By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was about seven years ago when I received an email like many others. We need you to cover a story. It’s timely. The deadline is ASAP. This is nothing new for a writer except what I was assigned to was, at the time, one of the deadliest shooting sprees in recent years.
On Sept. 23, 2010, a grandmother walked down the stairs of her family home in White Center and shot and killed two of her granddaughters and son-in-law, also wounding her own daughter. The family, a multi-generational Cambodian family, lived in a small house and faced extreme odds. They were struggling in a poor economy while caring for a grandmother who in recent years had begun hearing voices and reporting hallucinations of soldiers coming to the house with weapons. By the time I got news of the shooting, many dailies had already reported on the incident, but the details and reasons for the shooting remained inexplicable.
Why, in a city with many newspapers and media, do we need an Asian paper? As I rode the bus south towards White Center, I struggled with the idea of how to cover this story in a way that justified our coverage and provided information that was different from what was already out there — to report from an angle that veered from the stoic, newsy nature of an Associated Press wire, and gave our community a sense of understanding of an incomprehensible act.
From the bus stop in White Center, I had still a long uphill walk to the Wat Khemarak Pothiram Buddhist Temple, where the family’s memorial was taking place. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of anxiety that I would be intruding, that my goal to cover this story would be insensitive and even foolish. I thought about turning back, sparing the family of my presence, and citing to the Seattle Times in a short blurb and letting the issue lie. A grandmother shot her own family, then shot herself. The question of why remains with the family, and we’ll never know.
Except we are an Asian newspaper with Asian staff. I was an Asian reporter with family who have fled war, dealt with mental illness, and struggled as their family had and the question of why, of how a loving grandmother can murder her own family, could not be chalked up to mere delusions.
I was surprised when I arrived to smell food and see a feast spread out on a picnic table. A group of community members formed a community line, scooping rice and dishes onto plates. Without asking or knowing who I was, they ushered me into a line, passed me a plate of food, and welcomed me to the table.
Inside the temple, community members and family sat cross legged and bowed in prayer. The mood was somber, but not of the grief expected after such an atrocity. Nearby, a family friend gathered friends and neighbors around, and recounted fond stories and memories of the revered matriarch.
She was so beloved in fact that the temple floor was filled from front to back with people. One could barely find a place to sit or stand. I listened as people prayed for the family, for the young ones that passed too soon, and for the father who left behind a wife and son. Most notably, they prayed for the grandmother, the brave matriarch who fled the Khmer Rouge during her youth, who struggled in a new life in the United States, who battled schizophrenia for years in her older age, and finally found peace. At no point were there any sign of anger, of accusation, or bitterness. The grandmother’s daughter, still bandaged and weak from the shooting and reeling from having lost her own husband and daughters, spoke lovingly of her mother who always did what was best for her family.
It’s not easy for the Cambodian community to say, “My mother is crazy,” a family friend explained. They believe instead that a spirit has become too far removed from the body, causing the person to see and hear things that are not there. I cried on my way home thinking about this, and submitted the story that evening.
Saroeun Phan shared happy memories with family and friends before she died. Her family was her everything. She fled the Khmer Rouge in her youth and started a life with her family in Washington while facing many odds. Theirs was a story much like ours, but with a different ending. Why do we need an Asian paper? Because we must tell those stories, not just of the endings, but of the lives that were and is much like our own, so we better understand each other and in turn, better understand ourselves.