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This Lunar New Year, Asian communities deserve the right to grieve and fear

A photograph of two red lit candles with gold lettering

When two mass shootings rocked Asian American communities, as well as ESEA people further afield, concerns of racially motivated attacks were quickly dismissed. But we should be allowed to express our emotions without condemnation.

25 Jan 2023

Content warning: this article contains mention of racism, murder, suicide and domestic violence.

On the eve of Lunar New Year, a man opened fire in a dance studio in the Californian suburb of Monterey Park, killing at least 11 people and injuring more. The man then travelled to a second venue, this time in nearby Alhambra, where he was apprehended and fled. He was later found dead in a van by an allegedly self-inflicted gunshot.

Both Monterey Park and Alhambra are home to high numbers of Asian Americans – Monterey Park’s population is 65% Asian, and the targeted dance studio’s events are most frequently attended by people in their 60s and 70s. The victims of the mass shooting were Asian Americans in that age range, gathering together to celebrate Lunar New Year. Nearby to the crime scene, thousands of residents had earlier enjoyed a festival ushering in the Year of the Rabbit. So, while news of a mass shooting unfolded on the most joyous day of many Asian communities’ calendars, many of us held our breath. Was this attack the latest in an increased spree of violence targeting East and Southeast Asian people since Covid-19 began? Would this be another racially motivated attack, the deadliest mass shooting targeting Asian people since the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings?

“While news of a mass shooting unfolded on the most joyous day of many Asian communities’ calendars, many of us held our breath”

I watched the news from California in the midst of my own Lunar New Year celebrations in Kuala Lumpur. There, it was already the first day of the new year, when house calls are made and loved ones reunite. I had spent the day with aunties, uncles and cousins whom I had last embraced almost four years ago, pre-pandemic. Our day had been celebratory: full of well-meaning, nosy questions; the giving and receiving of ang pows; and, of course, dishes upon dishes of food. 

As the first day of the new year began to wind down and the bangs of fireworks started up again as night fell, I overheard from the television that a mass shooting had taken place in a majority Asian American area and that the victims would most likely be elderly Asians. My body reacted before my brain. The bitter taste of bile flooded my mouth. My shoulders hunched, my jaw began to ache. Not again, I thought.

“My shoulders hunched, my jaw began to ache. Not again, I thought”

More news emerged. The gunman was identified as a 72-year-old Asian man and the narrative immediately changed. As I searched Twitter for updates, I saw calls for Asian people to apologise for immediately jumping to the conclusion that the shooting was racially motivated. I saw Asian people be called liars for expressing their worst fears and accused of causing more divisiveness. There was dismissal that this was not an apparently racially motivated attack, but instead “just” another mass shooting in the US.

When I saw that the shooter was an Asian man, I felt, briefly, relief and frustration. I’m not sure which emotion is stranger to experience in the wake of 11 murders. I wish my feelings had been simpler to embrace; that my attention was only on sadness and sorrow for the victims and their families. But, as news kept breaking, I was conscious that Asian people’s fears were being dismissed as hysteria and that, for some people, this attack was now disappearing into the colourless tally of the daily gun violence in the US. Now, as well as sadness, I was also attempting to process an emerging discourse about Asian people: that we are too quick to judge, to speculate and to fear.

“I was conscious that Asian people’s fears were being dismissed as hysteria”

The motivations of the suspected gunman are still unfolding as I write this. There are many reasons why an Asian person might want to target other Asian people. The most obvious is that the identity ‘Asian’ is not an homogeneous one, but is a frequently used blanket term that groups together a vast number of diverse ethnicities, cultures and experiences. In the US, there are 20 million people who come from 20 different countries and more than 50 ethnic groups who fall under the demographic Asian American, each individual with their own beliefs and motivations. 

Another reason, of course, is that there is a devastating lack of gun controls in the US. There’s a gendered aspect to this too: nearly every mass shooting in the US over the last four decades has been perpetrated by a man, and more than two-thirds of recent mass shootings are linked to domestic violence

There’s also the complex reason that people who are racialised can fall victim to white supremacy in more ways than one. When a person encounters racism, they experience a contempt of themselves which can manifest, both consciously and unconsciously, as self-hatred. Living in a country which incubates its population in white supremacy undoubtedly impacts how you see yourself, your community and your race. It can lead people to harm themselves or others, and its consequences can be deadly.

“Living in a country which incubates its population in white supremacy undoubtedly impacts how you see yourself”

Three days after Lunar New Year’s eve, and as I write this article, news of another mass shooting in California has emerged. On 23 January, in Half Moon Bay, seven Chinese American people were fatally shot at two agricultural locations. The suspected, arrested gunman is a 67-year-old Asian man. His motive is yet to be determined.

In the next few weeks, I can predict how conversations will continue to unfold from the events of Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay. Asian people will be told that this is a ‘race-on-race’ problem, something separate from targeted, racially motivated violence, as if white supremacy only affects white people’s actions. I also know that Asian people’s fears will continue to be dismissed and that entire communities will be blamed for two men’s actions. ‘Stop hurting yourselves,’ right-wing news commentators and online trolls will say as they, the bastions of white supremacy, take our hands and make us hit ourselves. I can make this prediction because it’s what Asian people in countries like the US and the UK have faced for decades. 

We are right to be afraid. The day after the shooting in Monterey Park, Los Angeles County sheriff Robert Luna explained at a press conference why the police were no longer sharing where the victims were taken: “Somebody called one of those hospitals to say something along the lines of they want to go and finish the job.” In the two years between March 2020 and March 2022, there were more than 11,400 reported hate incidents targeting Asian Americans. In the UK, police reported a 21% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and data from the Metropolitan Police suggested a sharp spike in hate crimes against “people of East Asian ethnic appearance” in London in 2020 compared to the previous year. And these attacks haven’t stopped since lockdown was lifted in both countries. Eight days before Lunar New Year, an 18-year-old student was stabbed several times in the head in Indiana during a “racially motivated” attack.

“There is overwhelming evidence for why Asian people fear being targets of violence, and yet, repeatedly, our emotional responses are disregarded”

There is overwhelming evidence for why Asian people fear being targets of violence, and yet, repeatedly, our emotional responses are disregarded. After the Monterey Park shooting, those of us who had suspected this could be yet another racially motivated attack were dismissed as soon as news broke that the shooter was an Asian man. Online, I saw valid fears denied and punished, despite the fact that at least 11 people, most likely Asian Americans, had just been murdered while celebrating Lunar New Year. 

Fireworks are released on the eve of Lunar New Year to drive away bad luck as one year finishes and another begins. The next day is supposed to determine how your year will unfold. The sanctity of this auspicious day has been broken by what happened in Monterey Park and, just days later, in Half Moon Bay. 18 people have lost their lives in two mass shootings, and many Asian communities in the US, and further afield, are starting the new year grieving, afraid and confused. These emotions are valid. We should be allowed to feel them. But we should also be allowed to vocalise them without fear of being dismissed or blamed, as communities continue to reckon with the consequences of these 72 hours of awful violence.   

The Monterey Park Lunar New Year Victims Fund has been established to support the victims of the shooting. You can find out more and donate here. Further resources can be found here.

Organisations working to support ESEA communities in the UK include: Remember and Resist, the Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, ESA Scotland, Hackney Chinese Community Services, On Your Side, besea.n and DAYLDN

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or you can email [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org 

In the UK, call Galop’s National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans+ Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0800 999 5428, the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org 

Text SHOUT to 85258 from anywhere in the UK, anytime 24/7, about any type of crisis, including suicidality.

In the US, TrevorLifeline, TrevorChat, and TrevorText provide LGBTQ+ crisis support. If you are thinking about suicide and in need of immediate support, please call the TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or select TrevorChat below to connect with a counsellor.

*This article was amended on 26 January to include the correct data on hate crime in the UK. A previous version misstated that in the UK, police data demonstrated a 300% rise in hate crimes towards ESEA people in the first quarter of 2020.