Mass shooting shook tight-knit Asian dance community. Survivors; then, faced barriers finding culturally

Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN | 2/10/2024, 9:10 a.m.
Nightmares have tormented Soo Wong for the past year, fueled by the horror she witnessed when a gunman opened fire ...
People clutch candles during a vigil on the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting on January 21, 2024, in Monterey Park, California. Mandatory Credit: Ringo Chiu/AP

Los Angeles: Nightmares have tormented Soo Wong for the past year, fueled by the horror she witnessed when a gunman opened fire inside a California dance hall, killing her close friend and 10 other people as a Lunar New Year’s eve party was in full swing.

Wong found herself overwhelmed by grief and the lingering terror that left her jumping at loud noises and sleeping with the lights on.

“At the beginning, I didn’t dare see a therapist,” Wong said.

When she finally went to a psychologist seeking relief, their probing questions only resurfaced some of her most painful memories.

“The psychologist kept asking me how everything happened that night on the scene, and it made me uncomfortable,” she said. “I realized that I was still very heartbroken.” She stopped going after just a handful of sessions.

Wong is among the dozens of partygoers who were gathered inside Monterey Park, California’s Star Ballroom Dance Studio on January 21, 2023, when a man began shooting inside the mirrored dance studio, transforming what was meant to be a celebration of one of the majority-Asian community’s most joyous holidays into a tragedy. Wong watched in shock as her longtime friend, Diana Tom, collapsed beside her from a fatal gunshot wound.

More than a year later, some survivors and community leaders say the struggle to overcome trauma is still ongoing – and has been complicated by barriers to accessing Asian-language mental health care, navigating daunting insurance systems and grappling with cultural stigma around seeking mental health support after a shooting that disproportionately impacted older Asian immigrants.

While city officials have tried to bridge some of the gaps in care by setting up a center that offers support groups and counseling services, not all survivors are comfortable reaching out for help, said Eric Chen, a Christian pastor who has become a lifeline for many survivors.

Wong’s heartbreak persisted as the months passed, and at the encouragement of a friend, she took a chance on another therapist – this time on her own terms. Whoever was treating her would need to find a way to do so without revisiting her memories of the shooting.

“It was truly much better,” Wong recalls. “I told them not to ask me about what happened that night, because I’m very sad. The words couldn’t come out from my mouth. So they used different methods to treat my trauma.”

Wong, who is from Myanmar, also found new ease with the second therapist because the pair could speak in Cantonese, a language she is far more comfortable with than English.

Chen helped translate Wong’s conversation with CNN and elaborated on the pivotal value of Wong’s shared language with her therapist.

“It was helpful because she was able to comprehend everything that the therapist was saying. In English, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes you understand, sometimes you won’t understand,” Chen said.

Chen has spent countless hours supporting Wong and other survivors in the wake of the shooting, helping them with seemingly simple tasks that trauma and language barriers make daunting for victims: retrieving abandoned items from the dance studio, translating information about recovery resources into Mandarin and calling insurance companies on their behalf.

Most of all, though, Chen has made it a point to treat each survivor like a member of his own family – an approach he says has allowed him to gain trust in a community that cherishes built trust and close family bonds. Those connections have also brought Wong comfort.

“Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it, but friends or church pastors ask us how we are,” Wong said. “Sometimes I open up, and after telling them what’s in my heart, I feel better.”

“Talking about your thoughts, it’s a healthy thing.”

Seeking community solace

Star Ballroom long served as the beloved home of Monterey Park’s tight-knit dance community and provided a social hub for many of the area’s older residents. Its indefinite closure after the shooting left victims without a crucial place of connection even as they mourned the losses of friends and longtime dance partners.

Traumatic memories struck like aftershocks, said Lloyd Gock, who also survived the mass shooting.

Gock recalled watching the night’s festivities as some people were arm-in-arm with dancers just moments before they were fatally shot. They were still caked with their dance partners’ blood as they sat in the police station late into the night, he said.

“There were so many horror stories,” Gock said, noting the weight of his own trauma made it difficult for him to return to work at his clothing manufacturing company.

Realizing that dozens of survivors and families of those who died needed a safe space to share their grief, Gock paired up with Pastor Chen and began holding monthly support group meetings.

“How do we be better at talking to people around us and … help each other to get back on track?” he said of his intention in starting the group.

Dozens of survivors ended up attending the meetings, Gock said, at first just seeking comfort in each other’s company and then sharing in the pain. One of Gock’s goals with the group was to combat any stigma or shame surrounding mental health care that may have prevented some victims from seeking support, he said.

Still, there were others who opted to mourn privately. “I know some survivors, they didn’t even tell their kids about that night because they didn’t want to burden their family with that emotional trauma,” said Chen.

“It’s just part of the culture to not to talk about your emotions and all those negative things that happened, the traumatic experiences, because it’s a burden,” Chen said. “It’s shameful and you’re a burden to somebody else.”

Asian Americans – who make up more than 65% of Monterey Park’s population – are among the least likely to receive mental health treatment, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which found just around 25% of Asians with mental illness sought mental health services that year compared to 39% of Black adults and 52% of Whites.

Cultural stigma around receiving such care – or even admitting one needs help – plays a large part in Asian communities’ low utilization of mental health care, said Dr. Rona Hu, medical director of Stanford Hospital’s acute psychiatric inpatient unit.

“The stigma includes some of the things that are true for everyone but are probably even more so for Asians,” Hu explained. “There’s often a sense that when people have a mental condition, that it’s their fault or the family members’ fault – that they’re doing this on purpose or they’re weak … or that the family did something wrong to deserve this.”

Mental health outreach should be “culturally sensitive,” Hu said, and include bilingual health care providers input from community leaders – something Monterey Park officials are already taking into account.

In the aftermath of the Lunar New Year tragedy, the city established the MPK Hope Resiliency Center, where victims can receive multilingual counseling, attend survivor support groups and be connected to resources about victims’ compensation funds and other support systems. The center has also held hundreds of workshops, including music groups, art sessions and – in an effort to replace an important source of connection – dance classes.

“We want to make sure that dance, which is such an important part of many peoples’ lives, is still there for the community,” said city councilman Henry Lo, who was serving as mayor when the shooting happened.

“It’s important to always remind ourselves that this type of trauma recovery doesn’t happen just in a few months, or even a year,” Lo said. “People deal with the trauma at different speeds.”

Finding care in your own language

For Wong, her initial reluctance to continue counseling wasn’t about shame surrounding seeking mental health support, but rather the fear of reliving her most traumatic memories and uncertainty about whether a new therapist would be any different from the last.

To her relief, the second therapist was mindful of her request to avoid speaking about the incident and was also able to speak comfortably with her in Cantonese, allowing her to express herself more clearly than in English.

Speaking to a doctor or therapist who shares your language or cultural experiences can improve a patient’s comfort when receiving care, according to Dr. Bryant Lin, co-director of Stanford Medicine’s Center for Asian Health Research and Education.

“Just having translators is sometimes not enough,” Lin said. “There’s a lot of evidence showing that if you have racial-ethnic concordance with your provider – and especially language concordance – it really improves your perceived quality of care.”

But for some Monterey Park victims – and the community advocates determined to help them – finding in-language therapists has proven difficult.

Elizabeth Yang, a local attorney who often danced at Star Ballroom, founded the nonprofit Asian Minds Matter to provide bilingual counseling and mental wellness resources to local Asian residents after the shooting. But she said finding local Chinese-speaking therapists was “tremendously challenging.”

“I haven’t been able to find enough professionals who can speak the language,” Yang said. The few she has found have packed calendars and aren’t accepting new clients, she said. “It just made me realize there’s a huge shortage of Chinese-speaking professionals in this arena.”

As of 2021, only around 3% of psychologists in the US are Asian, according to the American Psychological Association.

“There are quantifiably fewer Asians in mental health compared to other areas of medicine,” said Hu, the Stanford psychiatric unit director, noting the disparity may stem in part from cultural stigma.

Shared language is not the only benefit of having a provider that shares your culture or ethnicity, Hu said. An Asian therapist or psychologist may more innately understand an Asian patient’s experience – such as being the victim of anti-Asian bias – and be able to gain their trust more comfortably.

Even the first step to finding an in-language psychologist – looking for someone covered by insurance – can be intimidating or impossible for some non-native English speakers. “To navigate the whole thing, you have to be able to speak English,” Chen said.

Chen witnessed this firsthand as he sat on the phone with a survivor’s insurance company earlier this month, translating as she tried to find a psychologist who speaks Mandarin. After finding just three possible providers in her area, the victim soon discovered that none were accepting new patients.

“She still hasn’t found somebody,” he said.

Reaching for lasting joys

Exactly a year after the shooting, survivors, city officials and loved ones of all ages crowded into a restaurant near Monterey Park for a “One Year New Life Banquet” organized by Gock and Chen.

Instead of a mournful gathering, the night was a celebration of the strength of the survivors and close bonds they’ve forged while supporting one another, Gock said.

A year earlier, a line of festively dressed dancers had gathered in front of a long mirror in Star Ballroom to perform a line dance, but their nimble step work was violently interrupted by gunfire.

Gock had asked the group to recreate their dance during the anniversary event to “show we are resilient toward the violence and what happened to us.”

“I want to see everybody happy, dancing again. Come back out and enjoy. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared,” Gock said before the lively celebration.

Wong, one of the many survivors in attendance, felt the night was bittersweet.

“Seeing the survivors, it’s a joyous occasion,” she said. “We still have life to live, we’re still together. But of course, our hearts carry sadness. Together, we still dance, sing, eat, talk. It’s reason to be happy.”

Slowly, Wong’s nightmares have faded as she fills her days with small acts of healing – speaking to her therapist, picking her grandchildren up from school, dancing with friends.

“The scar on our hearts will never go away,” she said. “We will carry it in our hearts, the pain from what happened that night. … But we shouldn’t think about it all the time.”

Still, each time she takes to the dance floor, she can’t help but think of Tom, the friend she lost that night, and wish she was still there moving beside her.