News of mass shootings, as frequent as they are in the United States, has been shown to cause acute stress and anxiety. But for many Asian Americans, last week’s deadly attacks in California – first in Monterey Park, then in Half Moon Bay – feel very different. The tragedies occurred around the Lunar New Year, during a period of celebration. And not only did they happen in areas that have historically been a haven for Asian residents, but the suspects in both cases are Asian.
These events fueled what my colleague Katherine Hu described as an “invisible, pervasive horror” among many Asian Americans, myself included. For the past few days I’ve been struggling to process the shootings—and produce complete thoughts. How should I respond, as a person of Chinese descent, living just a mile from Monterey Park? When I was asked to reflect on my personal experience for The Atlantic, I hesitated. After all, I went about my day after reading the news, even stopping to call my family. Was that wrong?
My confusion may have stemmed, in part, from the inexplicability of these crimes, Christine Catipon, president-elect of the Asian American Psychological Association told me. “There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance happening,” she said. “Why would someone do this on Lunar New Year? … Why would that be [the alleged perpetrator] that she is from our community?”
In fact, the other psychologists I spoke with also acknowledged the painful, conflicting emotions that these events can cause. “For a lot of the Asian-American community, we don’t have a very public, practical language” around a tragedy like the Monterey Park shooting, said William Ming Liu, a counseling-psychology professor at the University of Maryland. “We’re trying to figure out, because, Who are we? How do we get together? What does it mean for us?” he told me. “These complex traumas take time to process.” The result, he said, is increased anxiety, hypersensitivity, and a “spike in fear” that affects many in the Asian diaspora in subtle but potentially severe ways.
The shooting happened close to the Lunar New Year, a holiday celebrated in different ways among different ethnic communities but generally considered to be a moment of renewal and conviviality. For me, this meant cleaning my house to welcome good fortune, cooking traditional dishes, and gathering with my closest friends. The violence that occurred on Lunar New Year’s Eve in Monterey Park forced many to resolve the horror. “This should be a time of celebration … about joy and family and coming together,” said Sherry Wang, an associate professor at Santa Clara University. “This is the exponential level of cultural pain next to a cultural celebration that crosses borders.”
In addition, many Asian Americans are still struggling with the knowledge that they have been or could be targets of attacks fueled by racial language at the origin of the pandemic. News of violence against any Asian population in the US can lead to shock and suspicion that adds to that underlying anxiety. Liu told me that his initial thought after learning the first shooting was, “this [has to be] an outsider of the community who discovered this Asian community.”
Wang also accepted that, given the racial motives behind several previous attacks, what happened in Monterey Park was a hate crime. So, when it was revealed that the alleged shooter was an Asian man, those strong negative emotions took an extra twist that required “a lot of mental gymnastics,” Wang said. “We have to push against our own [ideas] on how violence can happen in our communities, when it is from someone within our community.”
She added that many Asian cultures respect elders; the thought that they could hurt their own is almost unfathomable. In other words, these developments can challenge assumptions within the Asian community that certain spaces are safe for them. I have always believed that ethnic enclaves like Monterey Park were uniquely protected. I always thought that ballroom dancing, the activity that many of the victims were involved in, could somehow die out; my father danced for years at our local cultural centre.
And then there is the question of rhetoric: The term Asian American, despite being founded in the late 1960s by Asian American activists hoping to consolidate political power, can be limited. The label may cause many different ethnic groups to be viewed as a single society and expected to have a shared response – as well as a shared understanding of events such as these shootings. But, Liu explained, it can be difficult to talk about the possible motives behind these crimes even among similar cultures. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are all kinds of collective traumas and individual traumas that many of our ancestors have experienced but never processed and never dealt with,” he said, listing traumas related to their backgrounds and their immigrant experiences to the. USA as examples.
The incidents of anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic, Wang said, have indoctrinated a generation of Asian Americans into a language about racial trauma but not necessarily about other forms of brutality, such as domestic violence, which has become a point of debate in response. on Monterey Park. shooting. She said race is only one factor, complicated by other issues such as gender, national origin, and immigration status.
At this point, it can feel like there are more questions than answers when it comes to understanding these shootings. Still, the experts I spoke with emphasized the importance of providing more mental health care to Asian American communities, as well as the need to “step back and recharge in whatever way you need to,” as Wang said. “I think we need to be aware of our limits and boundaries,” Catipon added, recommending the AAPA’s list of resources for help. “Sometimes it’s okay to find things that make us happy … I would encourage people to get support, if they notice they’re having a hard time functioning. [Asking for help] does not mean that you are weak. So it doesn’t mean anything if these things affect you. It means you’re human.”