The Laguna Woods shooting was not motivated by anti-Asian hatred. In some ways it was worse.

When I heard the news of the mass shooting at a church in Laguna Woods, a senior community in Orange County, California, my heart sank in my stomach. Many on Twitter assumed the victims were white because that demographic represents nearly 75 percent of the city’s population. Some scolded that the attack was likely an “act of revenge” for the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, the day before.

But I knew that one-fifth of Laguna Woods’ population is Asian: two of my first cousins ​​and my best friend’s mother live there. I knew there was an active Taiwanese Christian community there who gathered for worship services in the language on Sundays at the Presbyterian Church in Geneva, where the shooting allegedly took place. And news of this latest horror came after months of relentless reports about unprovoked violence against Asians in cities across America, including the shooting of three Korean American women at a Dallas hair salon a few days earlier.

This horrific event sparked conversations about Taiwan’s complicated history and the often-overlooked nuances of its people’s allegiances and identities.

So naturally, my first fear was that this was a similar attack, a hate-motivated attack on a vulnerable Asian American community. And indeed, it was. But it was not a hate crime motivated by anti-Asian bigotry, xenophobia or racial animosity. The emergence of the perpetrator’s identity was, in some ways, worse because this time the call seemed to come from inside the house.

The alleged perpetrator turned out to be a man named David Chou, a 68-year-old immigrant, born and raised in Taiwan and, to casual observers, virtually indistinguishable from his Taiwanese victims. From his post-arrest photo, he could easily have been my uncle or my father. Authorities said he mingled with parishioners for about 40 minutes before his attack. Imagine how those 40 minutes must have felt for unsuspecting victims.

Their guards were down. Why would they need to be standing? Being part of a community, in this case the Asian American, who has been hatefully targeted, being in a place of refuge, surrounded by people who share a cultural connection, makes you – if only briefly – expire. The surprise attack left one dead and several injured. Had it not been for the heroism of Dr. John Cheng, a man my age who died trying to defend elderly members of his congregation, the death toll would have been considerably higher.

A person attaches a note to a memorial for Dr John Cheng outside his office in Aliso Viejo, California on May 18, 2022.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Despite Chou’s upbringing, holding a Taiwanese passport and speaking the native dialect fluently enough to convince the church receptionist he belonged, he saw his targets not as compatriots but as rebellious traitors. And according to the headline of a newspaper that authorities say they sent to a Chinese-language newspaper before the attack, he considered himself a “angelof death tasked with destroying Taiwanese independence.

This horrific event sparked conversations about Taiwan’s complicated history and the often-overlooked nuances of its people’s allegiances and identities.

Chou is what Taiwanese call “waishengren” or “outside-born,” a term used to identify descendants of the wave of mainlanders who fled to Taiwan after the communist takeover of China in 1949. mainlanders took control of the island and placed the existing residents – “benshengren” or “people born here” – under sometimes brutal pressure martial law which did not officially end until 1987.

As a child, I remember attending a family funeral that some strongly pro-independence relatives boycotted because the wife of the deceased was a waishengren and member of the KMT government.

Older Waishengrens were deeply indoctrinated in the belief that Taiwan and the mainland would eventually be reunited. This idea that Taiwan and China were inextricably linked and that Waishengren’s exiled Chinese nationalist party, the KMT, would one day be recognized as the true government of all China was reinforced in cartoons, picture books for children and hymns like “Conquer the continent.” My mother remembers being asked at graduation to symbolically march to the army recruiting station to volunteer for patriotic service in the campaign to “reclaim” the continent. (At 5-foot-2 and 90 pounds, she was rejected.)

Meanwhile, among the benshengren, there is a fervent segment that wants Taiwan to be officially recognized as an independent nation. It’s a position both inconsistent with decades of KMT propaganda and the sayings of mainland China itself, whose leaders have regularly threatened to turn the Taiwan Strait into a sea of ​​fire if its “separatist province” chose to assert its autonomy. In the 1970s, independence activists frequently fought with government forces. Many eventually immigrated to the United States, using their overseas presence to raise funds and lobby for recognition of Taiwan’s free and separate status. Growing up in the United States, I had many friends who attended summer camps that immersed children in Taiwanese culture and history while encouraging them to stand up for Taiwanese independence.

As a child, I remember attending a family funeral that some strongly pro-independence relatives boycotted because the wife of the deceased was a waishengren and member of the KMT government. But over the decades and generations since the 1970s, the lines between waishengren and benshengren have blurred.

Police investigate the scene of a shooting at the Presbyterian Church in Geneva
Police investigate the scene of a shooting at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California on May 15, 2022.Mario Tama/Getty Images

the majority of Taiwanese take a pragmatic approach to their status, preferring the ambiguous status quo to any move that would bring the island and mainland closer or further apart. Many independence supporters, including current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, began to argue that Taiwan does not need to declare its independence because it is already independent for all intents and purposes.

At the same time, the The KMT has expressed little interest in ‘reunification’ with China except under conditions that protect the island’s capitalist ecosystem, pushing back its nominal goal of merging with the mainland into a hypothetical and unpredictable future.

But it should be noted that the growing tensions between the United States and China, as well as Russia’s sudden invasion of Ukraine – and its use in the media as an object lesson for a possible Chinese attempt to asserting power over Taiwan by force – have troubled the Taiwanese diaspora social media ecosystem. In recent years, popular social platforms have been increasingly used to share hysterical discourse and toxic misinformationreopening fault lines that had gradually closed over time.

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that this online miasma contributed to Chou’s radicalization. Although his age and profile are quite different from other mass shooters in the United States, who tended to be younger and whiteits modus operandi, according to information shared by the authorities, was familiar: traveling hundreds of miles to reach his destination, bringing weapons and a supply of ammunition, using ambush-type tactics, and leaving behind a written record (his diary) to explain his actions. If its contents ever come to light, we may gain more visibility into how Chou viewed himself and how he rationalized his crime.

With every such tragedy, I and so many others must worry about the number of additional people, seething in the darkness of increasingly extreme and polarized social media, waiting to break out in a country that refuses to significantly tackle its epidemic of unchecked diseases. firearms and armed violence. After this particular one, I wonder how far and how far this virus has taken hold in the communities where mass shootings are rare — and how many future killers will put a new and diverse face on gun-related chaos.

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