The makeshift memorial outside Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park on January 23rd 2023. Photo by Zedembee/Wikimedia Commons.

For millions of Chinese Americans in the U.S., Lunar New Year represents “stepping over” into a new, reinvigorated year, and spending time with friends and family.

“Over New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day, you try to only think about happy things,” said Connie So, president of OCA Greater Seattle and professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington. “You want the very first thing you see to be happy when you’re passing [over] the year. In Chinese, we call it ‘guo nian.’”

However, a shadow was cast over Asian American communities on January 21, when an armed gunman entered the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California and killed 11 party-goers in the deadliest mass shooting in the history of Los Angeles County. Two days later, in Half Moon Bay, California, the largely agrarian Asian American community was targeted by an unrelated shooter, claiming the lives of seven more.

In the wake of this tragedy, Asian American communities across the country are grieving, reflecting, and wondering what comes next. The shootings over Lunar New Year reopen old wounds and are reminders of continued violence toward Asian Americans, a marked increase of which began with the COVID-19 pandemic, including a series of spa shootings in Atlanta in 2021 that killed eight, six of whom were Asian women. 

While the motivation for the Monterey Park shooter is still not entirely known, it has been revealed that he was a 72-year-old Asian man, which led some to wonder how someone could target their own community. Toshiko Hasegawa, Port of Seattle Commissioner and executive director of the Washington Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, believes it’s a combination of mental health service inequity and a continued lack of gun control in the U.S.

“We know that our community members are experiencing mental illness [crises], we know that they’re experiencing depression and substance abuse at a higher rate,” Hasegawa said. “I think much less understood and talked about is the deteriorating mental health of our elders.”

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, a combination of technological illiteracy and high risks of infection left many Asian elders isolated from their friends and family. That disconnect has been further compounded by a lingering cultural stigma surrounding discussions of mental health, according to So.

“When I’ve marched in the rallies with the elderly …you can tell that a lot of them are just wondering, ‘Why do they keep doing this to the old Chinese, and why are the old Chinese being targeted for so much hatred?’” So said. “We really just need more people who are trained, we need more people who understand different communities.”

For Hasegawa, gun violence is another elephant in the room. “We have to have a very serious conversation about what it means to have common sense gun reform, not just a national conversation, but right here in Washington State,” Hasegawa said. “It boils down to, fundamentally, ‘what are we doing to take care of people?’”

In the Washington state legislature, bills are moving forward that would further restrict access to guns and expand access to healthcare. House Bills 1143 and 1240, as well as Senate Bill 5078, are among the many scheduled bills that would enhance requirements for firearm access and sale. 

Additionally, House Bill 1134 seeks to implement a state-wide 988 crisis hotline campaign: Informational materials, phone contact centers and a social media campaign all to illustrate details about the service. On call are healthcare workers trained in suicide assessment, treatment and management.

Something important to keep in mind in the weeks and months going forward is that there is always somebody to talk to. Counselors, friends, family — The tragedies in the news are affecting everyone to some extent. 

Sabrina Woon-Chen, a therapist at API Chaya, believes now is the time for people to lead by example.

“I hope we can make a lot of space for ourselves,” Woon-Chen said. “There’s so many different ways we process and grieve, and maybe we can be gentle with each other around the ways we’re trying to work through this big tragedy that’s happening in our community. … What can we change in this generation in service of our elders as we’re processing this together?”

Michael Byun, executive director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service and co-chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington, suggests that watching out for your fellow community members is essential in the aftermath of tragedies like these. Also vitally important: Giving yourself enough time to heal. 

“It’s really important for us to spend some time and care,” Byun said. “Often we’re rushed to do something, and there is a tension between urgency to act and then also the need to process, grieve and reflect.”

“I think a lot of our immigrant and Asian communities tend to always look forward,” Derek Dizon, program manager and grief counselor at API Chaya, said. “Pushing our emotions to the side is oftentimes a strategy for us to just be okay. But in turn that pain gets internalized, and it comes out in different ways. … So when I think about what can be an option in moving forward and healing, much of that is just being present. What’s coming up now? How is this impacting my mind? How is it impacting my body, my spirit?”

Two local sources for mental health counseling are Asian Counseling and Referral Service, as well as Therapy Den. Yellow Chair Collective is a California-based resource, but their services are available to anyone in the U.S., and they have an emphasis on serving the Asian American community. 

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