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The Laguna Woods shooting wasn’t driven by anti-Asian hate. In some ways that felt worse.

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

But I knew that a fifth of the population of Laguna Woods is Asian: Two of my second cousins and the mother of my best friend live there. I knew that there was an active Taiwanese Christian community there that gathered for in-language worship services on Sundays at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, where the shooting was reported to have taken place. And news of this latest horror came in the wake of months of unrelenting reports of unprovoked violence against Asians in cities across America, including the shootings of three Korean American women in a Dallas, hair salon a few days before. 

The horrific event has sparked conversations about the complicated history of Taiwan and the often ignored nuances of its residents’ allegiances and identities.

So naturally, my first fear was that this was a similar attack, a hate-driven assault on a vulnerable Asian American community. And indeed, it was. But it wasn’t a hate crime driven by anti-Asian bigotry, xenophobia or racial animus. The emergence of the perpetrator’s identity was, in some ways, worse because this time the call seemed to be coming from within the house. 

The suspected 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. Based on his post-arrest mugshot, he could have easily been my uncle or father. Authorities said he mingled with the parishioners for about 40 minutes before his attack. Imagine what those 40 minutes may have felt like for the unsuspecting victims. 

Their guards were down. Why would they need to be up? To be part of a community, in this case Asian American, which has been hatefully targeted, being in a place of sanctuary, surrounded by people who share a cultural bond, causes you — if only briefly — to exhale. The surprise attack left one dead and several injured. If it had not been for the heroism of Dr. John Cheng, a man of my age who died while trying to defend elderly fellow members of his congregation, the body count would have been enormously higher.

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

Despite Chou’s upbringing, holding a Taiwan passport and speaking the native dialect with enough fluency to convince the church receptionist he belonged, he saw his targets not as countrymen but as rebellious traitors. And according to the title of a diary that authorities say he mailed to a Chinese-language newspaper before the attack, he considered himself an “angel“ of death tasked with destroying Taiwanese independence. 

The horrific event has sparked conversations about the complicated history of Taiwan and the often ignored nuances of its residents’ allegiances and identities. 

Chou is what Taiwanese refer to as “waishengren,” or “born-outside people,” a term used to identify descendants of the wave of mainlanders who fled to Taiwan after the communist takeover of China in 1949. The mainlanders seized control of the island and placed the existing residents — “benshengren,” or “born-here people” — under a sometimes-brutal martial law that didn’t officially end until 1987.

As a child, I remember being at a family funeral that some strongly pro-independence relatives boycotted because the deceased’s spouse was a waishengren and a member of the KMT government.

Older waishengren were deeply indoctrinated in the belief that Taiwan and the mainland would eventually be reunited. This idea that Taiwan and China were inextricably connected and that the waishengren’s Chinese Nationalist party-in-exile, the KMT, would someday be recognized as the true government of all of China was reinforced in cartoons, children’s picture books and anthems like “Go and Reclaim the Mainland.” My mother remembers being directed at graduation to symbolically march to the army recruitment station to volunteer for patriotic service in the campaign to “recover” the mainland. (At 5 feet 2 and 90 pounds, she was rejected.)

Meanwhile, among the benshengren, there’s a fervent segment who want Taiwan to be formally recognized as an independent nation. It’s a stance that’s both incompatible with decades of KMT propaganda and the dicta of mainland China itself, whose leadership has regularly threatened to turn the Taiwan strait into a sea of fire if its “breakaway province” chose to assert its autonomy. In the 1970s, independence activists battled frequently with government forces. Many ended up immigrating to the United States, using their overseas presence for fundraising and lobbying for support for recognition of Taiwan’s free and separate status. Growing up in the U.S., I had many friends who attended summer camps that immersed kids in Taiwanese culture and history while encouraging them to rally for Taiwan’s independence. 

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

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

The majority of Taiwanese take a pragmatic approach to their status, preferring the ambiguous status quo over any move that would bring the island and the mainland closer or farther apart. Many pro-independence supporters, including the current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, have shifted to asserting that Taiwan doesn’t need to declare independence because it is already independent for all intents and purposes. 

At the same time, the KMT has expressed little interest in “reunifying” with China except under conditions that protect the island’s capitalist ecosystem, pushing its nominal goal of merging with the mainland into a hypothetical, unpredictably distant future. 

But it’s worth noting that growing tensions between the U.S. and China, as well as the sudden invasion of Ukraine by Russia — and its use in the media as an object lesson for a potential Chinese attempt to assert power over Taiwan by force — have roiled the Taiwanese diaspora’s social media ecosystem. Over the past few years, popular social platforms have increasingly been used to share hysterical rhetoric and toxic disinformation, reopening fault lines that had been gradually closing over time. 

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that this online miasma contributed to Chou’s radicalization. Though his age and profile are quite different from other mass shooters in the U.S., who tended to be younger and white, his modus operandi, according to information the authorities have shared, was familiar: driving hundreds of miles to get to his destination, bringing weapons and a stockpile of ammunition, using ambush-style tactics and leaving behind a written document (his diary) to explain his actions. If its contents are ever revealed, we may gain more visibility into how Chou saw himself and how he rationalized his crime. 

With every such tragedy, I and so many others are left to worry about how many more people are out there, seething in the murk of increasingly extreme and polarized social media, waiting to erupt in a country that refuses to meaningfully address its epidemic of uncontrolled firearms and gun violence. After this one in particular, I wonder how far and deeply this virus has embedded itself within communities where mass shooting perpetrators are rare — and how many future killers will put a new and diverse face on gun-related mayhem.

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