Essay: Finding the Courage to Cross the Street Again After Orlando

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's daughters, M and Hao Hao, with an American flag made out of the handprints of all their schoolmates.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's daughters, M and Hao Hao, with an American flag made out of the handprints of all their schoolmates. Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

My children and I always hold hands whenever we cross the street.


Every time.

Anyone who has ever had a three year old knows that you have to be absolutely consistent every time or every street corner will turn into an argument. “Well, you let me cross that one time without holding hands.”

And, of course, that one time a little one escapes and darts across the street will be that one time a truck rounds the corner, careening out of control, skidding across a patch of ice.

When my oldest daughter walked across the street of our quiet suburban neighborhood to catch the school bus to go to sixth grade, she smirked that that was the first time I had ever let her cross the street by herself.

I answered, “Well, you’re still alive, aren’t you?”

Since then, this has become a family joke, and the children always quietly reach out to hold my hand, and each others’ hands, every time we cross the street — even though they are now all taller than I am.

This was supposed to be my annual Vincent Chin essay, remembering once again how the Asian-American community came together, joined by many other communities of color, against hate violence and a justice system that metes out unequal justice, and recalling again, 34 years later, the heartbreaking words of Vincent Chin’s mother, Mrs. Lily Chin: “I want justice, I want justice for my son.”

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However, after the shootings in Orlando, I cannot stop thinking about another mass shooting and hate crime, another summer, 17 years ago in Los Angeles, well before September 11.

Avowed white supremacist Buford Furrow walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills and opened fire with an Uzi-type submachine gun. He wounded three children, a teenage counselor, and a staff member. A few miles away, on a quiet leafy street in Chatsworth, Furrow then approached Filipino-American U.S. postal carrier Joseph Ileto, and asked if he could mail a letter.

I always imagine that Ileto turned, smiled broadly, and reached out his hand to accept the letter, only to be shot at close range nine times in the chest and head. Ileto was found dead in a driveway.

Furrow told the FBI that he had wanted to issue “a wake up call to America to kill Jews.” He also said that he had targeted Ileto because he appeared to be “Hispanic or Asian” and a federal employee.

That was August 10, 1999. I was pregnant with my third child. I had just found out that she would be a girl, and her older sisters decided that they would call her Niu Niu. The children and I were in California for the summer, letting my parents feed and take care of us, and my two daughters were attending Chinese summer camp every day.

I remember the courage it took to take my children to Chinese summer camp the next morning. What if our visibly minority summer camp was targeted next? Is going to Chinese summer camp an act of bravery or an act of foolishness?

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's oldest daughter M at Chinese School, 1999
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's oldest daughter M at Chinese School, 1999 Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

That same summer, a Catholic judge in San Jose had his front porch firebombed. Police arrested three teenagers, described as white supremacists, who reportedly targeted the judge because they thought he was Jewish. (The judge was not home at the time, and the teenager responsible for the attack was sentenced to prison.)

I was struck by the casual randomness of the hate.

“Hispanic or Asian,” Jewish or not, it did not matter.

Back then, before September 11, all of these were considered “terrorism.”

Furrow is currently serving a life sentence. The Ileto family continues to speak out against anti-Asian hate crimes. I think about Joseph Ileto every time I approach a postal carrier on the street to ask to mail a letter, and I am amazed that every time the postal carrier says yes.

Now, 17 years later, my daughter Niu Niu is starting to apply to college and, like so many families, we are looking at college campuses and thinking about what would be a good fit for this particular child: bright, hardworking, organized, inquisitive, quirky, and quiet. Her older sisters joke that she is “the perfect one” as well as our “princess.”

And I am once again trying to conjure the courage to send another child off into the world on her own.

Supporters of the victims of the recent mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub hold candles while attending a vigil at Lake Eola Park, Sunday, June 19, 2016, Orlando, Fla. Tens of thousands of people attended the vigil.
John Raoux / AP

Then, Orlando.

But Orlando is not new.

Fueled by racism, homophobia, misogyny, and violence, shooter Omar Mateen was an angry mess.

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So was Patrick Edward Purdy on January 17, 1989, when he sprayed Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, with at least 107 bullets from a semi-automatic AK-47-style rifle and then killed himself.

On the playground.

During lunch recess.

At his former school that had become 71 percent Southeast Asian.

In three minutes, five little children — Rathanar Or, 9; Ram Chun, 8; Sokim An, 6; Oeun Lim, 8; and Thuy Tran, 8 — were killed, and 29 students and one teacher were injured. Most were refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam whose families had come to America seeking peace after war.

This is the mass school shooting that motivated California to ban assault weapons in 1989, the federal government to ban the import of assault weapons in 1989, and the federal government to ban assault weapons from 1994 to 2004.

I do not understand why we are back where we started, still having the same conversation.

The children who survived the Stockton school shooting are now in their early 30s and starting families of their own. Imagine the courage it must take to send their children to school every day.

I wish I had more money so that, like the NRA, I could wield more influence than my one vote and occasional essay.

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Or maybe the answer lies in all of us coming together and speaking out against hate, continuing to cross those gulfs that lay between us so that we come to really know one another.

“Hispanic or Asian,” Jewish or not, Chinese or Japanese, LGBTQ or Muslim, it does not matter.

We simply reach out for another’s hand.


Every time.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's three daughters, M, Hao Hao, and Niu Niu, dressed up for Chinese New Year.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's three daughters, M, Hao Hao, and Niu Niu, dressed up for Chinese New Year. Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

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