Reflections on the Monterey Park tragedy

Monterey Park, the first suburban Chinatown, has been a safe haven for Asia America since the 1970s. Now, it’s a painful reminder that Asian Americans need to live on high alert — even in places that feel like home.

A large banner with lanterns behind a barricade and a "Do Not Enter" sign with scattered pedestrians

I know Monterey Park well. It’s where I escape to for Chinese food on days when I’m due to reconnect with my heritage or when speaking in Cantonese with strangers at 99 Ranch Market will bring me a sense of comfort that I don’t feel with anyone else.

My friends and I have spent hours gossiping over stacks of bamboo steamers, talking so incessantly that the har gow cools before we reach for our chopsticks.

For dinner, we usually opt for Sichuan chili dishes that light our tongues on fire. We cry because the food is too spicy and because we are laughing too much and because the food is too spicy and we laugh again.

If I could describe the San Gabriel Valley in one word, it would be: safe.

Safe to eat the food that I love, safe to interact in my mother’s mother tongue, safe because it feels like home.

But after the mass shooting in Monterey Park, I fear that any semblance of the safety that I felt before has been forcibly stripped away.

On Saturday, Lunar New Year’s Eve, a gunman opened fire in a busy dance studio in Monterey Park, where many locals gathered after that night’s jubilant celebrations. He killed 11 people and injured another nine in one of California’s deadliest mass shootings.

Monterey Park, where Asians make up 65% of the population, is a central hub where locals and visitors alike gather to eat hot pot, enjoy bubble tea, shop for groceries and visit family. The dance studio where the shooting occurred was a cultural pillar for the neighborhood’s multi-generational community and had attracted amateur and professional performers for nearly 30 years.

The streets of downtown were decorated with lucky red lanterns and banners to welcome an auspicious new year, which, according to the Chinese zodiac calendar, is the Year of the Rabbit. This year is expected to be both lucky and disruptive.

I’m not superstitious. But to have such a senseless act of violence happen just minutes before the start of a year that is predicted to be unstable makes me skeptical about whether I should be.

Ask me how I feel; I’m not sure how to respond. Perhaps I’m numb. Perhaps I don’t know how to reckon with my grief on what is supposed to be the happiest day of the year.

Perhaps I’m still reeling from the 2021 shooting spree that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at three different spas in the metropolitan Atlanta area.

Or perhaps I would say that I’m paranoid. I am more anxious about my surroundings these days, especially in New York, where a 40-year-old Asian woman was fatally pushed in front of an oncoming subway train on January 15, 2022.

I previously lived in Flushing, New York, a predominantly Asian neighborhood where anti-Asian violence, fueled by the pandemic’s anti-Chinese rhetoric, continues to this day (even with a drastic increase in New York Police Department budget).

For a while, I didn’t leave my home without a self-defense weapon. But how can a pathetic pepper spray shield anyone against a semiautomatic assault pistol?

I feel afraid. I fear for the elderly, who were already on edge from anti-Asian attacks and now have had their local fun and welcoming community center taken from them. I fear for myself, my family, my friends, my community.

Make no mistake: The shooting in Monterey Park — and the many other massacres that have preceded and will inevitably follow — is an issue of senseless gun violence in the United States.

Maybe one day our politicians will dutifully protect their citizens against guns instead of doing anything but.

For now, I don’t know when I’ll return to the comfort of San Gabriel Valley.

But my people are strong and resilient; I know we will rebuild and recover.