If maverick Henry David Thoreau talked of hearing a “different drummer” of dissent, Gordon Siu listens to a marching band.
Many people have nerve endings sensitive to the winds of social injustice. But Gordon sandpapered his so he can detect the slightest breeze.
Recently, he used a gift card at a restaurant, and when he asked for a refund of the leftover change, he was refused. Whoa! The law says he’s entitled to his refund, and he was off and running on another cause. He went on TV and stated his case. Naturally, he was right, which is what he has a history of being.
As he said, “It wasn’t about the few dollars I had coming back, but the millions of dollars consumers are cheated out of on these gift cards.”
The 26-year-old Yale University grad and Marine Corps reservist is ever alert for tiger tails to twist. However, though he does it with a whimsical sense of humor, his purpose is serious as he attempts to fight unfairness while he watches hot air escape from the balloons he pricks.
He doesn’t seem to be partisan: miscreants of both right and left are in danger of his gaze and broom.
Gordon got an early start as a Lone Ranger of grievance, and has never stopped.
For three years a decade ago, a favorite sport at Chula Vista’s Bonita Vista High School was watching student-journalist Gordon Siu freak out district administrators.
He got his muckraking start in 2004 as a sophomore staffer on the school paper, The Crusader. (“Muckraker” is not a pretty word, but it’s an honored journalism name for those who dig up dirt in the public interest.)
Gordon approached faculty adviser Nancy Clifford, saying he wanted to do an exposé on the leaders of their own Sweetwater Union High School District. Now, this is what a school paper adviser needs, right? A kid who can’t yet drive a car wanting to go all Watergate on her bosses. Well, Clifford, to her everlasting credit, did not send him off to interview the homecoming queen. Rather, she told him to go ahead — with watchful editing, of course.
“She thought it was hilarious,” Gordon says. “She said to go for it.”
“The students and teachers supported Gordon,” says Clifford, now retired. “He had a wicked wit. He’s definitely brash. He’s not burdened by seeking to be hugged. I admired him and was fond of him. Gordon was far and away the best investigative reporter I ever had.”
Over the next three years, district bigwigs must have seen Gordon around every hallway turn, especially Superintendent Ed Brand, with Gordon asking for records of every suspicious lunch the poor guy bought. Because he had the support of Bonita Vistans, efforts from on high to stifle him went nowhere.
Brand and others might well have echoed Henry II’s irritated question about Thomas à Becket: “Will no man rid me of this meddlesome (kid)?”
Gordon was among the first to challenge the administration of the Sweetwater district, a political slough out of which prosecutors would later catch fish like an Alabama bass pond. Gordon showed that, even as a kid, he could sniff out a bad odor better than reporters who get paid to do it.
He challenged how millions of dollars in bond funding was used, how revenue from exclusive vendor contracts was used, the fairness of a preferential enrollment arrangement between Sweetwater schools and San Diego State University, and even what he saw as a frivolous graduation requirement.
When he did a Freedom of Information Act request for Brand’s expense records and public calendar, he was given a stack of more than 840 pages and a bill for $84, which he didn’t have. (He was bailed out by a San Diego journalists’ group.)
“When I went in to pick the papers up, the district spokeswoman told me what I was doing wasn’t journalism, that I should get an adviser to help me write real news. It seemed like her only job was to make the district look good,” Gordon says, revealing another insight gained.
The teenage Woodward and Bernstein was amazingly effective. On several issues, the district caved and made changes to comply with his editorial revelations, though probably with gritted teeth.
Gordon is the son of immigrants who run a restaurant in National City, a well-worn path to Americanization. Mom and dad grew up in communist China, where you not only kept your mouth shut, you averted your eyes.
You will not be aghast to learn that they wanted junior to just shut up, get A’s and make it into a good college. He did the last two. But to his parents’ pleadings, he said, “This is America. This is what we do, fight for what’s right.”
It seems inevitable that a Chinese-American graduate of Yale in East Asian studies, who has a mastery of two Chinese languages and a familiarity with that country, would have some multinational company salivating to gather him in with a golden lasso.
Certainly, his education would get him in a lot of doors, but the problem is, he doesn’t want to go through those doors. He makes it clear he’d rather work in a gulag than a corporation.
Gordon is unsettled about employment. He thought about journalism but decided that trade is going toes-up. And law didn’t appeal because it’s an overcrowded field.
Gordon, don’t you think it would be easier just to be a go-along-get-along guy?
“Sure, but one day you’re going to wake up, middle aged and bald, and realized that you get up, go to work, go home and have nothing to show for it. If money was important, I would have gone to Wall Street with my friends.”
Gordon is living at his parents’ home and supporting himself with savings and a couple of smart stock buys. He’s watchful for an entrepreneurial opportunity.
Meantime, he’s enjoying his duties as a Marine corporal. And if that’s not a paradox, it’s certainly a riddle. Despite loathing a corporate straitjacket, he loves the Corps — where a renegade thought is as trusted as an Afghan guide.
You’re now almost a decade past high school. Have you mellowed?
“No. I’ve gotten more intense.”
There’s an expression that might fit you: “He suffers fools poorly.”
“Yeah. Definitely. When I see something wrong, I call people out on it.”
I’m surprised you like the military, because that’s full of rules.
“I think being in the military helps you deal with bureaucracy and navigating stupid rules. The Marines have made me more confident in what I do. It’s hard to explain.”
The East Asian image in this country is a flattering one: people who are well-educated, put their noses to the grindstone, keep their mouths shut, work hard and be successful. Is that accurate?
“Yeah. One of the main criticisms I had at Yale was that all the Asian people tended to go into finance or science. I wanted to do something completely different.”
There can’t even be a guess as to the career Gordon will eventually find. It won’t have to be interesting; he’ll make it that. And if his boss is corrupt or a stuffed shirt, he’ll make it utterly terrifying.
The history of American social change is replete with men and women who seem to fit in nowhere, but then go on to cause positive change. Gordon loves to make differences, but he also might read Thoreau, who said, “If you’ve built your castles in the air … now put foundations under them.”
However, don’t be surprised if this is not the last you hear of Gordon Siu, American patriot and provocateur of great promise.
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]