CHICAGO — When Connie Cheung applied for a job at a Chicago-based employee recruitment company, she was stunned by the email she received in response.
“Me love you long time,” it read.
The phrase, used by an Asian sex worker in the 1987 movie “Full Metal Jacket” and later sampled by 2 Live Crew, shocked and disgusted Cheung.
As it turns out, the response wasn’t meant for her. Its author, James McMahon, according to the email, had intended the email for his boss, Brian Haugh — but the note made its way to Cheung when it was accidentally forwarded to her.
While Cheung has never seen “Full Metal Jacket,” she said the phrase “me love you long time” is a well-known slur against Asian women. The phrase was often thrown around the halls of her Florida high school, she said.
She wondered: Is this how potential employers talk about her behind her back?
“Asian females have always been sexualized because of their history with Western males,” Cheung said. “It’s gross. That specific phrase is sexual. It’s not just toward my race, it’s sexual. That’s all I could think of, was, ‘Why? It’s 2019.'”
Frustrated, Cheung posted the email to Facebook publicly, and her friends criticized the company, Chicago Search Group, on its business page.
On Monday, McMahon, who is vice president of the company, told Block Club that the comment was meant for Haugh’s eyes only. The business partners and “best friends” have watched “Full Metal Jacket” together, he said.
McMahon said he wrote “me love you long time” in the email because he assumed by reading the applicant’s last name that she was Asian. The woman who says the quote in the movie is Asian, too, he said.
“It was an insensitive, inside joke only meant for my partner,” McMahon said. “It was an insensitive comment, I realize that. It was a racist comment, I realize that …I had no racist intentions. I’m not racist, I’m certainly not sexist.”
“I know I was 100 percent in the wrong. I wish it never happened, I wish I could take it back. It was a huge mistake and I’m sorry.”
Haugh, the president of Chicago Search Group and the intended recipient of the email, declined to answer questions about the company’s hiring practices and defended McMahon’s email last week.
“The quote is from a famous movie, google would have told you that,” he wrote to Block Club.
“As a son of two attorneys (A little research can show they both worked at a large law firm in the Willis Tower), even I can recognize that an interpretation is an opinion, not fact,” Haugh wrote.
Haugh went on to say the company has hired employees that “happen to be Asian, black, gay, Spanish decent, etc” [sic] and explained McMahon is married to a woman who is black and Colombian.
“Given those facts, a responsible reporter would ask, are these hires/relationships of a racist person/organization?” he wrote.
‘In shock at how unprofessional it was’
Cheung moved to the Midwest after high school to study Italian at the University of Iowa. She graduated in 2016 and moved to South Korea, where she taught English.
In February of this year, she moved to Chicago to be closer to her boyfriend, who lives on the South Side with his family. Cheung, who is 27, currently lives in Uptown.
After moving to Chicago, Cheung said she landed a few jobs in office management assistance. She currently has one part-time position and is actively looking for full-time work.
On Tuesday, she applied for an office management assistant job at Chicago Search Group. The next day, on Wednesday, Haugh emailed her and invited her to partake in a phone interview.
But before the interview could take place, McMahon emailed Haugh and wrote, “Me love you long time,” according to a copy of the email posted online and later given to Block Club. Haugh accidentally forwarded the email to Cheung when he asked her to come in for an interview.
Cheung was shocked.
“At first I was just in shock at how unprofessional it was,” she said. “And also shocked because it had been a while since I had something so blatantly racial said to me.”
Cheung said she then called Haugh, who she at first mistook for McMahon.
“I asked, ‘Is it because I’m an Asian female?'” Cheung said. “He just laughed.”
When McMahon called to apologize, Cheung said she asked whether the behavior was condoned by the company. The vice president said no, she said.
“Well, it must be. He’s not getting reprimanded,” Cheung said. “Obviously it’s being condoned.”
After the email, McMahon said he told his wife, who is an immigrant, what happened at work.
“She said, ‘Yeah, that’s a racist comment.’ She said, ‘It doesn’t matter what your intent was, it matters how the other person took it,'” he said.
Later, McMahon called Cheung to apologize, he confirmed. He then said he sat down with his staff to discuss the email. This behavior is outlawed in the company’s employee handbook, McMahon said, and he is open to the idea of instituting a diversity training for employees.
Chicago Search Group is an Equal Opportunity Employer, McMahon said. In succession, the last three people to hold this particular job have been Mongolian, Latina and Asian.
In response to Cheung’s fears she was being discriminated against, McMahon said that wasn’t the case — forwarding her application to Haugh meant they were serious about hiring her.
“That’s why I feel horrible,” McMahon said. “She doesn’t know me from Adam, so I get it, I see where she’s coming from. We would not have called her to set up an interview if we were not serious. We’re extremely busy.”
But when a friend of Cheung’s reached out to Haugh via email about the way Cheung was treated, he was threatened with legal action.
“With all due respect, I am focused on bigger problems than your friend being offended by a movie [quote],” the email from Haugh read. “Sorry, but just don’t have time for this. Best of luck to you!! You may want to google libel laws before your crew posts things publicly. Our attorneys are on call….”
Cheung said Haugh’s response was “condescending.”
She said the incident made her hope federal legislation that strengthens existing employment law — including the Equal Rights Amendment, which aims to guarantee equal legal rights for all people in the United States regardless of sex — will be passed in her lifetime.
“A lot of companies say, ‘Yeah, we’re equal opportunity employers,’ but at the end of the day, who do you answer to?” she said. “If someone’s racist, it’s not like you’re gonna know they’re racist until they say something. Don’t bring your racist beliefs to work. Just do your job.”
Cheung is still looking for work.
“You don’t hear much about discrimination against the Asian community,” she said. “I had never thought about it. I just put applications out there and hope for the best.”
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