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Brandon Tsay, still grieving, gets the ‘hero’ treatment during State of the Union address

Feb. 7, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 7, 2023 at 9:50 p.m.

California Rep. Judy Chu introduces Brandon Tsay, center, to Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y.; Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.; and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., as he attends a Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus event in the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.  (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
California Rep. Judy Chu introduces Brandon Tsay, center, to Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y.; Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.; and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., as he attends a Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus event in the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
By Noah Bierman Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old who made worldwide headlines for disarming the Monterey Park gunman last month, stood and waved to the crowd of lawmakers as President Joe Biden labeled him a “hero” and called for new gun control measures in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.

“He thought he was going to die, but then he thought about the people inside,” Biden said as Tsay won a rare bipartisan ovation. “In that instant, he found the courage to act and wrestled the semiautomatic pistol away from a gunman who had already killed 11 people at another dance studio.”

“He saved lives,” Biden added. “It’s time we do the same. Ban assault weapons once and for all.”

Tsay had endured a long day. The official hero treatment in Washington, including a fried shrimp reception with lofty speeches, was admittedly overwhelming for him. He is still processing his emotions just a few weeks after the mass shooting.

Weeks ago, he was known only to his family and friends. But on Tuesday night, Tsay, wearing a black scarf and dark suit, was sitting in the House gallery, chatting with First Lady Jill Biden, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and U2 singer Bono, who later put his arm on Tsay’s shoulder to comfort him as Biden spoke about him.

As he was ushered between meetings and receptions with members of Congress and other dignitaries at the White House and Capitol Hill and finally to the House chamber on Tuesday, Tsay was asked more than once to relive the trauma that brought him here.

At one reception, in a banquet hall in the Rayburn House Office Building, he mustered a half-smile and occasionally fidgeted in a corner as lawmakers took turns extolling his bravery. Rep. Judy Chu, who had originally invited Tsay to the State of the Union before Biden jumped in, called him a “hero” while introducing him to a group of colleagues before reminding herself that he doesn’t like to use that word.

Juily Phun, whose aunt was one of 11 people killed in the shooting and attended the State of the Union address as Chu’s guest, spoke at the reception of how “this feeling of feeling honored is battling with my other emotions.”

“It feels bittersweet to represent my family and my community here,” Phun said at the reception with Tsay, hosted by members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “In this moment, it’s a personal tragedy. But it’s also one in which I’m one of the few people in my family that does not need a translator.”

When Tsay took his turn – after a stream of politicians with prepared notes who thanked one another and promised legislative action on gun violence – he spoke haltingly and briefly, thanking Chu, a Democrat who represents Monterey Park, for her support to the community that suffered 11 deaths and nine injuries in the mass shooting.

“I’m humbled and touched,” Tsay said. “Sorry, I didn’t prepare anything.”

Chu pressed him to say more, walking him through the deadly Lunar New Year celebration and asking how he summoned the courage to confront the attacker at his family’s Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio.

“That night was truly horrific and it still haunts me today, thinking about it,” he said. “But what led me to confront the shooter was instinct and my character, how I was raised, and my feelings towards members of my own community.”

Two people shake hands as another person watches.

The few dozen congressional staffers and activists in the room had already been offered tissues as they listened to Phun recount the impact on her family and challenge the country to “truly see us.” Some dabbed their faces again or held hands as Tsay talked about the fear he had as he grabbed the gunman’s weapon. He also spoke of the personal toll, volunteering that he had “gathered the strength to seek some emotional and therapeutic treatment.”

Rep. Norma Torres, a Pomona Democrat, used the word “heartbreaking” as she walked away from meeting Tsay.

“He’s not used to being in the limelight,” she said. But eventually, there will be a breaking point, when he realizes what he did “and the reason why so many of us want to talk to him.” Tsay told her he is close to that point now, as Torres promised all his new friends in Washington would remain supportive, Torres recounted.

“The fact that he was able to meet the president, he was excited about that,” Torres said. “But he knows at some point, he’s gonna have to think about all of it, right?”

Rep. Ted Lieu, a Torrance Democrat, said he also felt mixed emotions. He deeply admires Tsay, he said, but in a way “I wish he wasn’t here.”

“I wish that whole incident didn’t happen. And I think it’s just tragic that so many people died or were injured in that mass shooting,” he said. “I’m glad he did when he did, but I think it’s weird to sort of celebrate the action in the context of so much pain.”

Tsay’s humility and vulnerability are among the reasons people have been drawn to him. He has promised to find ways to use his attention and the money people have given to him to help his community, while acknowledging it’s overwhelming. Chu said he is still in shock but accepting the new responsibility that has been thrust on him.

Tsay is defining a “new, nontoxic masculinity,” said Carol Hay, a philosopher at University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of “Think Like a Feminist.” She has written about men who rise up when needed without pumping their chests.

“He’s not gloating in the celebrity. He’s not glorifying the violence; he’s using the celebrity to help his community,” Hay said.

The only time Tsay drew a laugh during his public comments Tuesday was when Chu asked him whether he had any martial arts training. “No prior training, but I did take some Shaolin kung fu classes,” he said.

Toward the end of his time at the reception, Chu asked Tsay whether he had a message for the American people.

“You might not know this, but there’s actually courage in all of us,” Tsay said. “And that courage may come to you at any moment.”

Then, he walked to the side of the room.

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