ABOUT THE TIME Jennifer Sommerkorn left South Philly High, soft-spoken Wei Chen arrived as a student.
His father, a truck driver in Fujian Province back in China, moved to America in search of a better life when Wei was a child. He found one—driving long-distance coach buses around the country — but it took him years to establish himself and bring his family over, to South Philly, when Wei was 15.
The idea of racial diversity frightened Wei; he had spent his whole life surrounded by fellow Han Chinese. Now he faced America’s ethnic, religious and economic mosaic without any English, or any friends. He knew his best chance of success lay in keeping his head down, working hard, and not attracting any attention.
A month after starting school, he stood at his locker reaching for a book when a fist smashed into the back of his head, and another into his neck. He crumpled and looked up with bewilderment at the boys who had hit him. Why? he wondered. What terrible insult have I made?
The school’s staff asked Wei to describe the boys, and pick them out of a photo book. He stared at it in frustration; he knew they were male and black, but otherwise he hadn’t yet figured out how to read the features of American faces.
Wei wanted to quit attending class. He didn’t want to tell his mother about the violence because it would frighten her, so he couldn’t simply stay home. He started spending his days at a nearby park, counting out his class schedule hour by hour until he could return home.
EVENTUALLY, A FEAR of failure drove Wei back to class, but conditions there only deteriorated. Two of Wei’s new friends — twins — were beaten at the subway entrance outside the school, battered so badly that their parents told them to drop out of school. They did. Wei stayed with his plan: Head down. Hard work. Avoid attention.
That changed in October 2008, when a group of about 30 black students chased five Asian students a block from the school into the Snyder Avenue subway station, where they beat them until they needed hospitalization. The attack — its ferocity, its –unfairness — shocked Wei.
He tried to persuade his fellow students that they should do something. Raise their voices, cause a scene. And then he hit on an idea: They should boycott the school.
It didn’t work. “We didn’t know how to boycott,” he says. So nothing changed at South Philly High. But maybe more importantly, something changed in Wei. Artistic, idealistic Wei, who loved to paint, studied calligraphy and performed traditional Chinese opera, had become something else. “I was always quiet before the October incident,” he says, wearing a t-shirt of his own design, which features a ferocious Chinese mask. “Then,” he says, struggling for the right words in English. “Then I changed my face.”