An Asian American veteran lifted his shirt and bared his military scars, declaring, "Is this patriot enough?" in a powerful speech to denounce hate against the Asian community.
Lee Wong, a board member of West Chester Township, a suburb of Cincinnati, spoke out on the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans at a public meeting on March 23.
He said he'd been silent for too long on being victimized because of his race.
"People question my patriotism, that I don't look American enough. They cannot get over this face. I want to show you something because I'm not afraid. ... I'm going to show you what patriotism looks like," he said, taking off his suit jacket, untying his tie and unbuttoning his shirt.
Wong, 69, showed significant scarring along his chest, sustained during his time in the U.S. military, and said: "Here is my proof."
"Now," he added, "is this patriot enough?"
Video of his speech went viral and led to an outpouring of support.
Wong explained that he came to the U.S. at the age of 18 from the island of Borneo, and two years later he was beat up in Chicago. That perpetrator never faced charges, he said. The incident changed the trajectory of his life, prompting him to enlist in the Army and go on to become an elected official to improve his community.
The meeting was the board's first after the March 16 Atlanta-area spas shooting that left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent.
"I wasn't prepared or [had] anything written down," Wong told ABC News. "I thought it was just necessary with all the things happening -- with a combination of the Atlanta shooting and the attacks on local restaurants here against Asian Americans."
He said he's seen racial animus toward Asian Americans surge over the past four years. The coronavirus pandemic and its suspected origins in Wuhan, China, has been cited as one motive for the surge in anti-Asian discrimination in the United States over the last year.
From March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021, there were more than 3,795 hate incidents, including verbal harassment and physical assault, against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks such incidents.
Wong explained he sustained his scars during basic combat training while in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He went on to serve for 20 years, including deployments in Germany and Korea.
Despite his service, he said he's faced repeated discrimination, even in his own community.
"What hit me the most is the people who came to me so vocal and bold to tell me that I'm not American enough -- I don't 'look American' or I'm 'not patriotic enough when I was holding the [American] flag, a big Army jacket and retired Army hat walking around at the Board of Elections," he said. "It was so ugly for people do such a thing, to make fun of Asian Americans and say that we are less superior."
One day in October, Wong said, a person appeared outside his home dressed like a ninja.
"I knew that was the way to intimidate me," he said. "I kept quiet."
And then he didn't.
"I learned that when you don't speak up," Wong added, "that is when trouble begins."
Wong warned that the spate of bias incidents against Asian Americans is nothing new but has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
"Racial bias against Asian Americans has been going on for a long time, since the 1800s with the Exclusion Act and all that," he said. "It's just wild the ugliness that came out in the last few years, with words like 'China virus,' and how the country handles the coronavirus and then they blame it on Asian Americans? It's just crazy."