A Family, a Dream and a Season of Fear

·10 min read
A memorial to Than Than Htwe, an immigrant from Myanmar who was fatally injured in an attack in the New York subway system, at a funeral home in Brooklyn, August 3, 2021. (Natalie Keyssar/The New York Times)
A memorial to Than Than Htwe, an immigrant from Myanmar who was fatally injured in an attack in the New York subway system, at a funeral home in Brooklyn, August 3, 2021. (Natalie Keyssar/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — They are small figures moving through a subway station on a Saturday in Manhattan — a mother and her son speaking softly to each other in Burmese.

Than Than Htwe, 58, is a homebody, content to stay at her family’s Brooklyn apartment on the weekend meditating or simmering fish in a pot of lemon grass and ginger. But she scheduled a doctor’s appointment for this morning so it would not conflict with her job stitching custom aprons.

By Htwe’s side is her only child, Kyaw Zaw Hein. At 22, he carries the hopes of his family on slight shoulders. His parents waited more than a decade in Myanmar for a visa so he could attend an American university. They arrived just three years ago.

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Hein stays close to his mother as they climb the stairs that lead to Canal Street in Chinatown, where the July sun waits. He feels protective of her and looks forward to the day when he earns a salary that provides for all of them.

The landing is in sight when Htwe urges her son to “run up.”

Perhaps she is merely trying to hurry them along. Perhaps she has seen the man behind them with the angry eyes.

Hein attempts to quicken his steps, but he feels a hand bearing down on his blue backpack that then yanks him off his feet until his body is falling. He does not know that his mother has somehow also been forced backward, that she is tumbling down the stairs, that her head has smacked against the tile floor.

When his eyes adjust, he is on the ground, his backpack still on. The man who pulled him down is hovering nearby, a look of disdain on his face. For a moment, Hein worries he will be hurt again. But then the man disappears into the station.

Htwe lies on the ground, her eyes half open. Her son shakes her shoulders, calls to her, tries to cradle her head. That is when he sees the blood in her dark hair, drops of crimson on the ground. He clasps her hand. And screams.

From Myanmar to America

Behind the 1.2 million Asians who call New York City home are so many stories of arrival, newcomers who were willing to be rendered vulnerable by an unfamiliar language and culture, believing that their troubles were worth the promise of possibility.

That journey has intensified for Asian immigrants who have tried to put down roots for themselves during a recent season of fear. In addition to their daily struggles to belong, they have navigated a pandemic whose origin in China has been associated with their race.

In New York alone, victims of Asian descent have been shoved, spit on, urinated on, stabbed in the back, beaten with a hammer or cane, punched unconscious, choked and stomped and kicked in the head. There have been more than 115 anti-Asian crimes reported to the New York Police Department this year. In 2019, there were three.

The violent attacks have tended to receive attention, but with each new report, the last one seems to fade. Shattered lives play out in unknown ways. Victims have been physically and emotionally scarred, their families left to tend to them. Trajectories have been deeply altered.

For Htwe, left lifeless and bleeding on a subway station floor, it has meant an unimaginable finale for a woman whose family had emptied their savings on plane tickets to America.

She and her husband, Myint Shein, would have stayed in Yangon, Myanmar, even with its ongoing civil war and history of deadly military coups, if not for their son. They wanted to offer him a different path.

In December 2018, the family arrived in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn. Shein, one of 12 children, had a brother in the neighborhood who had immigrated as a teenager and was a New York police officer. Htwe also had family nearby.

Relatives helped them find a basement apartment where the sunlight was sparse and the ceilings low, but the monthly rent was $500 cheaper than on the ground floor.

Shein, 53, was hired as a sushi chef at Ushiwakamaru, a restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. He had learned the trade years ago in Tokyo, where he met Htwe, who was a waitress. They were both ethnically Chinese but born and raised in Myanmar. For their first date, they went to a flea market.

Htwe landed a job at Tilit, which made work clothing for the restaurant and hospitality industries, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She had earned a chemistry degree in Myanmar, but never put it to use in the country’s limited job market. At Tilit she laughed with co-workers while meticulously following detailed apron patterns. Sometimes she brought in her family’s mending.

She and her husband pooled their paychecks so their son could study math and economics at Fordham University. Hein loaded on extra classes, in a rush to get his degree. He had a stint at a doughnut shop, but his parents told him to focus only on school.

When the coronavirus reached New York City, Htwe’s and Shein’s workplaces shut down. They received some unemployment, but their stress heightened and both lost weight. Reports of anti-Asian attacks were distressing, and they warned each other to stay alert.

The virus itself was also profoundly troubling. In the early days of the pandemic, Htwe, beloved for her patience, screamed at her son if he attempted to leave the house.

The three saw relatives, but otherwise preferred to stick to one another near home, tiptoeing out a quiet life.

When her job opened back up, Htwe was the first to return to the sewing room, eager to make money. Often, the owners’ new puppy, a St. Bernard, was found at her feet. Jenny Goodman, who started Tilit with her husband, said Htwe would bring the dog purple yams and let it nuzzle up against her while she worked.

“She was a kind, kind soul.”

A hospital vigil, and a suspect

Shein was home in bed when his son called with words that did not make sense.

Ambulance. Mom hit her head. Come to the hospital.

When he arrived at Bellevue Hospital, he found that his wife of 23 years lay too still. “When you left, everything was OK,” Shein said, his voice wavering.

He and his son became regulars in the building, lingering near a woman who could not tell them what to do next. Relatives and co-workers visited. Wake up, they said, stroking her arm.

Hein served as the contact for the police, giving a statement to detectives. Images of the man believed to be the attacker were released to the media. The police soon announced that they had a suspect, identified from tips. His name was David Robinson, 52. And he could not be located.

The police called the crime a botched robbery, based on Hein’s description of the incident. But that began to bother Hein, who wondered whether he and his mother were preyed upon because of their race.

A local Asian American activist raised $10,000 as a reward for information leading to an arrest. Curtis Sliwa, the Republican candidate for mayor, held up Robinson’s photo at a news conference and said Asians were being hunted down in the city with impunity.

The events made Hein think justice would be hastened.

After 10 days, Htwe was still unconscious. On July 27, father and son stood for hours in a corner of her room. Finally, her son knelt beside her and bowed three times. Her husband said with reluctance, “This is the last time I will come to see you.”

The next day, Htwe was taken off life support. She had become a homicide victim, her killer still free.

They buried her with a string of pearls and a white winter hat to cover the wounds.

‘I didn’t do enough’

The police are not investigating Htwe’s death as an anti-Asian attack, although the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said it was examining the possibility. It would likely take explicit evidence, such as the utterance of a racial slur, for the attacker, who is Black, to be charged with a hate crime. Only a tiny percentage of the attacks involving victims of Asian descent have fit this bill. The rest are often described as random.

The more Hein thinks about the way he was yanked down the stairs — as if the backpack securely on his shoulders was the tool, not the target — he is convinced the attack was racially motivated. And he has not forgotten the way the man looked at him, as if considering whether to strike, even as his mother lay motionless.

Just as troubling for Hein is the image of his mother toiling away much of her life. The last years had made her uneasy and frail.

“I would have worked if I had known this would happen,” Hein said. “I would have just let her enjoy her life. I didn’t do enough.”

Htwe’s belongings are still strewn about their tiny apartment. The home feels hushed and strange, but Hein studies, watches anime, listens to K-pop. His father meditates, feeds the birds, waters the plants.

They have yet to hear whether they will be left with costly medical bills. A relative set up a GoFundMe, but when it passed $47,000, the family shut it down, not wanting to be greedy.

Hein has been sleeping on the floor of his father’s room. His mattress is where his mother once meditated before a Buddhist altar. She would sit there for hours with prayer beads, and he would rest his head on her lap and nod off. He misses that the most.

An unclear future

What began as a trio in America will, at some point, be a household of one.

Shein has made up his mind to become a monk and return to Myanmar. His 11 siblings have left the country, but he would rather be alone than in New York.

His son understands. “I want to send him back where he is happy,” he said. The two feel good that their bond has strengthened, that they have seen each other’s tears.

They are still waiting to hear an update on Htwe’s case. Sometimes it feels as if she has been forgotten. The Police Department declined to comment but said it was hoping the public would help find Robinson.

Shein’s brother Min Liang, the New York police officer, said it is not unusual to have a suspect but no arrest. Liang, 45, works in evidence collection and has not been involved in Htwe’s case, but said he trusted the detectives who are handling it.

“There’s more than 8 million people in New York City,” he said. “They’re not going to find everybody.”

The lack of resolution has made Hein and his father anxious that the same person will hurt someone else, that Htwe’s death will have changed nothing. They also worry about running into the suspect. Their fear of public places has only amplified.

But Hein has no plans to leave with his father. He has been enamored of America ever since he was a boy and relatives visited Myanmar in Nike sneakers and crisp Nautica shirts. “Even the smell of their laundry detergent was so good,” he remembered. He plans to graduate next spring and has seen for himself the vast difference in the quality of education and job opportunities available in his new home.

It is a broken adaptation of the success he had envisioned. Who could have foreseen such sorrow? Perhaps it will be a lonely, hollow existence.

But he cannot shake the feeling that a young man like him could still rise here, could still forge a future in which he supports his father from afar and pays tribute to his mother’s hopes.

Even on his own, he could shape a version of the kind of American life they all once dreamed together.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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