A Daring Dream and a Lifelong Love, Dashed in a Moment of Violence

Their plans were bold, with no room for devastation.

They would leave their hometown and journey 6,500 miles to New York City together and take jobs, any kind, that allowed them to send money back to family. Eventually, they would return to enjoy grandchildren whose college funds they had helped provide, whose futures would burn bright.

GuiYing Ma and her husband, Zhanxin Gao, had ventured out of their city of Fushun, in northeastern China, only a handful of times.

They were both 56 years old, childhood schoolmates whose lives had been entwined for longer than their nearly four decades of marriage. Much of their existence had been one of frugality and labor — working at a steel factory, selling vegetables at a market. Neither had learned any English.

But in 2017, they decided to apply for visas in hopes of making the kind of money that was out of their reach in China. They had one son and felt a duty to continue to support him and his children. “Everyone says the United States is the best, and we want to go to the best,” Mr. Gao told the visa officer at the interview.

Mr. Gao and Ms. Ma came to America intent on working and sending money back to their son in China.

Many warned the couple that they were too old, too inexperienced to travel abroad. But they could not resist a last chance at adventure.

And so, that year in June, Mr. Gao and Ms. Ma arrived in Queens, two small graying figures with three suitcases.

A day later, Mr. Gao was on a bus to Philadelphia. A friend had helped him land a job manning the fry station at a Chinese restaurant there. He was eager to start, and it came with free housing. After 11 days, he returned to his wife who had stayed behind.

When she saw him, Ms. Ma began to cry and embraced him. She had felt abandoned and afraid. Mr. Gao made a promise.

“I won’t leave you alone anymore,” he said. “Wherever I go, I’ll take you.”

He ended up working for his landlord who ran a company that changed and cleaned grease filters in restaurant kitchens. Ms. Ma took a job at a bakery, but eventually stayed home, making breakfast and dinner for Mr. Gao whose days were grueling and long. Sometimes she took a $20 bus ride to a casino in Connecticut just to collect its $40 voucher that she could turn around and sell to someone else. Rigid about their finances, they waited for produce to go on sale, accepted donated clothes, picked up free meals at a nearby church.

The couple pictured with their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

It was the bond between them that softened the landing. Mr. Gao had always liked how Ms. Ma was gentle but spirited. She had been the kind of girl who preferred sledding with the boys over jumping rope. In turn, she admired his humility and honesty, and how he cared for his younger brother and sister. They saw each other as equals, co-conspirators in a simple life.

Last fall, they had begun to talk about heading home.

On the morning after Thanksgiving, after her husband left for work, Ms. Ma headed down three flights of stairs and out onto 103rd Street in the Corona neighborhood. She had taken to sweeping the sidewalks around a nearby vacant building owned by her landlord, a kind man whom she often plied with steamed buns and noodles. Tidying an area often strewn with trash was another way to show appreciation.

Ms. Ma set off on her usual six-block journey, past the pawnshop and the laundromat with the blue awning and the Dominican restaurant and the Greek Orthodox church.

She arrived at around 8 a.m. at the building on 38th Avenue, which was bordered by a green wooden fence inked with graffiti.

A Rise in Anti-Asian Attacks

  • Swelling Violence: From New York to Atlanta, attacks against Asian Americans have surged across the United States.
  • Few Hate Crime Charges: Recent violence against Asian-Americans has exposed difficult questions involved in proving a racist motive.
  • Setting the Stage: On platforms like Telegram and 4chan, racist memes and anti-Asian posts increased the risk of real-world violence.
  • The Aftermath of a Killing: The death of an 84-year-old man helped awaken the nation to a rise in anti-Asian violence. His family says the reckoning hasn’t gone far enough.

Minutes later, Ms. Ma’s 61-year-old body lay unconscious on the ground, her face smeared with blood. Someone had bashed her head in with a rock.

After his wife was attacked, Mr. Gao ate mostly eggs and rice — one of the few meals he knew how to prepare.
Mr. Gao smoking in his kitchen.

‘I will take care of her’

The rhythm of violence involving victims of Asian descent has not slowed. Even as the nation has returned to prepandemic comforts — activities that offer a sense of normalcy and an assurance that a new era has dawned — the tally of victims grows.

In January, Michelle Go, 40, was pushed to her death in front of a subway train in Times Square. The following month, Christina Yuna Lee, 35, was followed into her Chinatown apartment and fatally stabbed dozens of times. Two weeks later, in Manhattan, a man was arrested for striking seven women in the face.

By mid-March, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes recorded by the New York Police Department was double the total from the same period last year.

Most attacks lack the specific evidence needed to be prosecuted as hate crimes. That has not assured a larger community on alert. Racism can be felt, even if not always proven.

It is the older victims continuously swept up in this moment who are reminders of an unsettling truth: Even the most vulnerable will not be spared.

Which is why on the afternoon of Nov. 26, Mr. Gao, 61, found himself at Elmhurst Hospital stunned to find his wife in a coma. He looked at her bandaged head, the bruised eyes swollen shut, the dried blood along her hairline, and he wept uncontrollably.

“I was out of my mind at the time,” he recalled in Mandarin.

Mr. Gao, who took a job cleaning restaurant grease filters, shuttled between work and his wife’s bedside.

Ms. Ma soon went into surgery to address the bleeding in her brain. Part of her fractured skull was removed. She required a tracheotomy — an incision in her windpipe — to help her breathe. A tube was inserted in her head to remove fluid. Another went into her stomach to deliver food.

Even if she woke, the doctor said, the left side of her body would be paralyzed.

“I will take care of her,” Mr. Gao vowed.

For weeks he visited to hold his wife’s hand and call out her name. He spoke of memories, their friends and family and studied her face for any flicker of life. “Wake up,” he implored. “Don’t you miss your grandchildren?”

Finally, in early February, Mr. Gao was thrilled to find that Ms. Ma’s eyes were open and that she could move her right arm and leg.

He called out instructions he thought might inspire her recovery. Straighten your leg. Blink your eyes. Move your fingers.

He delighted in any slight gesture that seemed a response. It’s OK, he encouraged. You’re tired. Take your time.

Ms. Ma was improving. And although she lay expressionless, her eyes stared into his.

“When I see you, I feel happy,” he told her. “Are you happy when you see me?”

Mr. Gao kept the hair ties that Ms. Ma was wearing on the day of the attack in a drawer in his apartment.
Mr. Gao continued to work after the attack, leaving home early in the morning.

An American escapade

They had been raised in government housing, the children of workers at an iron mine.

Mr. Gao stopped school after tenth grade. He took an exam to get into college but failed. Ms. Ma made it through ninth grade.

They were 22 when they married. The following year, under China’s one-child policy, they welcomed a son, Yang.

Ms. Ma stayed with their son while Mr. Gao worked at a steel factory. On weekends, they both helped farmers clear weeds from cornfields for less than a dollar a day. At dinner, Ms. Ma would insist she was not hungry so Yang could have an extra serving of meat.

When kindergarten started, Yang was sent to school with a bottle of soda, cheaper than the apples and oranges other parents packed for their children. The family lived in rented rooms in houses, forced to move whenever an owner decided the extra space could not be spared. Eventually Ms. Ma joined Mr. Gao at the steel factory.

“Our life was just work,” Mr. Gao recalled. “There was no time for other things.”

When Yang got older, they used some of their savings to throw him a wedding and help him open a convenience store.

Mr. Gao embraced his son who arrived at Kennedy International Airport in March.

By 2017, Yang owned two taxis and was able to offer his children a modest life. He was bewildered when his parents presented their plan to head overseas and urged them to reconsider. But Mr. Gao and Ms. Ma wanted to provide for their grandson, 8, and granddaughter, 15, both of whom were excelling in school and could be the family’s first generation to go to college.

When he drove them to the airport, Yang begged his father to look after his mother. She had recently had a tumor removed from her kidney. Mr. Gao gave his word they would stay safe.

It was an exchange Mr. Gao would think of often during the months his wife lay in a bed that was not theirs. To drown his guilt during sleepless nights, he kept the television on, tuned to various Chinese dramas. If a medical scene appeared, he cried.

His smoking increased to a pack a day, and he grew gaunt, eating mostly rice with eggs, one of the few meals he knew how to cook. Work helped keep his mind busy in between hospital visits and save for the plane tickets home. He envisioned himself tending to his wife in a wheelchair.

But on the night of Feb. 22, Mr. Gao was preparing for bed when he got a call. Ms. Ma’s heart was beating too fast. The doctor said to come right away. Mr. Gao rushed to the train that could get him to her in 15 minutes.

He was two stops away when his phone rang again.

His wife, the girl of his childhood, the accomplice in his American escapade, had died.

The apartment Mr. Gao and Ms. Ma shared was modest.
Ms. Ma had not yet put in her dentures when she left home the morning of the attack. Months later, they still sat above the bathroom sink.

The least we can do

Elisaul Perez, 33, was arrested at the scene the day of Ms. Ma’s attack.

An eyewitness told the police that Ms. Ma had been sweeping when Mr. Perez engaged her in an argument. Then, Mr. Perez picked up a rock and hit her on the head, which knocked her unconscious and sent her sprawling, according to court documents.

Video surveillance showed Ms. Ma being struck again with the same object while on the ground.

Mr. Perez had multiple prior arrests, including for robbery, public lewdness and assault.

In Ms. Ma’s case, Mr. Perez was charged with assault and criminal possession of a weapon, but not with a hate crime, which often requires explicit evidence such as a racial slur. The Queens district attorney’s office is reviewing the charges in light of Ms. Ma’s death; Mr. Perez’s lawyer declined to comment for this article.

The absence of a tidy title has not troubled Mr. Gao, who only hopes his wife’s attacker will be thoroughly punished. Back home he had identified as Chinese, not Asian, and had not thought much about race.

“They are each other’s first love.” A photo in a montage made by the couple’s landlord and friend, Yihung Hsieh, showed Mr. Gao and Ms. Ma in their younger days.

What has greatly surprised him here though is how Asian Americans could feel connected to him, how a community could rally support for a man with no means to pay it back.

There was the artist who drew a picture of Ms. Ma that helped news of her plight spread across social media. The nonprofit that donated an iPad and virtual therapy lessons. The Buddhist social workers with advice about rehabilitation. The attorneys who established a trust for the GoFundMe money and arranged a visit from a neurologist. The vigils, the memorials, the messages.

Yihung Hsieh, the couple’s landlord, posted updates to the GoFundMe about Ms. Ma’s progress in English and Chinese. It raised more than $200,000, much of it coming from Asian contributors.

“It breaks my heart to see this happen to someone that could have been my mom,” wrote one donor.

Mr. Hsieh, 47, served as Mr. Gao’s voice, accompanying him to the hospital and the grand jury proceedings, translating calls from the authorities. When he was not available, other volunteers stepped in.

Yang Gao collapsed in front of his mother’s coffin at the funeral in March.

“As second-generation Asian Americans, it’s the least we can do,” said Fulton Hou, 28, a Flushing resident who sometimes interpreted for Mr. Gao. “We don’t want these attacks to go unnoticed and these lives lost in vain.”

Representative Grace Meng advocated for Mr. Gao at the hospital, which she said agreed to relieve him of unwieldy bills. She also coordinated an effort with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to intervene when a visa was initially denied to Mr. Gao’s son who hoped to see his mother one last time.

At the funeral in March, Yang Gao, 39, could not contain his grief. He bowed and collapsed to his knees in front of his mother’s coffin, his cries loud and anguished. He had come, he said, to take her home.

What they left behind

After the attack, Mr. Gao lived frugally, saving money to return to China.
Yang Gao waited for his mother’s funeral to begin last month.

Mr. Gao will depart for China this month, a widower, with his son and the ashes of a woman who deserved a peaceful end.

He harbors deep regret about coming here.

But it was not all darkness.

On their own in New York, the couple found their love for each other magnified.

On weekends, they stuck close, every errand and chore done together. Mr. Gao would insist on making dumplings with Ms. Ma, not wanting to leave her alone with the painstaking task. They would stand side-by-side in the kitchen while he shaped bits of dough and she filled each one with pork and cabbage.

Together, they managed to see up close the New York City of their dreams. A friend spent a summer day escorting them to Times Square and Central Park and the churches on Fifth Avenue. Ms. Ma marveled over the sights and wondered aloud why she had not been born here, why this could not have been the scenery of her younger life.

There is also brightness in the imprint Mr. Gao and Ms. Ma left here. Their world may have been small, limited by language and lifestyle, but they altered it in rich ways.

Yang Gao held a photo of his mother as her casket was carried. He and his father planned to take her ashes back to China.

Mr. Hsieh, the landlord, quickly grew attached to the couple. His own mother had died of cancer, and in Ms. Ma he saw a maternal figure who would check in on him and slip him food. And Mr. Gao was trustworthy and reliable, someone he enjoyed working with each day, sharing stories about their lives.

“Both of them are kind and have integrity,” Mr. Hsieh said. “There’s not many people like that.”

Ms. Ma would also bring food to her friend Mary Zhang and stay to clean her house. The two had become friends when Ms. Ma first landed in Queens, and they were both from the same province of Liaoning. Ms. Zhang, 66, was unable to move around well, so Ms. Ma tried to show up regularly to help with chores. Ms. Ma had also happily watched Ms. Zhang’s granddaughter after school. She always refused payment.

“She told me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re Chinese, we’re like sisters,’” Ms. Zhang said in Mandarin. “I have been in the U.S. for 25 years, and I have never had a friend like her.”

Perhaps it could be seen as Ms. Ma’s undoing, this eagerness to be of service that led her to sweep the sidewalk on a fateful morning last fall.

Or maybe it is this trait that made her brilliant and exceptional, memorable for far more than a violent death.

Lenny Yang contributed reporting.

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