When I first heard about the Virginia Tech murders I was driving home from work and at that time there was not information about who the shooter was. My first thought was what a sad and senseless tragedy this was, and all I wanted to do was go home and hug my kids.
The next morning I found out the killer was Korean and the first thought I had was, Every Asian man in the United States must be terrified right now. And the second thought was When will the retaliation begin?
It didn’t take long, as it turns out. As I’m finding more out, there are a lot of questions and concerns that I have, as well as the rest of the world. But many of my questions are going to be different as a fellow Korean living in the United States.
For example, how do I write this post?
I could focus only on my condolences to the victims and families of this terrible tragedy, without any mention of the person responsible for this. That would be the easy answer. But it wouldn’t be complete.
Do I leave out my critique of how the media is overemphasizing his race and residence status? Because this man has been living here since he was 9, he is likely more "Americanized" than "Korean" in a cultural sense. Yet the media continues to present him as a "foreigner" and as an "international student." Is this another way for the U.S. media to hype those who commit the most violent acts as "foreigners" i.e. the 9-11 tragedies?
I’ve been reading accounts that it must be that his Korean parents abused him and/or that Korean child abuse/physical abuse is rampant. This might be a way of providing some explanation into his psyche, but does it only serve to perpetuate stereotypes about Koreans?
Do I talk about how this individual was severely mentally ill and that reports are coming out that people tried to get him help but were unsuccessful? Do I talk about how mental health services for Asians are almost non-existent and how the Asian American population is severely underserved when it comes to access to mental health services? Or that there are few mental health professionals who understand Asian American issues regarding their mental health?
What kind of response should the Asian American population make regarding this tragedy? How quickly do we have to send out media and press releases, condemning this person? How much are we all going to be considered guilty by association? When a white man commits a heinous crime, how many white men in America are going to feel unsafe walking down the street? How many white men are going to feel that they are guilty by association? When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, did groups of white men send out a press release offering condolences and publicly recognizing the heinousness of the act?
Those of you who have adopted Asian children – especially boys – are you prepared for them to get harassed at school? Have you taught them what to say, how to keep safe, which teachers they can trust? Because it’s going to get ugly.
I ask these questions because when terrible crimes occur, the racial and resident status of the assailant only matter if that person is non-white. And those who share that race or residence status have to be on our own "high alert." It is very likely that I would have spent my entire life without ever coming into contact with the killer in this awful situation. Yet now, I will be asked by co-workers what the Korean American response to this man is. I will have to make it clear to people that I am dissociating from him, while trying at the same time to counter the stereotypes that people will assert.
And when the Korean grocery stores are burned down, or the random Asian-looking person is beaten or murdered as retaliation?
Then what do I say?
Will my silence be taken as support?
Will my silence be taken as resistance?
What possible thing could a person like me say?
One of the racial issues to emerge from this tragedy is the way in which Seung-Hui Cho has been characterized. In an NPR interview, one witness described in as foreign looking. Other sources keep referring to him as a South Korean or a resident alien or as a foreign student. In truth, according to the latest CNN report, Mr. Cho was an immigrant to this country. He immigrated in 1992 and was a permanent resident. He was probably as American as the next person living in this country, despite not being a naturalized citizen.
We also are reminded that Asian Americans, despite public portrayals, are not model minorities who seem to only succeed in the American Dream. This myth is fraught with socio-cultural problems, discussed widely elsewhere (just do a quick google search). Yet it is a persistent myth that is conveniently used to scapegoat Asian Americans when discussing race relations in this country and then quickly discarded when tragedy strikes such as the Virginia Tech shootings. People are quick to blame the foreigner whom they only moments earlier saw as the model minority.
Asian Americans are just as likely as other groups to struggle with mental health problems. Such problems seem to be even more challenging for individuals who grow up as children in this country, as noted in a recent NLAAS study. The unspoken other tragedy in the aftermath of this event is the fact that this young man did not receive the needed treatment to address his mental health problems and that could have perhaps prevented this rage. To what extent is this likely lack of intervention due to the model minority myth?
The recent tragedy reminds us to to NOT mythologize a group of people as model anything and to NOT scapegoat this same group as foreigners. Instead, it should remind us to view all people of all races and ethnicities as individual people. Moreover, it should remind us as Americans that immigration and acculturation are stressful life experiences, rife with discrimination, racism, and other cultural barriers, that put an added strain on human functioning. As such, a more appropriate question is what can we do as local communities and as a society to address these challenges?