On the evening of the lunar new year, Ny Nourn gathered with loved ones to eat lobster at a restaurant in Monterey Park, the southern California city known as America’s first suburban Chinatown.
Her partner’s grandmother had died earlier that week, and the family came to the Taste of MP on Saturday to grieve and pay tribute to her: “She would want us to be together, and we wanted to honor her legacy and memory.” Nourn was comforted by the tables around her jam-packed with as many as six generations of families: “That’s what lunar new year is about – family and celebration.”
Thirty minutes later, the joy of the holiday was shattered when, one block away on the thoroughfare of Garvey Avenue, a man entered a ballroom dance studio and opened fire, killing at least 11 victims, all in their 50s, 60s and 70s. The massacre, the deadliest in recent memory in California, has sent familiar shockwaves across the country, which has already experienced more than 30 mass shootings in the first month of 2023.
But for Monterey Park and Asian American communities in California and throughout the US, the tragedy was particularly painful to absorb, reviving the fear, anxiety and trauma of the last three years of the pandemic, which saw a surge in anti-Asian hate incidents and two other mass shootings that primarily affected Asian victims. In March 2021, a man killed eight people in a series of Atlanta area spa shootings, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Then in June 2022, a man opened fire in a Taiwanese church in southern California, killing one person and wounding five. And last week, an 18-year-old Indiana University student was stabbed in a racially motivated attack.
The circumstances of the three mass shootings and 11,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic were distinct, with motives of the attacks not always clear. In Monterey Park, a majority Asian American city east of Los Angeles, the shooter has been identified as a 72-year-old Asian man who authorities say died of a self-inflicted gunshot and may have intentionally targeted some victims at the dance studio while randomly killing others.
Regardless of the motives, the cumulative impact of this violence, community organizers said, was intense anguish and stress for Asian Americans. Saturday’s massacre and the aftermath was also a reminder of how vulnerable senior citizens are, how difficult it can be to mourn when these cases are politicized, how limited the mental health resources are for immigrant and refugee populations, and how PTSD and vicarious trauma can go unaddressed in these communities.
“With the significant amount of anti-Asian hate, there’s been this feeling of a lack of safety and being under threat,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of the group Stop AAPI Hate, which has tracked harassment and discrimination against Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic. “Lunar new year is a time of rejuvenation and renewal, and also was the beginning of putting some of what happened with Covid and anti-Asian hate behind us. So to be hit in the first month with another attack is especially devastating.” She said it had been hard to process that senior citizens were victimized, noting a recent survey showing that the vast majority of Asian American elderly residents reported feeling that the US was becoming more dangerous for them.
“An incident like this exacerbates these feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, and I’m concerned about the trauma and PTSD that comes from having something so horrific happen, especially in your backyard.”
As of Monday evening, authorities had identified four of the fatal victims, My Nhan, 65, and Lilan Li, 63, Xiujuan Yu, 57, and Valentino Alvero, 68, with friends also identifying a fifth victim Ming Wei Ma, a beloved manager at the dance studio known as “Mr Ma”.
‘We need more resources’
Eddy Zheng, a community organizer and founder of New Breath Foundation in Oakland, said he was reflecting on how AAPI communities have historically struggled to discuss and address mental health impacts of the ongoing traumas they have endured.
“For many communities of color, especially people living in poverty, sometimes violence is normalized, because we see these types of shootings again and again,” Zheng said. “For the AAPI community, it feels like there’s really no way to find the right words and right ways to seek help and try to make sense of what has happened. And for the refugee and Asian American immigrant population that came to this country as a result of war and foreign policy, they’ve lived through intergenerational traumas without culturally competent therapeutic and mental health supports.”
After three years of anti-Asian hate incidents, he continued, “It really perpetuates this fear that they are not safe. We need more acknowledgment on how important it is to address this lack of support for immigrant, refugee and monolingual populations, and we need more resources.”
In the wake of the latest attack, there have been familiar calls by some officials for expanded police presence in Asian American neighborhoods.
But Sarah Lee, a senior community organizer with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, who has worked with AAPI people who are criminalized and negatively impacted by law enforcement, said those calls have only compounded the stress of the Monterey Park tragedy.
“Over the weekend, it was such a difficult rollercoaster to celebrate the lunar new year and then hear about this incident,” she said. “For so many AAPI communities, it’s not only mourning the incident itself but also bracing ourselves for the violence of the response that comes with police or politicians trying to scapegoat our communities or pit us against other communities.”
Amid escalating fears of anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area, some Asian American and Black community groups came together to push back against responses that promoted anti-Black racism and police expansion, which activists said could further endanger communities of color without preventing violence.
“It feels like there’s little space for us to collectively mourn, because of how quickly people politicize moments like these,” Lee said.
For AAPI organizers, it was also exhausting to figure out how to respond, Zheng added: “We feel bombarded, but we have to show up to this type of tragedy and violence. People are really stretched thin, and this adds to the stress and trauma even for people that are doing direct services to try to support the community and address this type of violence.”
Joon Bang, the CEO of Iona Senior Services, who has long worked with Asian American seniors, said it was overwhelming to try to grapple with the tragedy. He noted how after the Atlanta shootings, he called his mother to process what had happened and ended up moving cities so he could be closer to his grandmother and mom.
“It made me reflect on how short and fragile life really is, and recognize the need to support the older adults in my life,” he said. “People have to show up as human beings and neighbors for the older adults in our communities wherever we are … And we have to create spaces where they can receive support and also communicate to older adult communities that there is access to resources.”
Nourn, who was dining in Monterey Park just before the shooting, said she loves visiting the city because of the vibrant culture: “This shooting really hit home for me … It’s a community of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants and refugees that have really not assimilated, but it’s their own community that they’ve built for themselves.”
The longtime organizer and survivor of domestic violence said she hoped that Asian American communities would find ways to grieve and not allow politicians or law enforcement to take over the conversation. She said she also hoped people would not shy away from having difficult conversations about misogyny, interpersonal violence, mental healthcare and strategies that can prevent violence: “We have to understand the root causes, and we need to focus on community-based solutions and have healing dialogues within our own communities.”