The Right to Be Me: A Response to the Monterey Park Shooting

January 22: It was Lunar New Year, a night that was supposed to be of joy, festivity, and bickering children fighting with their siblings for the coin-stuffed tangyuan. Crackling fireworks should have echoed across neighborhoods, yet instead, the people of Monterey Park heard striking gunshots that killed 11. How could this have happened? How could people have lost their lives while celebrating their own culture? And if crimes like this kept taking place, how could I, as a Chinese American, even dare to express my foreign identity in this country? I am now scared of putting up lanterns during the Lantern Festival or eating zongzi for the Qingming Festival, and that is devastating, because it means I’m slowly losing a crucial part of my identity. 

In modern days, it is beyond important for minority groups in America to have the right to express our cultures through festivals, music, food, and more. Through this, we are not only acquiring a better understanding of ourselves, but also uniting people of the same background together in this loud, chaotic country. Together, we become a great boulder of support for each other. However, this significance of culture can only exist if we have the freedom to celebrate it in the first place. For Chinese Americans, the fear created and amplified by the recent shooting of Monterey Park has robbed us of a fundamental opportunity.

This shooting took place at the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, which is highly populated by Chinese Americans and thus rich with Chinese culture. It was also where I spent the majority of my summer this year. Although I have no memory of the studio itself, the street it is situated on, Garvey Avenue, is one that I would frequently pass on my way to and back from swim practice. I would lean my forehead on the car window while gazing hungrily at all the Chinese restaurants and their plastered menus highlighting signature food items. Now, that will never be the same again. Because even if I were to see the same billboards and shop signs written in Chinese characters today, I would simply be worried that they’d become the next characters slathered across CNN’s top stories.

The Star Dance Studio closed following the shooting, canceling all classes to honor the victims. They hosted a candlelight vigil on January 25 to mourn those who were lost and then proceeded to offer therapeutic assistance. One could only imagine the forever-imprinted scars on the survivors through this incident. Shally, an owner of a donut shop in Arcadia who had been dancing at Star Dance Studio on the night of the shooting, only survived because she was bravely shielded by her dance partner, Kao. Kao, unfortunately, was one of the 11 dead, and she recounts that she asked him “to wake up, [but] he didn’t respond at all.” She watched a long-time friend die in front of her on a day that was supposed to be the most joyous of the year. Following this event, she refused to open her donut shop for days despite her husband’s wishes, which reflected her poor mental state following the traumatic shooting. 

Although survivors and witnesses of the Monterey Park shooting have received mental and physical support, it does not eradicate their fear to celebrate the next Chinese holiday. As I mentioned earlier, culture is a way to understand and unite ourselves to form a collective support system. In order to alleviate the trauma and fear imprinted on Chinese Americans following this incident, I urge you to be loud, vocal, and present for others. This could mean anything from posting on your social media accounts, holding meaningful conversations with friends, or attending events hosted by spaces such as the Chinese Club or Asian Society. We cannot change what has happened, but we can make each other feel less alone and better supported through growing and maintaining a community 

Lunar New Year represents a night of reunion, joy, and love, but instead, it became a night of parting. What once were festive cheers turned into helpless cries as the Year of the Rabbit commenced with these 11 tragic losses, all Chinese, all while celebrating the new year, and all like me. As I sit writing these last few sentences, I remember the upcoming Qingming festival on April 5, and I fear what might happen then. A small part of me wants to prevent all forms of public celebrations, but then I realize that it is absurd to be scared to be myself, to be unapologetically Chinese American. So I ask you, no matter your race, gender, sexuality, or anything else that defines you but scares you, to help me make a stand. It could be an Instagram story, a WeChat moment, or just a nudge and a note to the friend sitting beside you. Although these acts may not promise our safety or happiness, knowing that other people want to see us honor our heritage may make us a little less afraid. Spread awareness of the unfortunate shooting of Monterey Park, and make sure to include your words of support. Because in a country of liberty and opportunity, the last thing its people should fear is being themselves in all the loudest and liveliest ways.