“#notyourtypicalasianviolinst. Aspiring hyperpolyglot. Triple-sword swashbuckler.”
These words introduce Josh Luo’s Facebook profile, a personal mission statement. In his picture, he stands with a bright smile in front of a foggy Golden Gate bridge.
That smile, friends recalled, was something Luo always brought.
“He doesn’t really stop smiling,” sophomore Ilene Kang, the cellist in his quintet, said. “In awkward or tense situations, he also smiles.”
“I’ve looked through all of our group messages, past group emails, and he was always so enthusiastic and positive,” she added.
Whether it was Luo practicing his violin for hours, learning languages common and endangered, or fencing foil, friends and family remember his usual positive demeanor.
“He was very quiet,” sophomore Yeahyun Son said. “He kept to himself, but you could tell there was a fire within him.”
Luo, a UR sophomore, died on March 28, 2019. He was 20. The Pennsylvania State Police confirmed the cause of death as suicide.
Although quiet, his involvement on campus spoke volumes.
Joshua Zhixiang Luo was born on February 20, 1999 in Los Angeles, California, to parents Roger and Weiying Luo.
In 2001, Luo and his family moved to New Jersey. Neighbors walked by the New Jersey home, waving to two small children with bowl cuts scurrying across the lawn.
Those children were Luo and his younger sister, Valery.
One of Valery’s earliest memories of her brother was of the two sitting in buckets pretending to drive cars.
Four years later they moved again, to Media, Pennsylvania. Valery described how she and Luo often organized elaborate events there.
“When the 2008 election was happening, […] we set up our own little voting booth in our house,” Valery said. “All the neighborhood kids came, and we forced them to vote. It was a whole formal process. We had ballots printed out and name tags for who the coordinator was.”
They also organized an exploration group to investigate the whole neighborhood. They brought food and “survival tools.” After their journeys into the unknown, they wrote down observations, printing and dating them.
Valery said she thought her brother’s interest in nature and the environment stemmed from those adventures.
In 2010, the family moved to their current home in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.
Luo took an interest in fencing after learning his sixth grade health teacher was a world-class fencer. Luo went to fencing every week, but enlisted Valery for extra practice. They fenced with colorful pool noodles and bought buzzers to indicate a hit.
During middle school, Luo held a fencing tournament for the neighborhood kids in his basement. The siblings used newspaper strips and tape to mark the playing area.
Language was another frontier for Luo.
In middle school, Valery said, Luo had a teacher who spoke Arabic, which would be Luo’s first linguistic endeavor.
Spanish, French, Chinese, Cantonese, Korean, Portuguese, Creole, and some disappearing African languages followed. He was not fluent in most of them, but he strove to be.
“I remember at home he would speak to me in different languages, and if I didn’t reply back in the language he was speaking, I wouldn’t get what I wanted,” Valery said.
He re-gifted her the same Christmas present every year: a Korean textbook.
But Luo’s first love was music. He began playing the violin in grade school. The siblings went to violin summer camps together. During Chinese New Year, they performed for their Chinese school.
But Luo and his sister did not always get along. Valery described herself as an annoying little sister to an often quiet, subdued brother.
“It was mostly a love-hate relationship, but all the love came from him and all the hate came from me,” she said.
A picture taken in their New Jersey home, Valery said, “sums up our relationship.” It’s of Luo hugging Valery, while she screams in anger.
Every now and then, Luo would annoy her back.
“He’d always blast classical music,” Valery said, adding, “[W]henever I would scream at him, he would turn it louder purposefully.”
Valery said they fought a lot, but it always ended in laughter.
Luo graduated from Strath Haven High School in 2017 and headed to UR. His friends and sister said he went there for Eastman.
“I could tell he was really passionate about violin because every time I came to Spurrier practice rooms, I immediately thought, ‘Am I going to see Josh here?’” said senior Natalie Huynh, who fenced foil with Luo for two years.
Violin teacher Letitia Jap remembered working with Luo on his bow hold and pushing him to explore his emotions and creativity.
“The very first piece we worked on for months was Bach concerto, the E major one,” Jap said. “He chose that one […] I thought he would get sick of it after two months, but he just kept going at it.”
Besides taking lessons, plus playing in a quintet and symphony orchestra, Luo was involved in many groups and their e-boards. He was secretary of Hong Kong Students Association, vice president of Tai Chi Club, and a member of UR Fencing Club as well as Korean American Students’ Association. Luo was also an Eco-Rep his first year. He never complained when volunteering, Son recalled.
He never decided on a major, but Luo was interested in international relations, public health, environmental health, and environmental science. He often shared posts on Facebook or watched YouTube videos about the environment.
His friends described Luo as having a low voice instantly recognizable for its rumble. His speech was soft and deliberate.
He was empathetic, sweet, and reserved around his friends and teachers. But he also had his quirks.
“He always wore a lot of layers,” Kang said, laughing about a time Luo wore three hoodies. “He would just peel off layers wherever he went.”
Sometimes Luo was in his own world, according to Kang.
“Josh, which Korean are you taking next semester?” she had once asked.
He had responded, “Oh, I’m taking the Silver Line.”
Sophomore Selina Xu, vice president of HKSA, recalled how reliable he was with the club.
“I couldn’t even imagine people being that fast in responding to messages,” Xu said.
Kang did not initially notice when Luo’s replies grew scarce. After reflecting, she realized the messages Luo shared with her were “less positive” with “less words.”
The week of March 3, Kang said, Luo was having a hard time. Jap said he did not show up to his lesson, which was unusual for the punctual Luo.
Two weeks later, Son saw Luo the day before he took a leave of absence. He told her courses were challenging and that “things had been really rough.”
Son explained Luo was debating about eventually returning to UR or transferring to somewhere close to home.
“He did seem really down, but I thought it was because he had to go home, and he had to tell me about it,” Son said.
“I should’ve done more, like given him a hug,” she added.
Luo went back to Rose Valley and went missing the next day. State Police found his body less than a week later. His friends and family were left in shock.
“He never really showed us the hard side,” Kang said. “He never really let anything out.”
A funeral was held in Rose Valley on April 5 with a memorial the following day. A remembrance event was held on April 12 at the Interfaith Chapel.
Sophomore Dax Emerson, a friend who worked out and shot hoops with Luo, plans to remember him through “the little activities that we did together.”
“These are activities that might not seem memorable but are actually really remarkable,” Emerson said.
Emerson said he and Luo often went on bike rides to downtown Rochester. On one ride, they stopped at Nick Tahoe’s and ordered their first garbage plates. Spontaneously, Luo got them orange juice to wash it down.
“Now every time I go to Nick Tahoe’s and get a garbage plate, I drink orange juice,” Emerson said. “Because of him.”