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3 California mass shootings force grieving Asian Americans to ask painful questions

Jan. 25, 2023 Updated Wed., Jan. 25, 2023 at 7:12 p.m.

Mourners take part in a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at the Star Dance Studio on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, California.  (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Mourners take part in a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at the Star Dance Studio on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, California. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
By Anh Do, Jeong Park, Debbie Truong, Summer Lin </p><p>and Cindy Chang Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – Their motives for mass murder appeared to be different – workplace enmity, law enforcement officials said, or personal resentment, or a political conflict in a homeland across the ocean.

But they were all Asian men of retirement age, who within the past year have been accused of expressing their bitterness by spraying fellow Asians with bullets, in the very places where Asian immigrants go to escape isolation.

Even as they grieve the victims, Asian Americans across the country are grappling with a new reality. Someone who looks like their grandfather, who traveled a similar immigrant path, is suspected of committing a singularly American act – opening fire on a group of innocent people, at a Taiwanese church last May, at a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park on Saturday and in the coastal agricultural community of Half Moon Bay on Monday.

For a community already reeling from a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, the Asian-on-Asian violence feels like too much to bear, especially with the two most recent shootings occurring around the Lunar New Year holiday.

Only three men are accused of committing these horrific acts, but the isolation and mental health struggles that may have sent them spiraling are common threads for some older Asian immigrants, who may have experienced war back home and who have experienced the dislocation of settling in a foreign country.

Among friends and family on social media, sons and daughters are anguishing over whether they were doing enough for elders who have been through so much but often do not have the vocabulary to open up about problems – even in their native language.

“They don’t speak English. Their kids don’t speak their mother tongue. Older generation cannot connect to younger generation. That is a picture of the typical Asian American working class family, especially East Asian,” said Sonny Le of Oakland, who has worked as a medical interpreter for Vietnamese and Chinese Vietnamese senior citizens for more than 20 years. “Stoic. Bottling it up. ”

Peggy Huang’s parents attend the Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods where a gunman fired into a lunchtime banquet in May, injuring five elderly parishioners and killing a 52-year-old doctor.

David Wenwei Chou, 68, who has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder with hate crimes enhancements in the case, grew up in Taiwan but had recent roots in China.

He left notes in his car indicating that he did not believe Taiwan should be independent from China, said authorities, who believe he “specifically targeted the Taiwanese community.”

Huang’s parents were not at the church that day, but Huang, the former mayor of Yorba Linda, acted as an unofficial spokesperson for victims and survivors.

When Huang heard about the Monterey Park shooting, which killed 11 and injured nine, she feared another possible hate crime as she exchanged texts with family and friends.

It soon emerged from law enforcement sources that the shooter, identified by authorities as Huu Can Tran, 72, may have been motivated by a personal dispute.

With another older Asian man as a suspect, Huang’s thoughts turned to the difficulty of getting treatment for immigrants who may not conceive of their problems as mental health issues.

When elders lose their jobs or retire, that makes for a tough transition, especially for men who had a “life of hard work,” said Huang, 52.

“They’ve been working all their lives, and they really don’t know what to do with their lives,” she said.

Chou, the accused Taiwanese church shooter, lived a life of isolation and resentment in Las Vegas. His critically ill wife had left him; he was unable to pay his rent, which was twice his monthly income; and he struggled to find work as a 68-year-old casino security guard.

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