After the initial shock about hearing about the Half Moon Bay shootings, my next reaction to hearing that Chunli Zhao actions were related to his work on a farm was “why is a 66-year-old working on a farm?” This shooting and the Monterey Park New Year shootings highlights some of the challenges that many Asian American seniors face and that seem to receive comparatively little attention: economic struggles, social isolation, and lack of mental health care.
Chunli Zhao lived with his wife in a shack covered by a blue tarp (pictured above) in what has been described as “deplorable conditions” on one of the farms where he worked. One of the shooting locations had recent history of violence. Other migrant Asian farm workers live in similar conditions to Zhao and his wife, and he killed two of Asian American farm workers who were even older than him, aged 73 and 74. While we may hear and read much about Asian American professionals with high incomes, but Asian Americans have high income disparity and many are impoverished. While this of course doesn’t excuse Zhao, there are many Asians Americans and particularly older Asian Americans who are impoverished, working as farm workers or even riding buses to make ends meet. Historically, Asian Americans came to the United States to work as farm workers or laborers – this is not new, ongoing, but often forgotten.
Social isolation is another problem. The Monterey Park shooter, Huu Can Tran, lived in Hemet, far away from his former home in heavily Asian San Gabriel in an area with few other Asians. He was divorced, lived alone, and his neighbors said that no one ever visited him there. Chunli Zhao didn’t speak English or Spanish, yet another form of isolation.
Some say with these shootings, Asian Americans have assimilated into American society in the worst possible way. One way that they haven’t assimilated is in getting mental health treatment. Zhao had worked before as a restaurant worker, and he once tried to choke a coworker, who then filed a restraining order against him. Chunli Zhao had anger issues, and in an interview thought he had some mental illness. A few weeks before the Monterey Park shootings, Huu Can Tran reported to police and accused his family of fraud and of trying to poison him 10 to 20 years ago, but produced no evidence.
If anything positive were to come out of these sad shooting incidents, attention could increase on Asian American issues like senior poverty, mental health, and the huge disparaties in Asian American income. I don’t think that is likely, but I remain hopeful.