NPR’s Robert Siegel: Cho Lived and Died as an American

This excerpt of NPR’s All Things Considered makes me want to invite host Robert Siegel over for one of my mother’s homecooked multi-course Filipino dinners; I’m that impressed with what he has to say. I insist that you listen to the whole thing before you read on here. If you don’t have the capability to listen, let me know and I will buy the freaking transcript, that’s how strongly I feel about his commentary. (UPDATE: My awesome 8asian colleague John has transcribed the piece. Read it after the jump.)

You’re back? Okay, let’s discuss. I, for one, would like to thank Mr. Siegel for going on the air and pointing out that his own children and Cho had something in common: they all grew up as American kids, attending public school in Northern Virginia. More importantly, I applaud Mr. Siegel for making the point that Cho may have been born in Korea, but he was just as American as the killers from Columbine.

Based on my personal experience, I’d concur with Mr. Siegel. I immigrated to the U.S. at around the same age as Cho (he was eight, I was seven). Well before my college years, my identity as an American was cemented, perhaps even stronger at times than my Filipino identity. This is why the immediate media focus on Cho’s immigration status struck me as just plain unnecessary and possibly inflammatory. I agree with Joz’s previous post: when you don’t know the identity of the shooter, sure, describe him: Asian, tall, short, whatever. But what exactly did his immigration status have to do with anything other than perhaps an underlying climate of fear that “a foreigner,” as I heard one VT eyewitness describe Cho, is in America to do harm. Or, was it perhaps just a biographical point of interest for a reporter? I admit that I don’t want to be sure, maybe because I don’t want confirmation that it is indeed something more insidious than a biographical gem.

After scanning foreign headlines, Mr. Siegel laments that those who would identify Cho as Korean (instead of just a LOCAL from a nearby suburb) are “people who don’t know this country, don’t get this country.” I fear that it is not only foreign news agencies who don’t know this country or get it, but also some of my fellow Americans. The thing some Americans might not get? It’s often fundamentally American not to be exclusively American. The majority of us, whether it was five generations or one flight ago, are from somewhere foreign. I do not believe this makes us less American.

This morning, the New York Times homepage featured a collage of victim’s photographs. Other than the now heartbreaking and haunting smiles on their faces, what struck me about the victims was their diversity. This graphic is a snapshot of today’s America: no sea of white faces, but a veritable Benetton ad, only completely uncontrived.

So as simply as I can say it: what happened on Monday was really fucked up. Tragic, horrifying and unconscionable. But I don’t think it can be any better understood by focusing on the killer’s race or country of origin, just as I don’t think the Columbine murderers can be explained by where in Europe their grandparents emigrated from. Certainly, my love for rice and variety television can be better understood by explaining that I’m Filipina-American. But linking someone’s brutal, homicidal behavior to their ethnicity? Not so much. As Mr. Siegel said, the homicidal Cho “was typical of no group of significant size,” neither Korean nor American. If anything, his writing contained “pedophelia, Michael Jackson, Catholic priests, this is the stuff of our news pages and culture, not some foreign country’s.”

32 incredible, accomplished and well-loved Americans died on Monday and I think we owe it to them to keep ourselves from being manipulated into a frenzy of blame or racial tension. It’s frenzy that distracts us from paying attention to the other everyday, important American issues that CAN be better understood if we demand the same kind of continuing, detailed coverage this incident warranted. For example: Iraq, The Justice Department, The Supreme Court, gun legislation?

The NPR segment is transcribed below. Thank you, John.

Weighing Cho’s Heritage and Identity
by Robert Siegel

All Things Considered, April 18, 2007
National Public Radio
How American was Seung-hui Cho? Despite being a South Korean national living in America, his upbringing, and his problems, were distinctly American.

Yesterday, I checked some foreign newspaper websites to see how they were covering events at Virginia Tech. A headline in the British daily, The Times, said “Korean Student Named as Massacre Gunman.” Today’s Guardian says “Gunman Was South Korean Student.” A headline in Liberation, the French daily, also identified the gunman as Korean, as did headlines in The Bangkok Post and The Middle East Times.

That usage struck me as evidence of yet another way in which people who don’t know this country, don’t get this country. True, Seung-Hui Cho, was a South Korean national living here on a green card. But in fact the 23-year-old English major came here at the age at 8. He went to public schools in Northern Virginia just like my kids. And then he
went to a state university, where being of Asian extraction is hardly a distinction. There is an Asian American student union there, with six associations, two sororities and two fraternities.

Cho was obviously unbalanced, homicidal, and that makes him typical of no group of significant size. But reading his disturbingly violent script for a play online, I didn’t get the impression that his pre-occupations were especially exotic or in any way Korean.
Pediophilia, Michael Jackson, Catholic priests, this is the stuff of our news pages and culture, not some foreign country’s. His ability to buy a gun reflects an American interpretation of liberty, an idea which, if not unique to us, is certainly no Asian import.

It was refreshing to catch a Washington Post headline that hit their website yesterday. They described Cho as, a local, a Centerville Virginia student, like the kids who murdered at Columbine , Seung-Hui Cho killed and died as one of us.

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About claire

Mabuhay! I'm Claire: a bastard, both in attitude and literally - I can be quite flippant and my parents were never married. By trade I am a graphic designer, and by birth a hurler of sarcasm and irreverence. I love books, travel, pop culture, bacon and you!
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