The Victims and Suspects Are Asian American. The Crimes Are Something Else.

I was at my parents’ home on Staten Island for Lunar New Year when the calls and texts began to come in — not customary well wishes for good fortune, but terrible news of a mass shooting that had taken place in Monterey Park, the cultural hub of the Los Angeles branch of the Taiwanese American community and home to many of our friends and relatives. The hollow fear in the voices of these callers was familiar to me. It echoed the way people we loved spoke in May of last year, when a different gunman had opened fire on a Taiwanese American church congregation in Laguna Woods, a senior community that my parents had considered moving to until the pandemic froze them in place.

Before we even had a chance to fully register what had happened — as we were still scouring the internet in dread-filled attempts to learn the names of victims — news broke of yet another mass shooting with Asian victims, this time in Northern California’s placid Half Moon Bay, which had ended the lives of seven farm workers, most of them Chinese immigrants. My parents and I grimly watched as news anchors paused to clarify whether their updates were for the Northern or the Southern California Asian shootings. One should never cry on Lunar New Year, because doing so invites tragedy into the household, but faced with tragedy on day one, that is what we did.

It isn’t as if Asian Americans are strangers to this nation’s plague of gun violence. We were targeted, for instance, in 2012, when Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, shot worshipers at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wis., killing six and wounding four others. In 2021, Robert Aaron Long opened fire on a series of Asian-owned spas and massage parlors near Atlanta. There have also been Asian mass shooters: Wayne Lo, the gunman who shot six and killed two at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in 1992. Seung-Hui Cho, perpetrator of the horrific Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Elliot Rodger, whose 2014 attack on students near the University of California, Santa Barbara, left 14 wounded and six dead.

But the three most recent attacks hit differently. The accused Laguna Woods killer, 68-year-old David Chou; the accused Monterey Park shooter, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran; and the accused Half Moon Bay gunman, 66-year-old Zhao Chunli were all Asians targeting other Asians. And chillingly, they were all older men, foreign born, but longtime residents of their new nation. Together, they put a new face on mass murder, one that shocked many of us precisely because of its lined and weathered familiarity — one that could easily have belonged to our uncles, our fathers, our grandfathers.

According to early reports, the suspected shooters were driven by different urges: political rage in Mr. Chou’s case, personal enmity in Mr. Tran’s, payback for imagined slights in Mr. Zhao’s. But the similarities are striking. They were all men who came to America in search of a new life. But America has always been hard on its most recent arrivals, and in recent years the situation has escalated, in both talk and policy. Each of these men led lives on the margins, yet resided in proximity to much more affluent people and neighborhoods.

Those early accounts also indicate that they each lived isolated lives — two of them divorced, without close friends or caring relatives. All three were said to have been volatile in their interactions with acquaintances and co-workers. But if these men, separated by choice from their communities of origin and alienated from those around them, were deteriorating, who would even know? Social taboos, along with a chronic shortage of culturally and economically accessible mental health care, make it unlikely that men in their situation would seek professional help, or that they would find it if they did.

Each of them — a security guard, a trucker, a forklift driver — did physical, frontline labor during a pandemic era when hate and hostility were being arbitrarily aimed at those with Asian faces. As blue-collar, in-person workers, they wouldn’t have been able to cocoon themselves away during a period when verbal harassment was all too common on the streets of many neighborhoods. News outlets, especially ethnic news outlets, ran stories of physical attacks against older Asian immigrants. On social platforms like WeChat and Line, stories of violence went viral, like the false but terrifying anecdotes that had circulated about “Haissam Massalkhy,” a Lebanese migrant who supposedly ran over and killed a Chinese American man on purpose — in order to go to prison, with the objective of using nonexistent “visa loopholes” conferred by “sanctuary laws” to obtain permanent residency in the United States. (One heavily shared version of the Massalkhy story bore the headline “Kill a Chinese, Get a Green Card.”)

Gun sales to Asian Americans rose by 43 percent during the pandemic. Researchers at Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan found that personal experiences of racial discrimination and intensified perception of cultural racism from sources including news and social media reports were associated with the decision among Asians to purchase firearms.

Regardless of what inspired the purchase, gun ownership makes gun violence more likely, and nowhere more than America is it likely that a firearm will be used in a mass shooting. In the countries from which Mr. Chou, Mr. Tran and Mr. Zhao immigrated, civilian gun ownership is essentially nonexistent. In America, just three weeks into 2023, there have already been over 40 acts of gun violence with at least four victims. That’s a statistic that would be cause for widespread public alarm anywhere else in the world, but here in the United States it’s the status quo.

Ours is a nation where the unimaginable has somehow become inevitable. If Mr. Chou, Mr. Tran and Mr. Zhao committed mass shootings, they did so not because they were Asian but as Americans. Mass murder may be the fullest act of assimilation possible into a culture that has proudly chosen as its colors the red of innocent blood, the white of panicked eyes and the hazy blue of semiautomatic smoke.

Jeff Yang is a co-author of “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the ’90s to Now” and author of the forthcoming book “The Golden Screen.”

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