Thursday, April 19, 2007

How American Was Cho Seung-Hui? (social comment)

Since it came out that the shooter in Blacksburg, Cho Seung-Hui, happened to be a Korean immigrant, I’ve seen a variety of fascinating bits both conscious and unconscious that emphasize the troubled-young man’s Korean-identity as opposed to his American one. As an Asian-American (3 of my grandparents came from China, one was born here but her parents were Chinese as well), I may be especially sensitive to the ethnic legerdemain of the last few days. Part of that is that it used to be considered polite to ask me two minutes after meeting me, “Hi, when did your parents come over from China and were you born here or over there?” or to comment that “My English was really good.” When I told even adults that my parents were born in California, they sometimes would insist that I must be lying.

As a result, I notice things. Actually, one of the first things I saw almost immediately after it was revealed that the shooter might be Asian was a blog reaction from an obscure right wing blog immediately complaining that the FBI was trying to whitewash the incident because it was already eliminating the possibility of terrorism. I think the blogger may have thought that by “Asian” the man might be Pakistani or Indonesian, but there are large numbers of Chinese Moslems in western China. Talk about ethnic profiling!

The next bit was people commenting with surprising certainty that Cho was here on a student visa. Actually, he'd come to the United States at age eight and had a green card or permanent residency status.

Yet another example, I saw an amateur poet who tried to write about the incident refer to the "Oriental" man who fired the shots. I suppose this was technically accurate, but given the level of detail it stuck out in my reading since he could just have easily mentioned for instance that Cho was an English major, that he grew up in Maryland, that his parents were devout Christians, or that he has a sister who works in Iraqi reconstruction.

When NBC posted the video that Cho had made of himself and apparently dropped off somehow between killings, the version I saw came with remarks from a psychologist who used the occasion in part to explain that "This was not typical Korean behavior." The expert then went on to ask if Cho has perhaps had difficulty going back and forth between Korean and American culture and if that tension perhaps contributed to his going off.

When I was a kid, a huge part of the American dream or at least my American dream was simply to be considered American. I was and am actually fine being thought of as Asian or Chinese-American, but the second half too often seemed to be the sticking point for most of the people I met who were white and American. Even as a kid, I recognized the subtext of these encounters clearly enough, "You had to be white to really be American."

One of my friends who happens to be white told me when the news of the massacre had just broken that she was hoping that the shooter wasn't anything other than white, because she felt that certain kinds of folk would make far too much of the fact. I did read one unconfirmed report that many Korean students have left Blacksburg out of fear of possible reprisals.

At this point, I've seen the excerpts from the videos Cho sent to NBC and read something on AOL that was supposed to be one of the "scripts" he'd written from the now infamous creative writing classes he'd taken at Virginia Tech. The one I saw was a MacBeth/Hamlet parody with references to the NFL and a molestation theme. It was wildly violent, angry, etc., but there was absolutely nothing in it to suggest that any of the characters were Korean and nothing especially Korean about the perspective.

In the pictures that are now all over the Internet, Cho wears a baseball cap backwards on his head to emphasize his toughness. Is pretending to be from Compton, a Korean thing? He makes multiple comparisons between what he's about to do and Jesus's crucifixion. For every Sun Myung Moon, there are probably a hundred Evangelicals wandering that part of Virginia. He rants about rich people and their Mercedes's. He makes no mention of whitey (though it might have been edited out) or his own ethnicity in any of the materials I saw.

So I'm asking, why is everyone in such a rush to characterize this guy as something other than an American? What's more American these days then videotaping yourself and sending it off to the network mid-murder? How about stalking by cellphone? Is information-age an ethnicity? Korea may have its own violent history, but buying a Glock and a .22 at a gun shop then shooting up a classroom without any serious political agenda is sadly about as American as it gets. Yes, they do have mass murders in other cultures, there were even bigger ones in Iraq just yesterday. Still, describe this crime to anyone in the world without any details about where it happened, then ask them to guess which country it happened in?

Even Americans would likely tell you it had to be American.

I have no idea what made Cho so angry, crazy, or both. At some level, I'll never know. It could well have been medication or mental illness. He might have been victimized in some way or even molested, something that did appear to be a theme in his scripts. Again, the fact that he was writing scripts is kind of telling in its own way about the ethnic factor or lack of one here. The guy certainly wasn't quoting Chang Rae Lee. His choice of language was much more South Park meets Eminem meets Gangsta Rap.

Still, I have this little boy in me that wants to believe that the sad life of Cho Seung-Hui and his anger at the presumptions of the "wealthy" had something to do with how American he really was inside. In fact, the scariest thing about it might be the total absence of Korean connections to all he had to say. Could it be that the deepest and saddest irony of this guy's twisted life was that America just refused to see that.

Maybe it's just human on our part to try to distance "America" from what Cho did by making him and what he did as Korean as possible. I suppose there once was a part of me that was relieved to think that Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, George W. Bush et al. must have done what they did because they were white. Now, I simply understand that they were either sick or evil and it had little or nothing to do with their ethnicity. Tomorrow, I won't sit around and insist that Alberto Gonzales must have dissembled because he's Mexican. I understand that the A.G. is just as American as I am, it's just that he has no real sense of decency.

I think again about my childhood dream of being fully American. At least a part of that came because I also grew up with rhetoric that America was a special country because being American had nothing to do with race or even where you were born. Instead, it was something you became or as Superman insisted being American was something you did, a set of principles and ways of doing things that had something to do with truth and justice.

Sadly though, there's also the other American way. That one has to do with some of the deep anger, a kind of grotesque Gatsby dragged thorugh South Park, about exclusion and inclusion that Cho expressed so hatefully. Some of it has to do with solving problems by first resorting to extreme violence or threats of it. There's something strangely American about all that as well. We are, after all, pretty much the only people in the world where anyone would insist that these murders just prove that everyone ought ot have a gun to defend themselves from people like that and expect to be taken seriously.

To me that's the irony of this sad moment in our cultural history. I don't think we can be the America of truth, justice, etc. that Superman once defended until more of us get how deeply and tragically American both Cho and what he did really were.

Also see Jeff Yang's blogpost on this at Salon



At 4/19/2007 07:03:00 AM, Blogger Tanya Espanya said...

You're Chinese?! Funny, you don't look it! And you've managed to get rid of your accent. Well done...

I get something like that because I'm Spanish but I look 'white' (whatever that is), and there are two standard comments to that.

One is, "Funny, you don't look like Maria, the Peruvian in accounting (or any other Central American Indigenous group)" quickly followed by, "I love tacos!" (which, I do to, but not because it's somehow part of my genetic makeup).

And secondly is the accent thing. I have maybe a 'Canadian' accent, but I don't sound like Selma Hayek or whatever other 'latin' or hot tamale personality. I was born in Tronna, fer cryin' out loud...It's my parents what have the accent!

At 4/19/2007 08:33:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I like tacos too :}

True enough though, on the blog I look more like a border collie than anything else. Sounding like Salma Hayek, I dunno. Probably looking like Salma Hayek wouldn't be a bad thing at all fwiw, not that there's anything wrong with looking like whoever is in your avatar.

At 4/19/2007 08:54:00 AM, Blogger Tanya Espanya said...

Ohmygod, Chancelucky, I came here a minute ago and there were no comments and then I thought, "Did I offend him? Is he off in a corner alternately screaming and crying and eating chocolate pudding?" And if I did offend you, you'd have no idea how I could hate myself. But it looks like I didn't, so I continue to crush you with my Messican love.


At 4/19/2007 10:06:00 AM, Blogger None said...

There is lots to unpack here. It has been disturbing from start to finish on this. Most of the time, I end up thinking about our country and how foolish it has been to lose such gifted lives. I've been more than embarrassed at how our political leaders have dealt with the gun issue. From Bush, to McCain to even some Dems, it seems like we are setting ourselves up for future disasters. And, at what price? So people can shoot at Bambi with semi-automatic handguns...

"What's more American these days then videotaping yourself"
I was lucky enough to see the A's vs. Yankees a few days ago. One odd thing was the number of people cheering to get on the big screen in-between innings. They would even take photos of the big screen. What drives us to be "famous"? Is it some falling out from existentialism? The big screens are on closed circuit. Only the 35K in the stands will ever see these images and most of them are in the bathroom.

I, also, like your comments on being an American. And, Cho certainly shared in the American experience.

In the end, I hope this is all just part of our growing up as a country. I hope these painful events can lead to something productive. The recent tragedies from 9/11 to Katrina to this have been horrible.

PS.. I like tacos too! But, nothing beats a good burrito.

At 4/19/2007 10:17:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

first I feel like I should represent for things like Dim Sum, black bean sauce, and the wonders of things like Bok Choy and Guy Lan....

I do think the weirdest thing about this whole tragedy, other than the way the politicians seem to have handled it, was his stopping to mail videos to NBC between murders. Do they have in hell?

As I said, the guy's being from Korea has far less to do with this than how American he and the whole horrible thing really were. If you listen to the video rant, it's like a grotesque Gatsby pulled inside out. If you can't buy your way to getting noticed, you can shoot your way to it.

At 4/19/2007 07:54:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

CL, I have a Korean-American who works in my unit. He says this person was troubled and he doesn't think the media is being overly biased. He thinks this man needed help and no one paid attention to him.

I think the family of the person, as well as the ones who lost their loved ones, needs our prayers or better wishes. It must be hard for them as well.

Tomorrow, at 11am CT, there will be a moment of silence where I work.

And meantime, I agree with Elizabeth Edwards, who knows what freak accidents can mean, that we must tell our communities and friends the names and stories of those who were in the line of fire. They should not be forgotten.

At 4/20/2007 07:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who are most successful in receiving on-going mental healthcare are those who a have a strong network of friends and family who make sure they receive treatment. A mental health referral from Cho's teachers isn't as effective and is an indication that he lacks a personal support network. Plus, young males aren't as verbal and are not able to form support networks as easily as women.

The larger picture is that Asian Americans don't have the political power that other minorities, such as blacks and hispanics, have. Most are also isolated and do not live in same-race communities like blacks and hispanics tend to do. A lack of community means a lack of a safe haven or buffer zone to develop their identity and voice. Didn't Cho sign his name by writing a question mark?

Plus Asian American males are the most marginalized group in America. Negative stereotypes of Asian American males are rampant in movies and TV. They are either villains or nerds. How often have you watched a movie and an Asian villain pops out of nowhere from the plot? I wouldn't be surprised if random nudity, hookers, and Asian villains are the most overused devices in movies.

There are virtually no positive images in the media to balance out the negativity, unless you count imported kung fu stars or athletes who aren't even American. Is this why Cho felt the need to send 20+ videos of himself to the media, unlike any other mass murderer?

In the end, you have an isolated, marginalized, ostracized, angry young man who happens to be mentally ill. If that's not a recipe for lashing out and violence, I don't what is.

At 4/20/2007 08:20:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I wasn't blaming the media or claiming any kind of overt bias. If you look at the title and the ending, I was just exploring why so many people want to make Cho out to be more Korean than he really was.
I was trying to say it's more a case of Americans being in denial about who we really are in some ways.

Thanks for your very thoughtful provocative comment. It's a great point about his signing his name with a question mark.

As I think about the tapes and what I saw of Cho's writing, it was less a case of his seeming Korean or American.....and possibly more a matter of how "missing" the Korean parts were in the way he was presenting himself on tape.

That would make it sort of a triple paradox, I guess.

The one quibble I'd have with your argument is that it suggests that Asian-Americans are just ticking time bombs. I find the opposite to be the case. I grew up very much disconnected from an identifiable social group of either my own race or any other mixture of races. It doesn't mean that it turned into psychotic anger.

At some level, I do think mental illness is just that. Cho likely did have some very serious chemical issues that quite likely had nothing to do with culture or the treatment of other cultures.

At 4/21/2007 11:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I had been meaning to write about how people don't think non-white people from other countries are truly American, but you did a better job than I could have as you tied it in with the Virginia Tech incident.

When I heard that the shooting was done by a Korean student, I thought it was somebody who came over on a student visa. Then I saw the video and realized that he was just like us, another American who happened to be of an Asian descent.

I didn't see it first hand, but the incidents you report don't surprise me, the ones highlighting the fact that he's "Korean".

It will be a while before non-white Americans are truly considered American, perhaps it will happen when the mixed race children make classification difficult for the mainstream. That's another upside of such integration.

I was just in Coldwater, Michigan, a small town not more than 2 hours from Detroit which is quite diverse. I and my coworker were driving back from Indianapolis, and we stopped at a McDonald's for some drinks. You wouldn't believe how people stared at me. It was to the point that my coworker even noticed it. Add to my "Asian-ness" the fact that I look somewhat Middle Eastern and I get a double whammy.

The other funny story I have was from when I worked at Saturn here in Michigan but talked to people in Tennessee. A really nice lady on the phone, (with no intent to insult me after I told her my ethnicity), said, "you don't sound like you're family's from India."

That's the kind of stuff that keeps reminding you that there will be glass ceilings and unfair treatment for many years to come, whether it happens consciously or not.

At 4/21/2007 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for your very thoughtful and kind comment. It's sad that one moment you and I are exchanging posts about the impact of Sanjaya Malakar on Desi culture in America and the next we're talking about this guy. Also more than a little ironic that this was the week Sanjaya got voted off.

Yeah, I don't know what it means to seem like the "Managerial" type. I do know things have gotten dramatically better in the last thirty years. A couple years ago, someone's dad met me and immediately started asking me "What are you?" and I did my usual, "Well, I'm American." to which he responded "No, what are you really?"

The son, who was there the whole time, made a point of apologizing to me for his dad. I actually wasn't offended, it had been a while since someone asked me the question so quickly after meeting me.

My wife's not Asian, so I guess that means the whole seeing Asians as separate can't go all that far in this culture. Our daughter generally doesn't think of herself as one or the other though.

I do want to make a very clear distinction btw. I don't think Cho necessarily went off because of the Ethnic issue. My point was that many people in our culture were very anxious to make him more Korean than he was possibly to distance themselves from the act.

I did see something recently that the biggest steel company in the world now seems to be under the control of two Indian men. Like it or not, money changes attitudes in a hurry. Still, on the whole, I'd rather be the guy with Liz Hurley, though I still say that Batchan's doing well by staying in house and marrying Aishawarya Rai. Yikes, I'm going to scare off all my female readers.

At 4/21/2007 04:41:00 PM, Blogger Tanya Espanya said...

I'd also pick Aishawarya Rai over Liz HURLey any day!

At 4/21/2007 04:57:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I am willing to open this up some. Mr. Pogblog for instance has an obsession with Clive Owen and my wife and I did recently see a silly western with Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.

At 4/22/2007 04:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody's written so far who is actually Tuwan or American which I limit to folks who speak Cherokee, Wappinger, or Algonquin, 4instance.

When an astronaut was asked what he thought when he looked back at Vuravura from space, he said, "What struck me is that there aren't any lines on it." From the day I saw our beloved Jeegoo in that poignant photo from space and heard that lineless line, I was a Vuravuran plain and simple, an earthling.

We breathe air & drink water .. that we share ineluctably.

Some of us get sick in the brain and do terrible things. Mr. Cho. And, even more deadly, Mr. Bush. Oh, I forgot, the dead kids in Iraq are collateral damage.

At 4/22/2007 08:05:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I think people get or are mentally ill in most any culture, it's just that some of them are set up so it's easy for those people to get guns. Some aren't.

Cho spent about six hundred dollars for his killing spree....roughly twenty dollars/homicide. Less than the price of taking htem all out to dinner.

At 4/25/2007 11:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The overall effect of how the American media at large painted Cho as a "foreign national" or an "alien," is disconcerting to Asian-Americans like myself. In my own blog, I have created a sort of blow-by-blow account of how Cho's identity was reported in the American media, and the whole thing really does smack of the old yellow peril themes... :(

At 4/25/2007 11:10:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'd love to look at your chronology, but there's no way to figure out where your blog is based on your comment.
btw, thanks for coming by here.

At 4/26/2007 05:28:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Chance, I have a hard time believing that you are American. Your spelling and use of the English language are much too refined and sophisticated to be an American. Plus, your use of logic and reasoning seems to indicate at least a European upbringing.

On a more serious note, I can say that we have had no incidents of anti-Asian behavior on our campus since the shooting. The consensus from students and staff here is that Cho was just a really fucked up kid.

At 4/27/2007 05:32:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I agree, mental illness seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. Some things about American culture including the way we deal with guns probably exagerrate the impact though.


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