The Cognitive Dissonance of the Monterey Park Shooting

“How can you be celebrating and fearful at the same time?”

Outlines of two side profiles of a face, with scenes of mourning and celebration
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic; Mario Tama / Getty; Reza / Getty

News of mass shootings, as frequently as they happen in the U.S., has been shown to produce acute stress and anxiety. But for many Asian Americans, this past week’s deadly attacks in California—first in Monterey Park, then in Half Moon Bay—feel profoundly different. The tragedies occurred around the Lunar New Year, during a time meant for celebration. And not only did they happen in areas that have historically been sanctuaries for Asian residents, but the suspects in both cases are themselves Asian.

These events have added fuel to what my colleague Katherine Hu described as “an invisible, pervasive dread” among many Asian Americans, including myself. For days I’ve been struggling to process—and produce fully formed thoughts about—the shootings. How should I respond, as someone of Chinese descent, living mere miles away from Monterey Park? When I was asked to potentially reflect on my personal experience for The Atlantic, I hesitated. After all, I’d gone about my day after reading the news, even putting off calling my folks. Had that been wrong?

My confusion may have stemmed, in part, from the inexplicability of these crimes, Christine Catipon, the president-elect of the Asian American Psychological Association, told me. “There’s absolutely a lot of cognitive dissonance happening,” she said. “Why would someone do this on Lunar New Year? … Why would [the alleged perpetrator] be someone from our community?”

Indeed, the other psychologists I spoke with also acknowledged the painful, conflicting emotions that might arise from these incidents. “For a large part of the Asian American community, we don’t have a very public, practiced language” around a tragedy such as the Monterey Park shooting, said William Ming Liu, a counseling-psychology professor at the University of Maryland. “We’re trying to figure out, like, Who are we? How do we come together? What does it mean for us?” he told me. “These complex traumas take time to process.” The result, he said, has been greater anxiety, hypersensitivity, and “a spike in fear” that is affecting many in the Asian diaspora in subtle but potentially severe ways.

The shootings happened close to Lunar New Year, a holiday that is celebrated in different ways among different ethnic communities but that’s generally considered to be a moment of renewal and conviviality. For me, this meant cleaning my home 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 reconcile jubilation with terror. “This should be a time of celebration … about joyousness and family and coming together,” said Sherry Wang, an associate professor at Santa Clara University. “This is such an exponential level of cultural pain that is juxtaposed with a cultural celebration that cuts across borders.”

In addition, many Asian Americans are still wrestling with the knowledge that they’ve been—or could be—targets of attacks spurred by racist language about the pandemic’s origins. Hearing news of violence against any Asian population in the U.S. might produce a shock and suspicion that builds on that underlying anxiety. Liu told me his initial thought after learning of the first shooting was “This [has to be] somebody from outside the community who found this community of Asian Americans.”

Wang also assumed that, given the racist motives for some previous attacks, what happened in Monterey Park was a hate crime. Thus, when the alleged shooter was revealed to be an Asian man, those existing, potent negative emotions became further twisted, requiring “a lot of mental gymnastics,” Wang said. “We have to push against our own [ideas] of how violence can happen to our communities, when it’s from somebody within our community.”

She added that many Asian cultures value respect for elders; the idea that they could hurt their own is almost incomprehensible. In other words, these developments can challenge assumptions within the Asian community that certain spaces are safe for them. I’d always believed ethnic enclaves such as Monterey Park were uniquely protected. I’d never thought that ballroom dancing, the activity many of the victims there were participating in, could somehow lead to death; my dad danced for years at our local cultural center.

And then there is the issue of rhetoric: The term Asian American, despite being established in the late 1960s by Asian American activists hoping to consolidate political power, can be limiting. The label could cause many different ethnic groups to be seen as a single society and be expected to have a shared response—as well as a shared understanding of events such as these shootings. Yet, Liu explained, the possible motives behind these crimes can be hard to talk about even among ostensibly similar cultures. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are all sorts of collective traumas and individual traumas a lot of our elders have experienced but have never processed and never dealt with,” he said, listing traumas associated with their backgrounds and their experiences immigrating to the U.S. as examples.

Incidents of anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic, Wang said, introduced a generation of Asian Americans to language about racial trauma but not necessarily about other forms of brutality, such as domestic violence, which became a point of discussion in response to the Monterey Park shooting. She said that race is just one factor, complicated by other issues such as gender, national origin, and immigration status.

At this point, it can feel as though 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 for them to “step back and recharge in whatever way you need to,” as Wang put it. “I think we have to be aware of our limits and our boundaries,” Catipon added, recommending the AAPA’s list of resources for help. “Sometimes it’s okay to find things that give us joy … I would just encourage people, if they’re noticing that they’re having a hard time functioning, to get support. [Asking for help] doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It doesn’t mean anything like that if you’re affected by these things. It means you’re human.”