Lost at Parkland: ‘Peter Was Always My Translator’

Linda Zhang wandered into her son’s room and sat for a while. She visits there from time to time, after her husband has gone to work at the restaurant and their other kids have gone to school.

The Ferrari logo sheets were still on her son’s bed. The Nintendo video game controllers were in his closet. Decorative cutouts of an elephant and a butterfly were on the wall.

And then there were the many tributes, gifts and drawings that poured in after her son, Peter Wang, was shot multiple times and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. On this morning, Ms. Zhang pointed out a framed letter.

“Maybe the governor of Florida?” she said, peering at a page signed by Senator Marco Rubio. There was also a portrait of Peter, which Ms. Zhang said might have been drawn by a famous artist, but she wasn’t quite sure.

“My English isn’t good,” she explained in Mandarin Chinese. “Peter was always my translator.”

Six years after 17 families lost loved ones in the Parkland, Fla., massacre, Ms. Zhang and her husband, Kong Feng Wang, are navigating the wilderness of grief in unusual isolation. Other Parkland parents spoke out about school safety and gun control, ran for school board seats, spearheaded lawsuits and set up foundations to honor their slain children. At group events, many found solace and a safe space to vent their frustrations.

Peter’s parents, who do not speak English fluently, struggled to keep up with those conversations, or to take the kind of action that might have given them an outlet for their grief. In court, a place of catharsis for some families, they relied on translators to speak for them and to give them a bare understanding of the proceedings.

“All I want is to be able to do something for Peter,” Mr. Wang said. “But how can we? We don’t speak the language. We don’t know the culture.”

Well-meaning friends and relatives have urged the couple to move on and focus on raising their two younger sons, Jason and Alex. But Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang are not sure what moving on means. They have shrugged off suggestions from others that they see a therapist, a practice still widely stigmatized in Chinese culture.

Short on connections and comforts, Mr. Wang has largely disappeared into his work and Ms. Zhang into her grief.

“You can see that they have so many things to express to the world but they can’t,” said Lin Chen, a cousin of Peter who has served as a translator in court for Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhang and works as a trauma psychotherapist. “There’s been a lot of accumulation of these negative emotions, and when that becomes so big, it can crush a person even more.”

In August 2022, Ms. Zhang took the witness stand, choking back sobs as Ms. Chen read a statement in English on her behalf.

“My name is Linda,” Ms. Chen said, as her aunt sat trembling beside her in the courtroom. “I am Peter Wang’s mom. It is so difficult to write this letter because I don’t know how to use language to express the pain of losing my oldest son, Peter.”

A few months before, prosecutors notified the victims’ families that they had the option of reading an impact statement at the sentencing trial of Nikolas Cruz, the gunman. Ms. Zhang had initially been unsure whether she would accept. Even in Chinese, talking openly about grief felt so unnatural. And what could such a statement really accomplish?

But at the urging of her niece, Ms. Chen, and some of the other victims’ parents, Ms. Zhang agreed to prepare some words. It felt right to honor Peter’s memory in this way. Lying in bed one morning, Ms. Zhang told Ms. Chen, who sat beside her taking notes, what she wanted to say:

Peter was the perfect son. Everyone always told me how lucky I was to have him. Our house is now so quiet over the holidays.

Using her aunt’s thoughts as guidance, Ms. Chen translated and drafted the statement in English that she later read in court.

There was so much more that Ms. Zhang wanted the world to know about Peter, so much more she could have said in her own language. But for now, these words — words she could not even understand — would have to do.

For Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang, the English language had long been an obstacle.

Born in rural Fujian, a coastal province in southern China, Mr. Wang grew up speaking Mandarin and a local Fujianese dialect. He did not know any English, but at age 21, he decided to move to the United States to look for work anyway.

Like many young Fujianese seeking better opportunities, he paid a smuggler to take him to South America. Then, from Suriname, he and other young Chinese men made a treacherous journey by boat and foot across Central America. Three months after he left Fujian, he crossed the border into the United States. It was 1996.

“We were so young,” said Mr. Wang, 47. “We didn’t know what it meant to be afraid.”

Mr. Wang quickly found work in the back of a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland. He stayed in the job for several years, living in a workers’ dormitory and earning about $800 a month, most of which he used to pay off the $40,000 debt he owed to his smuggler.

In Cleveland, he met Ms. Zhang, who also worked at the restaurant and had come to the United States by a similar route. Both Ms. Zhang, 44, and Mr. Wang said they understood that learning English would broaden their lives, and had tried several times to study it. But they eventually gave up.

“It just never really sank in,” Ms. Zhang said.

In 2002, the couple married and briefly moved to New York City, a hub for Fujianese immigrants in the United States, to have their first baby. Ms. Zhang (traditionally, Chinese women keep their names) gave birth to a healthy, eight-pound baby boy in Brooklyn. They gave him the Chinese name Mengjie. “Meng” was a family name. “Jie” meant “hero.”

For an English name, they chose Peter.

“I heard the name on television and thought it sounded nice,” Ms. Zhang said. “And it was easy to pronounce.”

Around 2005, Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhang moved to Miami after hearing from a friend about an opportunity to open their own takeout Chinese restaurant. There, Peter witnessed his family’s struggles firsthand, she said. He saw his father robbed at gunpoint in the restaurant and his mother mugged by a stranger.

Peter developed a sense of responsibility from a young age, Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhang said. Like many children of immigrants, he was his parents’ bridge to the English-speaking world, translating correspondence from school and interpreting at doctor’s appointments.

Peter often played the roles of caretaker and translator for his extended family, too. During a family trip to Disney World, Peter insisted on holding the toddler daughter of a family friend in his arms for 20 minutes so she could see the fireworks. When his cousin Aaron moved to Florida from China, Peter took him under his wing at school and helped him communicate with the other students.

The two cousins became best friends, bonding over their shared love for Power Rangers, dinosaurs and video games and their shared disdain for Saturday Chinese school and after-school tutoring. In 2012, they spent a summer together in China. Aaron had been feeling anxious — it was his first time back in China after moving to the United States. But seeing Peter immediately put him at ease.

“As soon as I opened the door, Peter jumped out with a new toy and was like, ‘Let’s play,’” recalled Aaron Chen, 22, now a student at the University of Florida. “All of a sudden it was like we were right back in the States. He made me feel very secure.”

In 2015, Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhang opened a Japanese buffet restaurant in Pompano Beach, Fla., with Ms. Zhang’s siblings. Eventually, they saved up enough money to move from Miami to Coral Springs, and then to a gated community in Parkland, an affluent, predominantly white suburb that had some of the best public schools in the area.

Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang became U.S. citizens. They embraced some American traditions, like installing Christmas lights on their house.

But they lived in a Chinese-speaking world that seemed parallel to the one their neighbors inhabited. Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhang often hosted parties for their Chinese friends and family in their spacious home, raucous affairs with platters of fried noodles and seafood from the restaurant and the cousins racing around.

“Our house was the place to be,” Ms. Zhang recalled.

Feb. 14, 2018, was Valentine’s Day and the night before Chinese New Year’s Eve. Peter and his friends were planning to come by that evening to celebrate, so Mr. Wang was at the restaurant, Miyako Japanese Buffet, preparing.

Then he heard about a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Soon he was in a hotel lobby with Ms. Zhang, surrounded by police and school officials, waiting alongside many other worried parents.

That’s where they learned that Peter was among the 14 students and three staff members killed.

The days and weeks afterward were a numbing march of grieving rituals. Family and friends helped plan a funeral. Buddhist priests helped to pick out a grave according to feng shui principles.

Peter was buried in Bailey Memorial Cemetery in North Lauderdale, Fla., in his Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps uniform. Later, West Point posthumously admitted Peter for taking heroic action by holding a classroom door open so that his classmates could escape from the rampaging gunman.

Many families, including some of Peter’s relatives, found ways to channel their grief to salvage something from their irretrievable loss.

Several of Peter’s cousins participated in the March for Our Lives, which became a national student-led movement for gun control. In the beginning, Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang were active, too. They traveled with the other victims’ families to Tallahassee, where they met with lawmakers and participated in a march for stricter gun control measures.

But the talk all felt like muffled noise, and their efforts seemed futile. They had grown up in a country where citizens had little sway over the government’s policies. And like many immigrants, they saw the American political system as impenetrable. The couple began to withdraw.

“What could we do?” Mr. Wang said. “The law is for politicians. We are just ordinary people.”

They felt somewhat less isolated when they attended gatherings with the relatives of the other Parkland victims. Ms. Zhang said she could feel their pain viscerally.

“There’s a bond there of sudden loss,” said Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter, Gina, in the shooting. “We would try to talk as best we could.”

With Mr. Montalto’s help, Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang tried to set up a foundation. But without someone who could speak English and handle the day-to-day administrative tasks, the foundation has been mostly dormant. And because of the language barrier, Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang gradually lost touch with most of the other parents.

“If I could speak English, I would do so much, I would go to every memorial, every gathering of parents,” Ms. Zhang said in a recent interview.

In Chinese culture, the loss of a child is seen not only as a great calamity for a family, but as a potential sign of more misfortune to come. Out of superstition as well as grief, some choose to steer away from the tragedy rather than confront it head-on.

Not long after the shooting, Mr. Wang’s mother — Peter’s grandmother — went around the house and took down photos of Peter, including a family portrait that had been taken a few months before. Distraught, Ms. Zhang rushed to the photo studio where they had taken the portrait and was relieved to find it was still on file.

Today, the photo hangs on the wall in the couple’s bedroom. But in the stairway, some collage frames that once displayed photos of Peter remain empty.

Determined to preserve Peter’s memory, Ms. Zhang turned to a canvas that she alone could control. She has five tattoos honoring him. Most of them were inked on Valentine’s Day — the date of his death. One on her shoulder shows his initials over a broken heart framed by angel wings. Another, on her chest, has Peter’s name and a heart and a butterfly next to the English words “You always live in my heart.”

In some ways, Ms. Zhang has heeded the advice of family members urging her not to dwell on her grief. Last year was the first since Peter’s death that Ms. Zhang did not get a tattoo.

But in other ways, she is still trapped in the miasma of despair. The family’s home, once the locus of so many festive occasions, has gone quiet. While Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhang leave a traditional red envelope containing money on Peter’s bed every Chinese New Year, they now struggle to summon the energy to celebrate the holiday.

And in the rare instances when the family talks about Peter’s death, the couple often refers to it as the shiqing, or the “event.”

Mr. Wang said he had tried to suppress his grief with a return to familiar habits. He puts in long shifts at the family restaurant, and many days he drops off his middle son, Jason, 17, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, where he is a senior.

He said he had thought about moving his family to China, where mass gun violence is almost nonexistent. But he and his family had already committed to building their lives in America.

“I just wish things were a little safer for our kids, that’s all,” he said.

Ms. Zhang still has moments of levity and joy, whether it’s cackling with friends at a crude joke or cradling her nephew’s newborn son.

But life in America eventually became all but unbearable. Last year, Ms. Zhang moved with her youngest son, Alex, 11, back to Fujian, seeking comfort in a place that was familiar yet free of the constant reminders of Peter’s death. She struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension and insomnia, among other ailments. She would like to stay in China, where she can talk to doctors without a translator, until her health improves.

Last fall, while Ms. Zhang was in Florida for a brief visit, she and Mr. Wang went to Peter’s grave. It was his 21st birthday. He should have been having his first legal drink and celebrating with a big cake, maybe with a girlfriend, Ms. Zhang thought.

Instead, Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang were kneeling on the damp grass next to his grave. They carefully pulled out the weathered miniature American flags and replaced them with new ones. When they had finished sprucing up the plot, Ms. Zhang, Mr. Wang, Jason and several other relatives stood quietly around Peter’s grave for about half an hour.

As everyone left, Ms. Zhang and Mr. Wang lingered. A colorful “Happy Birthday!” balloon bobbed around in the misty air. Mr. Wang tapped the grave marker twice with the tip of his umbrella.

“Goodbye, Peter,” he said. “We’ll see you again soon.”

That afternoon, the family gathered for a feast of barbecued lamb skewers, crab legs and freshly shucked oysters. Ms. Zhang glanced at the light rain still falling outside, unusual for November in Florida. It was a sign from Peter, she thought.

She and Mr. Wang knew that loneliness would engulf them again when the day was over. But for now, they were grateful to be with people who understood.

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