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Brandon Tsay, Biden's State of the Union guest, says he's still processing Monterey Park shooting

“In my environment, growing up, I feel that I was reinforced [with] the idea that I should … be strong, keep your feelings bottled up and try to be the male, dominant person in your house,” Brandon Tsay said about how he's processing the tragedy.
Brandon Tsay prior to being honored in Alhambra, Calif.,
Brandon Tsay prior to being honored in Alhambra, Calif., on Jan. 29. Richard Vogel / AP

Following the shooting tragedy in Monterey Park, California, last month, victims’ families say they will use their spotlight as guests at the State of the Union to discuss the impact of gun violence on their Asian American community. 

Brandon Tsay, who is attending as President Biden’s guest and who disarmed a mass shooter at a packed dance hall, said he’s had to contend with subsequent trauma from the incident. 

“I still live in an anxious, fearful state where I want to project my feelings and emotions to connect with other human beings. And currently, I found the strength to find some professional help,” Tsay, 26, told NBC News, saying that he has attended several therapy sessions since the tragedy. 

Tsay said that seeking help isn’t common in the Asian American community, but the shooting has changed his perspective.

“In my environment, growing up, I feel that I was reinforced [with] the idea that I should … be strong, keep your feelings bottled up and try to be the male, dominant person in your house,” Tsay said. “But now that I have somewhat had time to process, I know now that I need to seek professional help because these feelings that came about with this situation are too much of a burden to bear by myself.”

Juily Phun, niece of Muoi Dai Ung, who was killed in the Jan. 21 shooting, will be a guest of Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and said her message is to not overlook the Asian American community’s needs. 

“What we can do is to advocate, and to advocate on behalf of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders so that this doesn’t happen,” Phun told NBC News. “This is a beautiful city. But the way that it can be more beautiful, the way that it can be more wonderful and diverse, is that there are resources for the kind of complex community that we have.”

It’s been roughly two weeks since the shooting that left 11 people dead, and processing the tragedy has been difficult for both State of the Union guests. Tsay opened up about his own mental health struggles following the incident, in which he lunged at the gunman, who entered his family’s dance hall, Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio. 

Phun said she’s still in shock, shifting between a heady mix of sadness and anger as her family makes arrangements following her aunt’s death. Ung’s daughter, Phun’s cousin, lives abroad and had just returned home to visit her mother after over a decade apart. 

“I was telling folks that she came to see her mother and now she has come to bury her mother,” Phun said. “And when I asked her, ‘What can I do?’ Her answer to me was, ‘Can you bring my mother back?’” 

Phun said that hopefully the story of her aunt, an avid ballroom dancer who was known to be outgoing, will resonate with others and show that such tragedies can touch anyone. 

“She wasn’t my aunt. She was our aunt. She was all of our aunts. We all have an aunt who loves dance. We all have an auntie that is lovely. We all have an auntie who went through difficult times to try to find joy,” Phun said. “And anybody that looks into the situation will also see themselves and their families in my family. That is what I hope people will see — that it is not just our family tragedy. It’s all of us.” 

Chu said in addition to spotlighting Phun’s family, she’s advocating for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, more awareness around red flag laws that could prevent those who appear as threats to have access to firearms, and more outreach to Asian American communities when it comes to gun safety. 

“It is so evident from Sandy Hook to Uvalde to Buffalo and now to Monterey Park that we have to pass laws that will keep Americans safe,” Chu said. “There are things that we’ve been working on for so long, but the urgency is so clear.”