Warning: This is a rant. This is only a rant.

I’m getting more than a little weary of all the helpful words from the world at large, lamenting and tsk-tsk-ing all of us Koreans for our collective feeling of shame and sorrow that the Virginia Tech shooter was Korean. I’ve read it on my blog, on other blogs, on discussion boards, you name it.

Here, in a nutshell, is what is upsetting me. Many of us in the Korean American and Korean communities have expressed our feelings of sadness and sorrow that a Korean/American person committed this horrible tragedy. Even officials from South Korea have apologized.

We talk about terms such as oori or uri (Kimchi Mama’s has a great post explaining this concept) and how those of us who are part of cultures with an emphasis on collective or community identity versus the very American way of individual identity also feel a sense of shame over this tragic event. We also express concerns about backlash. And now we are being criticized by "others" for this.

Most of these "others" doing the criticizing belong to the dominant white American majority. And what I’m reading is, Why would they [Korean Americans] feel this way? We know that it was a mentally ill individual who did this. Why are they worried about backlash? I haven’t seen any backlash. Apologizing is only bringing them down as a group of people. Korean Americans should stop feeling bad about an individual’s actions, it has nothing to do with them as a whole, etc. etc.

Well first, as I’ve responded a few times, backlash isn’t just the stuff you hear about on the 10:00 news. Yes, backlash happens and like racism, mostly comes in quiet forms that won’t ever make the daily paper or CNN. We’re talking about kids on the school grounds saying they’re gonna get the Asian kids and "Seung Hui Cho-them" (yes, it’s happened) or get stares and nasty looks and whispered words as they pass by. We’re talking about incidents that the local schools or police will pass off as "individual" issues between "individual" folks.

Second, I’m really tired of being told that we (Koreans) should stop feeling bad about what an individual did. That we are not like the Borg and one person does not define an entire group of people. That we ourselves are over-emphasizing the terrible actions of a Korean American and that’s what’s bringing us down.

Is it just me or is this somewhat sad?

I mean, what’s wrong with community? Isn’t this what we’re all talking about all the time? Why are people getting so hostile that Korean Americans feel collectively responsible for one of our members falling through the cracks? To me this is a beautiful thing. It means we care enough about all the members of our community that it is a deep sadness when someone falls.

All of those who criticized us and are saying it’s about an individual

making it all about the individual means no one has to acknowledge any responsibility for anyone else.

We can all sit in our little cocoons, in our individual single-family homes and breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t us. Meanwhile, if we opened our eyes we’d probably see a dozen other Seung Hui Chos, in pain, unable to deal with life, suicidal or homicidal. And yet it’s easier to close our eyes and talk about individual responsibility.

We can’t have it both ways all the time. Asking for everyone to be part of a community when it benefits us but stressing individuality when it won’t? That’s a skewed version of community – in my mind anyway.

We all like to give lip service to the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child" but if what I’ve been reading lately on the blogs and discussion forums is any indication, people must be talking about a village of one.

    This rant is officially over. Regularly scheduled programming will now resume.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. I don’t know if we are just reading different blogs or maybe we just have different interpretations of what we are readin.
    My interpretation of the “Korean” response to this tragedy is that their response, as you mention, is based in culture and is an attempt to express to Americans how sorry they are that this act took place. I really felt their response to be genuine and heartfelt.
    In reaction, I have read many a blog where the blogger expresses what I interpret as a sadness that Korean people feel responsible for the actions of one man. I see this as Americans expressing, based on their culture, that they are sorry to see Korean people taking this so hard as a people and taking personal blame.
    What I see is two nations, both very sad over this event, both expressing that sadness in culturally appropriate ways. I see two nations corresponding with each other in ways that attempt to be as polite as possible to one another….to show concern for one another.
    I believe you that you’ve likely read attacks on Korean culture and their response to this tragedy.
    Let me say that while I also have expressed Cho’s individual responsibility in this act, that does not mean that I don’t think society at large also bears responsibility. It was society that overlooked the racist and other attacks against this man. It is also society’s responsiblity to tend to the mentally ill, although I also acknoledge that hands were tied in this case, mostly due to protection of the rights of Cho as an individual who hadn’t hurt himself or anyone in the past.

  2. I think the problem many Asian-Americans face is figuring out if it’s possible to divorce internally driven cultural collective responsibility (strong for some, weak for others) from externally driven racial responsibility.

  3. I, too, have read and heard similar mumblings – and I’m sure we’ve read similar (if not the same) articles as well as different ones. Perhaps we do have similar methods of interpretative analysis… perhaps we shouldn’t be reading the comments that follow these articles… perhaps we should cover our ears and sing “la la la” as loudly.
    When I hear/read patronizing comments regarding how Koreans and KAs should or should not feel, or how we need to break away from this cultural burden of ours, I just sigh. I guess one way to look at it is to say that it is “American” culture to tell others how to feel – but that goes against what I believe is American culture, a mixed bag of cultures that initially all begin as immigrant cultures… isn’t Korean-American culture also part of American culture? I also don’t think the “community guilt” is so unique to Koreans – they’re just more vocal and apologetic and after all, historically, have we not often been lumped and generalized, whether via positive stereotypes (hard working, super-smart), perceived to be positive but icky stereotypes (exotic sexy women, hard working, super-smart math whizs), as well as the negative stereotypes (can’t drive, easily trodden upon, stinky kimchi people, racists toward blacks, i.e. Rodney King riots, etc.)?
    I’ve heard people grumble about, say, Mexican immigrants who proudly fly their Mexican flags, saying that if they’re Americans, they should no longer pledge allegiance to their old country, yet when they speak of MAs, they don’t consider them ‘full’ Americans, i.e. will always be “those Mexicans”. One cannot have it both ways… and one should not project his/her own sense of ‘correct emotional response’ on others, be it an individual guilt or a communal guilt. I think that’s just plain presumptuous – and THAT has no cultural boundaries.

  4. Ummm… I just wanted to say that in my original post to your original post, I really didn’t mean to communicate that no backlash would happen, or that it hadn’t happen, but just that I hoped it wouldn’t happen (so the fact that more people seemed to be *writing* about a possible backlash than actually experiencing it seemed good, in a weird way). Hope this makes sense. I’m sorry if it came across as anything other than that.

  5. Jae Ran, you always make me think.
    I’ve decided that no one should ever tell anyone else how they should feel.
    I so appreciated the Kimchi Mama’s post. It was one of those “ah-ha!” moments for me: an explaination of one of those unspoken shared cultural assumptions that lurk under the surface to sabatoge communication between people of different cultures.
    As a white american, I too fear that the toll of Cho’s actions will only increase. I believe, and I think that most people believe, that Cho’s ethnicity did not CAUSE his actions. Unfortunately, there will probably be others who will be more suspicious of Asian peoples now, just the way 9/11 made them wary of anyone Arabic. I would so love to be wrong!

  6. Jae Ran,
    I hope to read rants as part of your regularly scheduled programming. 😉 Your writing was a catalyst for me to think more about collective responsibility among White people, like myself. Actually, I can’t think of any people more in need of collective responsibility and collective action than Whites. For every up there is a down. My complexion and inculcated sense of entitlement result in unearned benefits. Its like carrying proof of superior citizenship in my purse ready to be whipped out at my whim. It’s like that card in Monopoly which reads: “Proceed directly to GO and collect $$$ on the way.” White people are the ones who bear the moral responsibility to dismantle the unfair system of advantages and disadvantages distributed along the color line. There is power in joining forces, in speaking up as White Anti-racists. So, I say, more collective responsiblity where it is needed among my White peers.

  7. I’m glad you put this out there. Honestly, you’ve got me going back and looking at all I’ve written on the subject and asking, “Did I do that?”
    I think there are a lot of different perspectives at work and yours is one that I respect highly.
    My own reaction is admittedly defensive and comes from an “I’m tired of guilt by association” pov. Of course, no one has the right to tell the Korean and Korean Americans how to react, nor should we judge. If I have done that, I apologize.
    You’re making me want to come off blog break, but I think I’ll reflect on what you’ve said for a while. Now is just not a good time for me to be blogging. :S
    As always, thank you.

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