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'Oh no. Not again': How the UNC shooting reminded Asian Americans of a long history of violence

Members of the Asian American community attend a candlelight vigil held in Cary, N.C. on Sept. 5 for Zijie Yan, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Yan was shot and killed on campus on Aug. 28.
Cornell Watson
for WUNC
Members of the Asian American community attend a candlelight vigil held in Cary, N.C. on Sept. 5 for Zijie Yan, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Yan was shot and killed on campus on Aug. 28.

When a Chinese American professor was killed on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on Aug. 28, it triggered deep-seated anxiety and fear among Asian Americans in the Triangle.

In the days following the shooting, Jiu-Luen Tsai noticed that he felt heavier and more exhausted than usual.

Tsai, 50, had been grappling with fear, frustration and grief after Zijie Yan, a Chinese American UNC science professor, was killed on campus. Like many other Asian Americans in the Triangle, he was afraid of how people would perceive him and his family after authorities identified graduate student Tailei Qi as the suspect.

Jiu-Luen Tsai, a Chapel Hill resident, leans against the wall at Lanza's Cafe in Carrboro on Sept. 2, 2023.
Eli Chen
After the UNC shooting on Aug. 28, Chapel Hill resident Jiu-Luen Tsai felt deeply triggered by the event and said that he mourned for the Chinese American victim as well as the greater Asian American community.

And it reminded Tsai of instances when he and others in the Asian American community have been attacked.

“We are an Asian American family in Chapel Hill and we have experienced not gun violence, but physical violence in Chapel Hill,” Tsai said. “My body was telling me, ‘Oh no, not this again.’”

While the event is not characterized as a hate crime, it’s still an example of violence that’s impacted the Asian American community, said Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, the communications director at North Carolina Asian Americans Together.

“I think any violence against the Asian community is violence against the Asian community,” Patel-Nguyen said. “It doesn’t matter what race [the shooter] is. I think it’s just boiling it down to gun violence.”

When the shooter and victims are Asian, public interest wanes

Friends, family and other members of the Asian American community gathered in front of the Cary Arts Center on Sept. 5 to remember the life of Chinese American scientist Zijie Yan.
Cornell Watson
Friends, family and other members of the Asian American community gathered in front of the Cary Arts Center on Sept. 5 to remember the life of Chinese American scientist Zijie Yan.

Events like the UNC shooting, as well as the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, highlight a culture that’s prone to gun violence and the vulnerability of Asian immigrants in America, said Eileen Chengyin Chow, a Duke University associate professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

“I think of these [events] as part of that larger sense of a toxic violent environment with easy access to guns,” Chow said. “And also, the perception that Asians are vulnerable and defenseless and good targets.”

However, when the gunman and victims are Asian, such as with the shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay in California earlier this year, there is a tendency to dismiss the events as being isolated to the Asian community, she added.

“For me, these are American stories,” Chow said. “But I felt like a kind of media reaction is, ‘Oh, these are Asian stories because the perpetrator was also Asian, their targets are also Asian.’ And so, therefore, you can kind of put it aside, almost bracket it a little and say, 'This is about something else and mysterious and not about America.'”

But for Tsai, it hit painfully close to home, particularly when UNC police admitted that they had initially detained the wrong person before arresting Tailei Qi.

“There is this trope in American society that all Asian people look alike, that they’re undifferentiated,” Tsai said. “They’re indistinguishable and it serves the purposes of portraying Asian people in the U.S. as perpetual foreigners and as exotic and as un-American. They arrested a man and that could’ve been me. I am an Asian man and I live in Chapel Hill.”

What happened 32 years ago, at a another university

Cary resident and community organizer Lily Chen sitting in a room at her house on Sept. 3, 2023.
Eli Chen
The UNC shooting reminded Lily Chen of the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa, in which a Chinese graduate student also killed faculty members and a Chinese postdoctorate researcher. Chen was an international student at University of Iowa that year.

Anti-Asian violence has increased especially after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But similarly violent events that have impacted Asian Americans have been happening for decades.

Cary resident Lily Chen, a community organizer and PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Nursing, recalled when she was an international student at the University of Iowa in 1991. That year, Gang Lu, a graduate student, shot and killed three faculty members in the department of physics and astronomy. He also killed postdoctoral researcher, Linhua Shan, who Chen personally knew.

“As an international student at the time, it was really stressful,” Chen said. “[I] didn’t understand the culture, language barrier, far away from family and friends — it was a very stressful time and very lonely and isolating.”

Thirty-two years later, Chen experienced the same feelings that she did back then. She was also dismayed when a Wayne County high school principal posted an angry message on Facebook days after the shooting, speculating that the suspected shooter was “stealing intellectual property” on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

“It's like, can I have time even to grieve?” Chen said. “Can I just have time to spend time with my family, with my daughter, with my friends and not have to worry about these kinds of things?”

Chen, whose daughter is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, is also researching disparities in mental health services, as it relates to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. She wants to see more support, such as translation services, provided to UNC international students in the aftermath of the shooting.

“I would really love to see more culturally appropriate services for international students and for all students who might have unique barriers or unique mental health needs,” Chen said.

Since the shooting, UNC social worker Susan Chung, has seen many international Asian students in her office and at mental health webinars.

“They already feel like outsiders and they don’t feel included at the school,” Chung said. “They don’t feel seen. The incident that happened really escalated that. That’s kind of how they feel.”

Chung herself immigrated from Taiwan when she was 12 years old and tries to act as a liaison between the two cultures. Even before the shooting, she said that international students have shared with her that they feel ignored by the school and have been bullied by their peers and professors.

Chung tries to offer students self-care strategies to help deal with complicated emotions, but that type of guidance only goes so far.

“I realized that's not what they're looking for,” she said. “They're not looking for tips, they're looking for some kind of systematic change. They say, OK, I understand this [coping strategy], but what is the point? I want to see something change, like, as a school.”

Susan Chung, UNC social worker, in her office on Sept. 1, 2023 describing a wheel that lists dozens of words that describe different emotions, which she uses as a tool to help her clients normalize their feelings.
Eli Chen
UNC-Chapel Hill social worker Susan Chung demonstrated a counseling tool she uses to help students describe and normalize their emotions. Since the shooting, Chung said she has spoken with many distressed international students.

'The most that I can do'

Jiu-Luen Tsai has lived in Chapel Hill since 2018, but has longtime roots in North Carolina. His family moved from Taiwan when he was two and he spent much of his childhood, from the 1980s to the early 1990s, living in Indian Trail, N.C.

When the shooting at UNC happened, Tsai tried to talk to his 14-year-old son about it.

“I honestly don’t know if he has experienced these things himself—xenophobia, racism and fear of gun violence,” Tsai said. “With a teenager, it’s especially hard to know. As a responsible parent, I have to talk about these things because these are truths in our world.”

Tsai says his son didn’t have much to say when they talked.

“The most that I can do,” he said, “is to let him know that I love him, unconditionally, and will try to keep him safe. And that I am confused and scared. And if he has those feelings, that those feelings are OK and if he wants to talk about those feelings, we can talk about them together. And that is the best way I can show up for him as a 14-year-old multiracial boy in the U.S.”

To report instances of discrimination, North Carolina Asian Americans Together offers a bias reporting form that folks who identify as Asian American and Pacific Islanders can submit to help document these events. 

Friends of Zijie Yan have also set up GoFundMe fundraisers for those who want to support the late professor’s parents and daughters

Eli Chen is WUNC’s afternoon digital news producer.