Bullets didn't break this woman's spirit
The first thing you notice besides the unmistakable smell of fresh fish in the Saltwater Seafood Market on Rock Hill's White Street is the smile of the 41-year-old immigrant lady helping the customers.
The smile lights up the big room better than the fluorescent lights.
"Your order is ready," comes from behind the smile to a succession of ladies who get fish for their weekends.
But then, the stranger's eye goes to the bandage and cast covering the lady's shattered left hand, up the arm. That's the hand Ping Chen used to put in front of her face Jan. 28 when a guy who had already robbed the place shot her.
Tears, fears and rage
Besides the hand, this guy, who has not been caught, also shot her in the shoulder. The bruised spot, the size of a bullet, is at the intersection where the neck meets the slender shoulder.
"Already had the money, why shoot?" asked Chen. A question that cannot ever be answered with anything other than tears. Or rage.
Somehow, this wife and mother of two honor student teenagers in Charlotte, who works six days a week, survived. Chen had the bullet dug from her shoulder by a doctor named Henderson she described as "So nice!"
The bullet ended up way in the back of the shoulder. Through the muscle, near the skin. It tore close to all those arteries and veins that when torn usually mean a funeral. That's what bullets do when villains who already have the money still shoot. Bullets break the bones and tear the flesh of mothers of honors students who work six days a week.
Those bullets didn't break her smile. It shines still, a sun for all immigrants.
All Chen has ever done since coming to America from China in 1988 is work. The immigrant story of countless Americans who came from other places to a country that at times embraces them and at other times tells them "go home."
I shout, they whisper or sometimes don't say at all, "This is their home!"
Most raise a family, learn English, and work in small businesses that will die if all don't go to work every single day.
Except one day.
"The day after, after I got shot, we were closed," Chen said.
The market reopened the next day.
The store she used to co-own in Charlotte years ago didn't reopen because the other two men her family owned the store with were shot in a robbery. One died. The other somehow lived through eight bullets after he was tied to a chair.
After the Jan. 28 shooting, the fish market phone rang off the hook, and customers who pack the place -- especially on Fridays, because the weekend is fish fry time -- called to see if she was all right. This is a place where people can buy one fish or 10 cases of croaker. Cards came in the mail. Flowers came, and strangers who had read about the shooting in the paper came by.
"Black, white, Vietnamese, every color, every country, people wanted to see if I was all right," Chen said. "Many I never met before. People were so nice. I thank all of them."
Less than 10 miles from where Chen was shot, eight days later at about the same time in the evening, a Vietnamese immigrant named Yen Nguyen was shot at the Fort Mill convenience store she runs with her husband. That night, the thief already had gotten the money. Apparently, cash wasn't enough. The robber shot the 54-year-old woman, who sacrificed many years of life so her two sons could become college graduates.
But that wasn't enough. The robber shot another guy apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man who held the door for him and asked how he was doing. In the face, he shot Charlie Powers, former mayor of Fort Mill.
That robber hasn't been caught, either.
Asian people who run stores are well aware shooters are running loose with their hard-earned money, guns and immigrant blood on their hands.
So many Vietnamese know each other from the social network that translates without words or writing to, "Help others always." They know the Pham family with a son, Hoang Pham, who just got back from fighting with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He goes to college and works in a Rock Hill convenience store on Willowbrook Avenue. The rest of the family works there, too.
Many Vietnamese attend Catholic churches alongside mostly American-born whites and blacks and American-born -- or not -- browns from countries that pray to the same God in Spanish. Over on the southwestern edge of Fort Mill is another convenience store run by another family of Vietnamese immigrants. The Dinh family. They know the Nguyen family from church.
Yen Nguyen's husband had just brought books to the Dinhs a few days before she was shot. Religious books. Jesus Christ was the main character.
Ly Dinh and her brother, Trieu Dinh, work the family store with extended family and their parents. Both are graduates of Northwestern High School. Each speaks beautiful English. Ly Dinh is a beautiful lady by speech or any measure.
"We are a very tight community, and everybody is talking about the shooting," Ly Dinh said of the Nguyen incident. "It hits very close to home and worries us. My parents and them are very close. All of us have stores that are open at night. I hope what happened is not because the person was Asian."
Ly Dinh's parents are not in Rock Hill this week to offer support to their wounded friend. They went to Vietnam for Vietnamese New Year. In a few days, the parents will go back to work. Work, the one word all languages of immigrants know best.
Back at the fish market, where Ping Chen and her husband work, this past week also was Chinese New Year. I hope the Chen family gets a chance, sometime after work, maybe on Sunday when the store is closed, to celebrate.
"Do me a favor, please?" Chen asked me. She held up her bandaged hand again. She showed me the bullet hole in her shoulder again. "In your newspaper, can you tell that Vietnamese lady, and her family, that I hope she feels better? That I feel for her?"