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Op Eds

The Chinese Etchings on My Shield of Achilles

By Ruby Huang, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ruby Huang ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House.

I thought long and hard about writing this op-ed.

Truthfully, I still am not sure about this — bringing up subjects like massacres in a piece of writing always feels like I’m making a spectacle out of violence and death. But again, as a proud intended History concentrator, I suppose I am always making a spectacle out of dead people.

October 24, 2021, marks the 150th anniversary of the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre of 1871, where a mob of around 500 white and Hispanic people entered Los Angeles’s Old Chinatown and murdered 18 Chinese people. I refuse to construct the previous sentence with the victims as the main focus because they weren’t the actors. They didn’t do anything.

As a 19-year-old who lives in the comfort of being acknowledged as American (for the most part) and a Harvard student, my Oct. 24 was mostly spent enjoying the serenity of my college campus in the fall and building up my excitement for Halloween and my costumes. I had the time to plan not just one, but two costumes. With my crystal-clear hindsight, I am able to say that both turned out fantastic.

I wasn’t worried about getting murdered in my own home.

That certainly indicates progress — it is objectively good that I get to worry about the quality of my social life before my mortality.

But I was filled with a sense of dread that I can only acknowledge as survivor’s guilt — the gut-wrenching sensation of deeply questioning why those people 150 years ago could not have had the same sense of security I do. It was the accumulation of 150 years of trauma packed into one Sunday evening for a 19-year-old Chinese American girl. The trauma of being implicitly taught that Chinese Americans have no place in American history through years of public school education. The ongoing painful and fragmented unlearning experience, strung together by the many ways people like her were, at best, considered too “white-adjacent” to experience racism and at worst, brutally killed.

History didn’t start out this traumatically for me. Learning about past events and how they shape our world into the way it is today didn’t always make me feel like a witness at forlorn crime scenes. I didn’t always feel like I was stumbling across bodies shallowly buried in the unfilled gaps and blank spaces of archives and textbooks with every newly acquired piece of historical knowledge about marginalized communities and peoples.

I was — and I still am — deeply passionate about History and its potential to uncover new visions of the past that guide our paths into the future.

I tried to guide my own path with a vision of the past as well: W.H. Auden writes of the glorification and disillusionment of war in his poem “The Shield of Achilles,” in which the goddess Thetis approaches Hephaestus, blacksmith of the Greek gods, to make a shield for her son Achilles that would glorify both the Trojan War and Achilles as a warrior. Hephaestus instead presents Thetis with a shield that depicts the destructiveness of war and Achilles’s bleak future.

I entered and navigated Harvard as an academic space likening myself to both Thetis and Hephaestus, with History as my Achilles. With a strong belief in History’s capacity to inform positive changes, I began etching a shield for it. But, the more I etched, the more dead bodies appeared on my shield. I was engulfed by fantasies of kleos aphthiton: the “imperishable glory” brought forth by the framing of historical research as an implicit and subdued celebration of past deaths, rooted in the assumption that we can always make meaning out of them and capitalize on this morbid momentum.

Yet, I still don’t know the meaning of murdering 18 Chinese people.

What I do know is that I will arrive at this unnecessary epiphany and mourn many more times. I know I have at least my remaining years at Harvard as an undergraduate student to do that. Possibly, I have the entirety of my remaining lifespan to understand that surviving violence is an essential part of what it historically and continuously means to be Chinese American.

To embark on a journey to uncover the untold histories of peoples who are deemed unimportant by neglect, I suppose, will always lead to moments like this. The shield of Achilles, no matter how glorious in intention, is after all, an etched portrait of the horrors of war. The pursuit of history, no matter how optimistic we may be of the future because of it, is after all, our etchings of pasts made possible only by deaths and the passage of time. I’ll keep etching, but for now, I want to mourn.

Ruby Huang ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House.

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