Mourning has been especially painful for the family Byong Choi left behind.
The 83-year-old retired accountant and restaurateur died of tuberculosis in his bone marrow on Feb. 24 in Orange County, Calif., but his wife and four daughters couldn’t hold a funeral Mass in his honor until March 19 because of coronavirus restrictions.
That date will now leave an indelible mark on a family coping with loss but is also a bleak reminder of how insidious anti-Asian racism can be.
The following Monday, Byong Choi’s wife, Yong, 82, received a handwritten, cursive letter at her Leisure World Seal Beach retirement community home postmarked the same date as the funeral. It read, “Now that Byong is gone makes it one less Asian to put up with in Leisure World. You frickin Asians are taking over our American community!”
The letter arrived just days after a 21-year-old White man killed eight people, six of whom were Asian, which raised fears among Asian American communities nationwide.
Claudia Choi, one of the daughters, was annoyed and unsurprised when she received a picture of the letter via text, the 46-year old told The Washington Post.
“They used my dad’s death to celebrate, sent it on the day of his funeral to my mother,” she said. “But to put a stamp on it felt particularly cruel and the fact that they said watch out.”
The Seal Beach Police Department in the county has launched an investigation into what it calls an anti-Asian hate crime.
The letter, which was sent from a post office in Los Angeles, is a top priority for the department, especially since hate crimes have risen in the county over the last five years and because Asian Americans have seen an uptick in overt racism and harassment over the last year, Seal Beach Chief of Police Philip Gonshak said in a statement.
Leisure World said in a statement that it condemns the “hateful bias crime” by the anonymous person and that the incident is being fully investigated.
Claudia Choi believes the letter is from another resident within the mostly White retirement community her parents called home for nearly a decade, she said. Her father’s obituary was only published in the Leisure World newspaper and website.
Seal Beach City is about 11% Asian compared to nearly 22% Asian in Orange County, according to census data.
The senior Chois mostly felt welcomed at the retirement community, where Byong was a well-known member of the Holy Family Church Choir, the Men’s Golf Club, Line Dance Club and Karaoke Club.
Claudia Choi said she could see a shift in attitude toward Asian Americans during the pandemic, especially with how former president Donald Trump handled the coronavirus crisis and his use of phrases such as “China virus” and “Kung flu.” In Leisure World, Choi said pro-Trump flags sprang up in front of residents’ homes.
Word from the former president sound eerily similar to what Choi said she often heard growing up in Indiana.
“We’ve heard ‘go back to your country’ before,” she said. “Every racist thinks it’s their most clever insult.”
Her parents have been able to adapt in unfamiliar environments ever since her father received a scholarship to leave his job working in the Ministry of Finance in Korea to study accounting at Ohio’s Central State University, a historically Black institution.
Like many immigrant families, the Chois would have multiple jobs that included her dad working in hospital accounting while her mom sold tofu to restaurants. The young couple moved to Indiana in hopes of expanding their soybean work, but a contract fell through, forcing them to become inventive again.
Choi said she can remember peeling shrimp as her mom sold egg rolls and chop suey from a stand in a strip mall as her dad started teaching Chinese cooking classes.
The popularity of their side hustles brought forth their Chinese restaurant in Indiana, named Choy’s Wok, that was its own small world of diversity, Choi said.
“My dad loved to sing,” she said, a passion that inspired him to add a piano bar in the restaurant. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant with Peruvian cooks and a gay bar.”
One of the best stories Byong told his daughterwas about his courtship with her mother. The tall, charismatic charmer, who was very late on the first date, hadplanned a difficult hike for the second date just so he could hold Yong’s hands and help her over challenging paths.
“He was helping her just as he had on their date,” Choi said.
His death came as a shock to the family because he was the more sprightly one of the pair. Her mother, whom she said is in poor health, has been swallowed up with grief and predicting her own death, Choi said.
Her daughters don’t want to add to her sorrow by reading or showing the letter to her, but speaking up about it is another way to honor their father, Choi said.
“My dad was a big figure and big personality,” she said. “This kind of awareness about the general discrimination that Asians face, he’s been part of the conversations even in death. I think it would’ve pleased him to no end.”