Yesterday, CNN Newsroom aired a special report on the Virginia Tech shooting that took place last Monday. The Korean and Korean American communities’ responses to the shooting became a primary focus of the report, which presented them as feeling “a lot of shame, a lot of guilt . . . they feel it that way because it is a Korean person that has done it.” A professor at UCLA commented on the general sentiments of Korean students at his campus with “they feel really uncomfortable and they’re very embarrassed.” When the reporter interviewed the shooter’s great aunt, Kim Yang-Soon, she said, “Who would have known he would cause such trouble, the idiot?”
The Korean and Korean American communities (we could very well generalize here and say the Asian Diaspora as a whole) shirk from blame or scrutiny by trying desperately to appear agreeable (read: “Remember? We’re the model minority. The rest of us are good Samaritans, not psycho killers.”). We want to separate ourselves from Cho by pointing out all the differences and playing down the similarities. I want to celebrate those similarities and let Cho know, if he could hear us from beyond the grave, that we did and do care, and we love him.
Dissociating Cho from our community reveals our cowardice, placing an emphasis on self-regard over convergence and solidarity. In our signature passive-aggressive way, we insist to the world, “This was not our fault.” Wrong. This was our fault. Those of us who are Americans and even more specifically those of us who are Asian Americans need to assume responsibility for what happened. We did not reach out to Cho Seung-Hui and I contend that a deep-rooted internalized tension between Americanized Asians and “FOBs” (Fresh Off the Boat), or newly-arrived immigrant Asians, meant Cho felt even more ostracized and isolated from the rest of America. Ultimately, the white-washing of Asian American identity contributed to the pain and suffering of Cho that, in the end, put him over the brink of sanity.
This part of the broadcast roused me the most:
T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: You are in the CNN NEWSROOM on this Saturday, April 21st. . . .
NGUYEN: Well, sadness and shame in the Korean community in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre. And some are concerned that they may become targets of hatred.
CNN’s Alina Cho reports.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the Korean community learned one of their own, Cho Seung-Hui, was behind the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, many said it was like a member of their own family had committed the crime.
THOMAS KANG, KOREAN-AMERICAN: They feel a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, not because — it’s not because they’ve done it, but they — they feel it that way because it is a Korean person that has done it.
CHO: Thomas Kang was not much older than Cho when he moved here with his parents. His family, like Cho’s, came for a better life — hard working parents who sacrificed everything for their children, in the same way Kang is now doing for his daughter — a classic Korean- American story, why so many are connecting to this tragedy.
PROF. KYEYOUNG PARK, UCLA: It’s Korean-Americans that I talk to, they feel really uncomfortable and they’re very embarrassed and trying to do anything, if there is anything that we could do.
CHO: Cho’s sister graduated from Princeton, a source of family pride. Her brother is now a source of shame.
KIM YANG-SOON, CHO’S GREAT AUNT (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Who would have known he would cause such trouble, the idiot?
CHO: They were weeping in Seoul and South Korea’s president said his shock was beyond description. Here in the U.S. Korean-American leaders say they are scared of a backlash in the same way Arab Americans felt after 9/11.
SJ JUNG, KOREAN-AMERICAN: Some parents, they are really afraid of sending their children to school and some Koreans (INAUDIBLE) decide to shut down their store.
CHO: There is intense sadness, too. Just as the students of Virginia Tech are grieving for the victims by holding vigil, Korean Americans are doing so as well. Alino Cho, CNN, New York.
HOLMES: It’s time for us now to turn to some weather. Our Reynolds Wolf standing by for us in the weather center. What are you keeping an eye on for us Reynolds?
[For entire transcript of airing, please go here (last visited April 22, 2007).]
How typical-Asian is it to disown a person who causes us to lose face, with “face” defined by dominant social norms? Reports on Cho Seung-Hui’s profile show a young man who endured senseless teasing throughout his youth for his thick accent. He appears to be an overly-shy and awkward individual, and we all know how the Asian American community tends to treat our overly-shy and awkward community members: we make sure we’ve got first dibs at making senseless fun of them; we jump to the cruel punchline first, before the non-Asian Americans get a chance to, so by the time non-Asian Americans see it, they can clearly see we are Americanized, we speak impeccable English, and we are different from those overly-shy and awkward Asians. That’s not us. We’re cool.
White Americans aren’t the ones using the term “Fresh Off the Boat” pejoratively; Asian Americans are. It’s a way for us to strongly imply, “hey, we fit in. We’re not ching chong ching, but they are. Those Asians over there with the broken English and the funny-looking clothes are the ones we can all come together and pick on.” This is our way of identifying ourselves with the Americans and turning the teasing and ridicule away from ourselves.
Cho may not have fit in with mainstream American society, but maybe if he felt a sense of belonging with Asian Americans, events would have turned out differently. Sure, I am speculating; but the comments by Koreans and Korean Americans about feeling embarrassed and his own great aunt’s demeaning reference to Cho as “the idiot” bear striking resemblance to how we Asian Americans generally feel and what we have said about newly-arrived immigrant Asians with broken English and those who have not assimilated well into White American society. We’re obsessed with appearing white-washed, even if we choose not to use that term to identify ourselves or claim we revile the concept. If our entire community truly does feel like one big family, as the CNN report suggested, then when Cho lived, we should have reached out to him more. We had an even greater responsibility to be there for him, to offer our compassion, to love him, more so than anyone else. When we failed to do so, we are even more at blame, more so than anyone else.
Thus, the way the Koreans and Korean Americans talked about Cho in the report saddened me greatly. We felt “a lot of shame, a lot of guilt” because “it is a Korean person that has done it”?! No. We should be ashamed of ourselves, not ashamed that he was a part of us. When we are the way we are, how can it be a wonder that Cho would do what he has done?