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Girl from Monterey Park

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to read the name of your little hometown in headlines, especially when attached to words like ‘massacre,’ and ‘deadly shooting.’ The morning of the Lunar New year, my husband woke me up at 6:00 a.m. because he read about the mass shooting that took place at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio with (at the time) 10 casualties and 10 sustaining injuries. My first thought was that my parents had frequented that ballroom studio, as part of an older generation of ballroom dance lovers. I thought of the old couples I would see waltzing or doing the Taiwanese tango and my heart sank.

I met a girl in college who was from Columbine, Colorado and I recall asking her, “Wait…you’re from THE Columbine?” And her response was a slow eye roll and a heavy sigh. Her hometown had been reduced to the tragedy that made it a household name and now I felt like I was stepping into those same shoes…

The news outlets will tell you that Monterey Park is a small suburb roughly 20 miles east of Los Angeles with a population of about 60,000 and is populated by a predominantly Asian community. All of those things are true. Though, for me personally, it’s more than that. It’s where I was raised, where I went to school, where I made friends, where I had my first heartbreak and found my forever person. It’s where my parents planted roots as one of the first Chinese American couples to settle in the little city that would soon be nicknamed Little Taipei, long before it was the location of one of countless American mass shootings.

In 1972, my parents, Jim and Grace, married and decided to purchase a modest home in a quiet neighborhood southeast from the bustling city of Pasadena where they first lived, with sights set on a home to raise children. This house, set on a steep hill, had colored glass in the front door that made a soft colored pattern on the linoleum flooring when the sun shone through it and a swing set in the spacious backyard covered in clover grass. There, they lived with my maternal grandmother who stayed in a spare bedroom and soon welcomed their firstborn, my older sister, Shirley in 1973. At this time, there was no Asian grocery store in existence nearby. My family still trekked to Chinatown in the Downtown Los Angeles area to purchase their groceries and pastries. Most of their neighbors were white and Hispanic, but they didn’t feel isolated or lonely. They made friends with neighbors and made their little house a home. After I came along in 1978, the three-bedroom house felt a little cramped for our family of five and we upgraded to a new build–a tract of homes just a few blocks away, where I would spend my next 17 years growing up.

A half block from the house I grew up in stood Garvey Ranch Park. This was the site for countless birthday parties and little league games, where the baseball field was built into a dried up lake. There also stands in this park the Monterey Park Historical Museum, where my sister would later volunteer as a docent, giving tours to small groups and school field trips. It was at this little museum where you could find photos of old Hollywood legends like Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor lounging in ritzy restaurants that used to entertain such guests because Monterey Park was a polo destination for the wealthy and elite. It was likened at the time to Beverly Hills and Bel Air for its lush green hills–perfect for a polo match. It was also the birthplace of the famous but now defunct Laura Scudder’s Potato Chips, where Laura Scudder herself invented the first sealed bag to keep the chips crisp and fresh.

By the time I entered middle school, Monterey Park and neighboring cities that made up the San Gabriel Valley became populated more by Asian immigrants. The nickname Little Taipei might make one think that the majority of immigrants were from Taiwan, and while that may have been true, my experience in my schools was different. I was actually one of few kids from Taiwan immigrant families and many of my peers were refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. While on paper my high school was slated as “70% Asian,” the variety of Asians was impressive and made my schools feel very diverse in that my experience as a kid was very different from my friends who were fourth generation Japanese American, or second generation Korean American or first generation Vietnamese American. If we knew any languages other than English, we didn’t speak the same ones. Even if I found another kid who was also ethnically Chinese, they didn’t speak the same dialect I spoke at home. We ate different foods and shared our mothers’ homecooking and snacks specific to our cultures. We ran into each others homes, kicking off our shoes at the door while noticing differences in each other’s houses like the presence of a Buddhist altar with fruit offerings and burning incense, or a cross above a mantle with hymnals and bibles printed in Chinese or Korean. We all still laughed at Pee Wee’s Playhouse and learned how to dance to the music videos of MC Hammer, Paula Abdul and scatted to Hanson’s ‘MMM Bop.’

By high school, I started to feel like this little town that I grew up in was getting too small. I wondered if I was actually sheltered from a “real world” experience where I, an Asian American girl, was actually a minority, and not a part of the majority culture. I began to resent that I didn’t have more white and black friends. I believed some hate speech I heard said about how Monterey Park was victimized by an “Asian Invasion,” driving out other ethnic groups with store signage ladened with Chinese characters and groups of elderly Asian folk doing tai chi in local parks. I also cringed at jokes made about how bad drivers riddled the streets and how one would be lucky to get out alive or without a fender bender in the streets of my town. I didn’t want to be associated with this negativity.

Also at this time, my parents rekindled the hobby that brought them together in the first place–ballroom dance. They found a studio in neighboring Alhambra called Lai Lai Dance Studio (where the gunman also went to after the shooting) and would come home tired and a little disheveled but exhilarated from jitterbugging, fox trotting and tangoing with old and new friends who were of similar age and background, reminiscing of their college days in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They also became involved with a subset community–a lively group of karaoking ballroom dancers. This group would sing and perform live to karaoke tracks as their buddies glided or hopped across the dance floor and cheered for each other like they were the Beatles.

After leaving Monterey Park for college, grad school and eventually settling down and having my own family, I have learned to appreciate where I grew up. While it may not be representative of the more common notion of an American city, it is a city where immigrants who loved and honored their ethnic cultures were still Americans. Americans who enjoyed being able to worship in a church or temple, eat the foods they know and crave, celebrate the holidays their families enjoyed with firecrackers, lion dances but also carved turkeys with stuffing and Christmas trees. It really was a melting pot of cultures, tastes, smells, sounds. Our families kept some old traditions while adopting new ones and mixing the two to make unique experiences for us kids. Red envelopes tucked in our stockings. White Rabbit milk candies hidden in plastic Easter eggs. It was quirky and anything but traditional, but it was ours and it was fun.

My heart still aches at the thought of the now 11 victims who perished that night. The eve of the new year. There would have been the usual epic Lunar New Year Festival sure to overwhelm your senses, but that was cancelled for safety reasons. On the day of the new year, the gunman was found in his van. A standoff with law enforcement and eventually he also perished, by his own hand. My parents’ community in shock, grieving. I don’t want another person to feel like this and feel like they need to write a tribute to their hometown, the community that raised them and say, “We are so much more than this!”

Monterey Park is a great little town where you can find some amazing pastries, boba tea, Chinese seafood, Taiwanese food, Vietnamese pho and banh mi sandwiches, Hawaiian food, Japanese food, Korean food and my favorite Mexican restaurant who makes the world’s best salsa to complement their equally amazing burrito. You can visit a small and humble historical museum where a little girl roamed and memorized the docent script and could give the tour herself if 10 year-olds were allowed to. You’ll find parks that have festivals celebrating all holidays and a little library with a funny name where you’ll find books and media in at least six different languages. But more importantly, you’ll find people who have come from all parts of the world (as well as their American-born kids and grandkids) who just want what everyone else wants…home, community and safety.

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