DI Voices | Atlanta spa shootings: 24 hours

By Karena Tse, Staff Writer

It was a late morning for me. It was already 11 a.m. when I started reading headlines and noon by the time I got out of bed, eyes burning. I felt heavy and hollow. This is what I’ve realized about trauma in the 24 hours since I learned about the Asian women killed in the Atlanta spa shootings: you can feel heavy and hollow, tender and numb. You can feel every opposite thing at once.

I got a message from an old friend while I waited for water to boil. “I’m sorry this place is a hateful mess,” he said. “You are loved.” This isn’t about me, I thought. It can’t be, because if it is, how could I recover? “Thank you,” I sent back.

I FaceTimed my mom while I stirred sugar into my tea. We talked about the shock to our systems, and how it felt to be stunted in our grief (it would be hours before we even knew the names of the dead. The first news release would misspell 50-year-old Xiaojie Tan’s last name because of course it would). We talked about my mom’s mother, who lives in China, who my mom calls every midnight to catch her after lunch. Last night’s call was particularly long, she told me. Grandma’s having a hard time. I noticed then how her eyes were swollen. Suddenly I wanted so badly to be home, to be making tea for two.

It was 1 p.m. when I left my apartment for the antique store where I volunteer. I would write some item listings today. Maybe I would find comfort in it, in honoring the gently used and thinking about their new homes. But at the store, my body began to express its buried pain. I took photos of a long yellow sofa and sat down to get a feel for its condition. I found that I couldn’t get back up. Customers walked around me.

At 2 p.m. I left the store for my hair appointment. This was my second attempt at bringing my hair back to black. It had faded to a weird muddy green. I sat in the chair and thought about my stylist, who ran the salon by herself. I wondered if she saw the news today; if she felt safe. She washed my hair and it was my singular moment of peace all day. 

I asked her to cut my hair short —to my ears. I thought about a project I turned in the week before for my Gender Communication course, CMN 432 — my gender story project. It was an open-ended assignment. I hadn’t known where to start, so I went to my photos. I saw childhood photos, from before I learned to burn the hair off my upper lip (this earned me the nickname “monkey”). I saw high school photos, from when I discovered all the ways I could manipulate and constrict and expose my body to finally gain entry into femininity.

I saw photos from this past year when I started dressing in only my dad and brother’s clothes that rendered me completely formless. I started to remember, then, the relationships that marked this change. I remembered men who only knew how to engage with my Asianness as a sexy exoticism. I remembered an abusive man who told me he preferred Asian women. I thought about a Tweet from Minh-Ha T. Pham I saw that morning about the Atlanta shooter: “He had racist sexualized fantasies about dominating Asian women. In other words, he had fantasies of white supremacy and acted on them. Name it.”

I left the salon with hair like my brother’s. I told myself the men I remembered wouldn’t find me attractive now, and I told myself this was a triumph. My gender story project ended up following my movement away from femininity. “I love that yours is a story of triumph,” my professor had written. I felt shame at this comment.

Mine is a story of fear, I wanted to say. I can’t tell if I have reshaped my gender performance out of fear or out of genuine self-expression and I hate that they might be the same thing — that my identity might be defined by all the ways I am trying to keep myself safe. 

When I got home my mom called to tell me she found some of the names. We couldn’t be sure of the pronunciations since all we had were the pinyin spellings, but we said them aloud anyways, over and over again. I am still repeating them to myself now: Delaina Ashley Yaun. Xiaojie Tan. Daoyou Feng. Soon Chung Park. Hyun Jung Grant. Yong Ae Yue. Sun Cha Kim. Paul Andre Michels. Rest in power.

In the evening I attended a virtual meeting of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). “AAJA Presents: The Space-AAPIs Under Attack.” A trauma-informed therapist mediated my breakout room’s conversation. I listened to young Asian American journalists share how they had to fight in their predominantly white newsrooms today about how to tell this story. They spoke through tears. They wanted to write long, painful and complicated pieces about the history of anti-Asian violence, about U.S. imperialism; to discuss these women’s gender, labor, class and immigration status and how they were rendered vulnerable from every angle. Their editors weren’t convinced these were important parts of the story. 

Our room’s therapist told us about the difference between stress and burnout. Stress is when you’re overwhelmed and hyperactive, she said. Burnout is when you’re numb and you can’t care anymore. I went to bed wondering where on the stress/burnout scale I would settle. I was tired and tender, but not burnt out. I was too angry to be burnt out. 

I fell asleep with Xiaojie Tan’s name heavy on my tongue. I would read in the morning that she was killed the day before her fiftieth birthday. I would learn that strawberry fresh cream cake was her favorite and that her daughter and husband would spend her birthday planning her funeral. Photos of Xiaojie, known to loved ones as Emily, would start to surface. In a Facebook profile picture from 2011, she stands smiling at the Grand Canyon. It was her dream to travel the world.

Karena is a senior in LAS.

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