[Note: This post is listed among my favorites for its comments, which still move me to tears.]
Several months before I moved to Hong Kong I stumbled upon a web site that was so disarming, so ingenious and creative and full of energy that I contacted its proprietor, a college student living in Massachusetts named Daniel Hong. I told him how much I admired his work and that I’d be privileged if he’d allow me to write articles for the site and help edit his own copy. Daniel was Korean, and his English needed polishing, though I found his writing, mistakes and all, to be endearing and charming.
Some of the early pieces in this blog were actually essays I wrote for Daniel. The post on the ice-skating star Chen Lu was for danielhong.org, as was Kicking the Bucket, the first post to get me a link on another blog (thanks, Conrad). Daniel was a web designer, and his site was a treasure trove of stories and interviews and reviews of new web sites. It was also a webcam site; Daniel had a webcam in every room of his apartment, and he seemed to enjoy being the center of attention.
He was also selfless and giving. He was always participating in Walk for AIDS and Walk for Breast Cancer and Walk for Hunger, always raising money for charities. All this, and he was only in his early 20s. I knew him mostly via the Internet and we only met once, in 2001 when I was visiting my family in New York. He was one of the kindest, sweetest people I ever met, with just a little touch of devilish humor.
I don’t remember when the last time we spoke was, though I think it was early 2002. I called him and he sounded terrible. “I can’t talk, Richard,” he said. “I need to go on Prozac. I’ll tell you about it later.” I left him alone, and I never heard from him again. When I tried to send him emails with new essays, they bounced back. I thought I did something to offend him, and that I was on his “refuse” list. I was quite upset.
I wrote an email to Daniel just two days ago because I wanted to get in touch with a mutual friend. The email didn’t bounce back this time, but there was no reply. Then I located the friend using google, and in my email I told him about my blog and I mentioned Daniel. What happened later was a little awkward; the friend read one of my posts and put in a comment that mentioned Daniel and how sad he was that Daniel had passed away — he presumed that I knew all about it.
When I saw the comment, it was a though a rat had bitten me. I looked at it and I kept re-reading it, trying to make sense out of it. Passed away? Dead? Daniel Hong? He’s a kid! He’s probably only 25 years old.
I wrote a frantic email to our mutual friend. I’m afraid I put him in the awkward position of having to break the awful news to me. (If you’re reading this, thanks so much for bearing with me last night; I was a bit hysterical.)
The reason for the tragedy: Daniel had been trying to get his green card for years, and apparently the INS denied it. Daniel was so distraught he took his own life.
I’ve had to deal with the deaths of friends and loved ones before, having lost my brother in 1996 and my closest friend in 1991. This was, however, the first time someone I loved had committed suicide.
As I heard the reason, I felt a rush of pain, of rage and of confusion. Daniel was so talented, he could do anything. He could have designed web sites and run businesses from Korea and come back to visit anytime. Yes, maybe he was crushed and disappointed — but is that a reason to take your life? And so young? So full of life and wit and brilliance? Why? How could he do it to himself, and to those who love him, his mother, his family?
I don’t know all the details yet, but I know enough for this to be a very dark day. I knew he was upset when I called, but I had no idea he could even be thinking about suicide. Not Daniel. I knew Daniel was going to be rich and famous. He had everything going for him.
And so, once again, I face the sad fact that people are not always what they appear on the outside, and sometimes those who appear strong and resilient are the most weak and fragile of all.
I tried to put myself in Daniel’s place, to understand how hopeless, how totally miserable he must have felt to actually kill himself. I can’t do it. He must have been totally shattered, every dream wiped out, with no possibility of hope, ever. Or at least it must have seemed that way to him. Why didn’t he call me? Why didn’t he say something?
It will take me a few days or weeks to deal with this. I spent the morning using google to pull up bits and pieces of his cached web site, the only part of Daniel that remains.
Wherever you are Daniel, please know that a lot of people miss you. Your little site lit up the world, and you brought happiness to everyone who knew you. I hope you’re at peace now. We all love you.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.