Phiii…

Actives: E, YOU KNOW!”

1alfrat
Albert Hur, #29 Delta Class, Mojo Jojo, Michigan State University Colony Chapter


ON THE ORIGINS OF ORDER

Delta stands for change.”
— Keith, #28 Delta Class

Evolution is a biological theory. We have no idea how it actually works.

No reputable scientist disputes the theory, of course. It’s well-established and a given that we somehow made it from ape to man. The question is how. What was the process?

The steady accumulation of material resources and traits by organisms due to a sequence of different environmental and internal pressures over linear time makes biology one of the most profoundly historical, material sciences on Earth. One simply cannot understand dialectical materialism¹ without a strong understanding of how we got here, in the most literal sense. How did molecular bonds become human?

According to Stuart Kauffman — American medical doctor, theoretical biologist, and complex systems researcher who studies the origin of life on Earth — it wasn’t natural selection alone. In his seminal book on molecular biology, “The Origins of Order”², Kauffman dares to revise the Father of Evolution’s theory by incorporating his own ideas regarding the spontaneous self-organization of evolutionary traits (i.e., they were not always an adaptation to an environmental pressure, but rather a spontaneously ordered mutation or eruption), as well as the universal, fundamental structures of order underlying all ordered systems. When not challenging Darwin himself, Kauffman also finds the time to teach at the University of Chicago (my little sister’s alma mater), the University of Pennsylvania (where Frank Chin’s wife Kathy Change set herself on fire in political protest), and the University of Calgary.

He also throws in some Complexity Theory³ — heir to Chaos Theory and the butterfly’s wing flap — from the Santa Fe Institute, positing that co-evolving systems and organisms optimize their capacity to co-evolve by mutually attaining the edge of chaos in order to enhance their ability to change behaviors and adopt new traits to suit each other. Complex ordered systems intensely bordering on chaos are the ones best positioned to learning and adapting (although whether they actually will do so is another matter).

This is what a vibrant democratic society looks like. The greatest threat to a healthy democracy is not chaos, despite what the rulers and authorities say. Their public fetishization of legal proceduralism and obsession with observing social norms of politeness they created and maintain is to protect their own asses and seats, and nothing else. The greatest threat is instead very specific and predictable patterns of institutional order (e.g., Nazism, racism, sexism, corporate cronyism, homophobia, slavery, etc.).

If we want to bring order to the Asian American community and organize it for useful political action, it is vital to understand what the characteristic properties of ordered systems are, so that we may attempt to adopt them. That is the only way we’ll ever unite this fractured diaspora — this necessary but often mutually self-loathing coalition of jostling and sometimes contradictory interests — and meld it into a higher order entity capable of pursuing a collective and coherent mission: a polis. E Pluribus Unum. Out of Many, One.

To unite the Asian diaspora in the Five Eyes, we must evolve our ontological understanding of ourselves, of our individual communities, of our relations to the wider world, and of the nature and lineage of global white supremacist imperialism and racial apartheid. We must create a cosmos from the fractured chaos of loud, dissenting, and selfish voices drowning out and suppressing the immanent collective Will of the People. That is because fundamentally, “Asian” is not a personal identity (although it may become one), but first and foremost a mutual defense pact and organized collective mobilization against an adversary — so-called “White people” (also an imaginary identity), especially the rulers and institutions and authorities who have all failed us in the American promise of equal rights and opportunity, and have therefore wasted my taxpayer money for years.

2gadsenflag

steeltax

Welfare queens! Parasites! Leeches! I could really use that money right now, what with all my credit card debt from medical bills and the insane tariffs and subsequent price hikes on consumer goods (again, I didn’t vote for this, and we all know who did).

3whitepplvote
Exit polls of 2016 Election by Racial Demographic
4whitepplnazis
Picture of 2018 UN resolution to combat institutional racism and Nazism. Look at Europe, Australia, and America versus the rest of the World. Yikes.

The time has never been more urgent. White supremacy is leading us into World War 3 in the 21st century, and we here in America are not the good guys.

According to Yale University math professor Benoit Mandelbrot, life is like a fjord: an infinitely fractal coastline whose inherent character you can see crystallize at multiple levels with the right magnification. So let us begin with the smallest, most atomized, individual lens first — myself.


ON THE ORIGINS OF SOCIAL ORDER: NATURAL SELECTION

“You are who people allow you to be.”
— Keith, #28 Delta Class

In Fall 2005, I crossed Into Eternal Brotherhood at Lambda Phi Epsilon, Michigan State University Colony Chapter.

5lambdafounders
Lambda Phi Epsilon is the largest Asian American ethnic fraternity in North America

Ethnic fraternities first developed out of the need to share and celebrate the diversity of our cultural experiences while living in a white-dominated society. In 1916, in the era of an open anti-Asian apartheid regime consisting of the Chinese Exclusion Act, anti-miscegenation laws, and People vs. Hall, the first Asian fraternity was founded at Cornell: Rho Psi. Today, Rho Psi only exists as an alumni club, with chapters in New York, Hawaii, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Hong Kong. However, those young Yellow men were the pioneers in attempting to forge brotherhood and unity among the Asian diaspora in America.

The second wave of Asian ethnic fraternities popped up in the 80s in the wake of the Asian American Movement and the Civil Rights era. While still focusing on brotherhood and unity, they were also founded in the hopes of forging an alliance among the different ethnic and national Asian student organizations on campus by having its members report to a common, centralized pan-Asian organization. These student associations, such as the Chinese Students Club (CSC), Taiwanese American Student Association (TASA), the Korean Students Association (KSA), and so forth, would provide the breeding ground for potential new fraternity members, as well as allowing existing Asian fraternity brothers to pursue executive leadership in those organizations, centralizing the collective bargaining power of Asian student organizations on campus under the banner of the Asian Greek system and promoting cooperation. They did this in partnership with Asian ethnic sororities such as aKDPhi (alpha Kappa Delta Phi).

The year and semester that I crossed, one of my SYANDS (same year and semester) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona died from hazing¹⁰. Kenny Luong from Rosemead, California passed away during the initiation football game that kicks off the pledging process (my pledge brothers and I went through the same). It is the first part of a pledging syllabus that can be roughly divided into two: the first half thematically falling under forging Unity, and the second half focused largely around Individual Sacrifice.

The game pits the new pledges and their Pledge Dad (the active brother responsible for educating and initiating them into the fraternity) as a team against the actives of the house — this usually means that the pledges are grossly outnumbered. The game is full-contact with no pads, and the pledges are not allowed any water breaks or rest. It is intentionally structured to test physical endurance and the fighting spirit of the pledges in order to begin fostering bonds of relational solidarity and teach teamwork. The pledge dad usually plays the quarterback and is the only brother on the pledges’ side.

You get hit pretty hard and often. Luong’s death came from injuries during the game, in which brothers will do their best to use repeated physical contact to wear you out. I played football in high school, so I was used to contact sports, but the absence of pads does make it dangerous without proper supervision by the actives.

This game is the formal initiation into pledging, which is designed to break down individual personality, force conformity to social roles and norms, and teach pledges to accept responsibility for themselves and others. The entire first half usually revolves around structured activities designed to teach the pledges to act in unison, like reciting the Greek alphabet together and in sequence. They are also encouraged to adopt a similar demeanor and dress through uniforms — hoodies, bandanas, pins — and shaving their heads. This is to break down any previous social norms and codes of conduct they’ve picked up in their early lives and to eradicate selfish behavior.

The second half is centered around Sacrificing for the squad. It begins with an exercise known as DTYD, or Drink ‘Til You Drop¹¹. During this ritual, pledges are handed numerous jugs full of both water and other ingredients (e.g., Tabasco, soy sauce, wasabi, etc.) designed to make you gag and puke. There is a predetermined number of jugs to drink, unknown to the pledges, but the lesson of the night is that for each jug an individual pledge does not drink and throw up, the greater the burden on the rest of his class. My pledge class was the last class to do DTYD at our chapter before it was nationally banned due to repeat complications. The ritual is meant to mark the second phase of pledging, in which personal sacrifice to spare the squad from punishment by actives is the overarching theme.

All throughout, the message to the pledges is clear: we are here to militarize you and to prepare you to take leadership roles among the different ethnic and national Asian student communities on campus while always reporting to the central authority of Lambdas and the Multicultural Greek Council. It is very similar to a gang initiation — in fact, my Pledge Dad was a former Crip. No other pre-existing loyalties are allowed to interfere with this central duty and representing your set. As an active describes it in the Daily Northwestern:

“The process is designed to mimic the conditions of war. You’re out there with your squad, and you’re under fire from us [the actives] and you’re supposed to stick it out. That state of fear brings you closer.”

Everything about Lambda Phi Epsilon’s pledge process aligns with this mentality. All pledges are forced to live together, eat together, and sleep and study together in close quarters throughout the semester, both to promote brotherhood, but also to prevent one another from being “kidnapped” by actives during the second half of pledging. After DTYD, older brothers will occasionally call over or ambush individual pledges they see walking around on campus by themselves. The hapless pledge will then be forced to do exercises or household chores for the active until his other pledge brothers discover his absence and come for him. This is meant to teach the pledge class how to keep track of one another and periodically stay in touch no matter what external influences or personal grudges come between them — i.e., how to be your brother’s keeper. This is in preparation for the next stage of your college and post-college life: being an active brother in a collective, structured, pan-Asian society.

2016 at Omnia nightclub in Las Vegas with my Pledge Kid William “Sheik” Chye. The guy screaming at the camera is my Little Brother Kai “Motor Mouth” Liao


ON THE ORIGINS OF SOCIETY: CO-EVOLUTION

“Which do you think is harder? Being a pledge, or being a brother?”
— Active saying

According to Kauffman, we can make a rough distinction between evolving complex systems and co-evolving complex systems. In the former, the components within the system do not reproduce, and therefore natural selection can only act on the whole, but never on the components themselves. In co-evolving systems, the components of the system do reproduce themselves in some form or fashion, and so selection may act on the level of the parts of the system, as well as the system as a whole.

6&7collage
Generations of Brotherhood: My Pledge Dad Sam “Quake” Oum, Charter Class, myself, and my Pledge Kids, the Iota Class

Society, at the most fundamental level, is a co-evolving system made up of individual human beings who seek to replicate themselves, either through a biological or ideological legacy. We shape and are shaped by the actions of those around us. Societies of societies, which are meta-societies also known as Civilizations, follow the same fundamental structure and order.

Lambda Phi Epsilon and its affiliated student organizations comprise a dispersed and distributed Society, with centralized hubs and conventions that reinforce their organizational reach and influence — i.e., their Group Muscle. At the formal organizational level, the one where activities are officially recognized by legitimate authorities like the university and campus bodies, Lambda Phi Epsilon acts in concert with Asian student organizations like CSC, TASA, KSA, etc. as well as other minority Greek affiliates to promote social and cultural diversity on campus and provide volunteer service to the local community. This may range from individual service projects like Breast Cancer Awareness and Habitat for Humanity, as well as getting involved in national-level service commitments like the annual Bone Marrow Registration Drive.

8&9collage.jpg

10&11collage
On a volunteer trip to Hohoe, Ghana in West Africa. My Line Brother Keith took all these pictures

At the informal level, Lambda Phi Epsilon, as well as other Asian frats, provide a protected physical and psychological environment for young Asian men to explore and understand their identity (also one of the major reasons young boys join gangs), while instilling in them baseline values of Sacrifice, Dedication, and Commitment. They also provide opportunities to meet and socialize with Asian American women through a series of structured and unstructured events, which is usually one of the major motivators for young Asian freshmen to join.

12&13collage
Left: My installs date for crossing, an APhiG sister; Right: Me with one of my ex-girlfriends, an APhiG de-pledge, at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China

In the Society of Asian Frats, the gender divide over interracial dating, while still present, does not possess as much real-world impact or acrimony. Because active brothers, from the days of pledging, are constantly in contact with a sister Society in the form of Asian sororities, as well as Asian women who make up the regular members of student organizations on campus, you do not feel the sort of gaping chasm between Asian men and women that rages outside in mainstream American society, where we are all isolated, alone, and adrift amidst Whiteness in our everyday lives. Almost every brother ends up having a dating life if they put in any sort of effort since there are so many chances to comingle, especially when we’re known for throwing the wildest ragers every weekend (call it cultural community service).

14&15collage
Typical Lambda birthday party

There’s also the informal aspect of belonging. Being part of an Asian frat teaches you the truly collective nature of power and the physical nature of power struggle. We are most famous in our ecosystem of Asian affiliate organizations for being unabashedly physical. Weekend parties often served as staging grounds for group brawls, and there’s probably very few Lambdas or brothers of Asian frats that have not engaged in organized, collective fighting.

A lot of this is a reaction to the generalized emasculation of Asian men in white American society. Upon joining the Brotherhood, young Asian American boys lose that pervasive agitation and sense of someone looking over their shoulder that plagues them when moving through predominantly White spaces. Each begins to develop an ego and a chip on his shoulder, and when challenged or confronted, he meets the challenge without the insecurity and anxiety that comes from feeling helpless and alone, lost in a sea of racism.

The degree to which any particular chapter or house engages in brawling depends a lot on the personnel at any given time, as well as their relationship to surrounding neighbors. Our chapter would frequently get challenged by ne’er-do-wells who wanted to crash our parties and fuck with us for being “the Asian frat”, so there was a lot of violence to go around. My pledge kid William, from Iota Class, still has a Harry Potter-like lightning scar on his forehead from a group rumble my senior year where some stragglers from Lansing crashed our party and he got hit in the head with a bottle. His attacker ended up being sent to the emergency room with his ear hanging off the side of his head.

 

1617willcollage
My kid Will “Sheik” Chye and his girlfriend Selina

Conflict also reinforces the formal hierarchy of the frat. There are, of course, rules and codes of conduct. You always greet an older brother, you listen to what he says (“scroll”), and you always open his door and light his cigarettes. The older brother takes you under his wing, pays for your meals, buys you presents, and introduces you to people. Beyond this, there are a lot of young men locked up in a proximate physical location, many of them drunk on power for the first time. This often leads to instances of “Neo Rage” (“neos” being newly crossed actives), which comes out in pledging and fights, with others and within the chapter.

It’s here where you truly see Asian group politics manifest at a personal level. After the Iotas and Kappas crossed, we got an influx of Taiwanese American brothers into our chapter. These Taiwanese American brothers shortly thereafter got into a beef with a newly arrived cohort of mainland Chinese American students. The Chinese jumped some of the Taiwanese at one of their apartments, which set off a series of retaliations on both sides.

Because some of our brothers were Taiwanese and were friends with the students that got jumped, our frat got dragged into the fray on their side, including the Chinese American brothers. During one of our “CI Weeks” (“Character Improvement”, a euphemism for Hell Week), a group of our brothers went to jump one of the Chinese students at their apartment in response. The Chinese kids got a tip-off and ended up locking themselves in the building, refusing to come outside to confront our brothers. One of our brothers then ended up smashing in the windshield of the kid’s Porsche with a golf club to send a message as the car’s owner and his buddies watched and cursed at us through their apartment window. The feud was only dropped when our campus advisor brought together the Chinese students and the Taiwanese Lambda brothers to hash things out at, of all places, Bubble Island, the only boba tea place on campus. All of us waited in the parking lot with weapons for the outcome.

18&19collage
Partying in Los Angeles (2017) and San Francisco (2016). Dave Fung told me, there’s two types of Asians. There’s the “boba and kawaii” Asians, and there’s the “Vegas and Cocaine” Asians. Guess which ones we are?

This sense of solidarity and brotherhood, born out of a collective lifestyle, shared experiences, and group confrontations, is what makes the Asian frat experience so special. In many ways, it is a crash course about real life and an initiation into male adulthood, which is fraught with collective violence and politics, and often requires confrontation, whether verbal or physical. It teaches the hard, brass tacks of organizing and negotiating with others, whether those others are other campus organizations, student bodies, or other groups. It also shields Asian men from the social isolation and alienation that stunts their mental and emotional development by giving them a controlled, protective environment in which to experience social and romantic life and experiment with their personalities, largely free of anti-Asian racism in all its oppressive forms. By doing so, it helps rear generations of young Asian men who do not suffer psychological repression from the withering loss of personal identity that accompanies the typical Asian American male experience and renders a large chunk of them inert, disengaged, insecure, apathetic, and afraid of direct confrontation into late adulthood. Hopefully, these brothers will go on to become responsible leaders among men in wider Society, which is far less genteel than any university campus.

Lastly, it teaches Asian guys to cut loose a little and have fun. Combat, after all, is what gives birth to shared Culture and endows it with Meaning — a historical record of the times you got my back and I had yours in the face of danger, which makes our future interactions and personal relationship more meaningful and cherished.

(Part 2)


Written by Albert Joon-Ho Hur

[Edited by J]


Endnotes:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_materialism
  2. The Origins of Order by Stuart Kauffman (1993)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity_theory_and_organizations
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology
  5. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-un-nazi-glorification-resolution-vote-against-free-speech-far-right-white-supremacist-neo-alt-a8066761.html
  6. The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Benoit Mandelbrot (1977)
  7. https://msu.edu/~lphie/about-lambda-phi-epsilon.html
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rho_Psi
  9. http://www.akdphi.org
  10. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/hazing-in-america/ten-years-later-fraternity-hazing-death-still-takes-its-toll-n467671
  11. https://dailynorthwestern.com/2008/05/01/archive-manual/hazed-a-greek-tragedy/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s