By JONATHAN TILOVE
April 17, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) The first official identification of the gunman at Virginia Tech was of his gender and race. “We do know that he was an Asian male,” university President Charles Steger said Tuesday morning. Not long after, his name was released _ Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old Korean-American. A photo followed.
Suddenly, Americans trying to fathom the worst gun rampage in American history had the first something to fill in the blanks, and allow them to begin to spin a narrative of explanation. For many Korean-Americans, it became a day of special, personal pain and a need to express their sorrow, and to worry about what might follow.
“We are shattered. I am shattered,” said Esther Park, executive director of the Korean Community Service Center of Greater Washington, D.C.
Pyong Gap Min, a Korean-American sociologist who is working on a book at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York about Korean-American grocers, said that when he learned of Cho’s identity, “I felt an obligation to say something to the scholars at Russell Sage.”
“I told them I feel sorry,” said Min. “Here, they are scholars. There is no problem. Other people, who are not well-educated, they can misinterpret. A lot of Muslims suffered after 9/11.”
Elaine Kim, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, reported that after some Virginia Tech students reported on Monday that the shooter was an Asian, “You can’t imagine how many Korean-Americans have e-mailed me … saying that it makes them feel sick.” She said they included the actor John Cho, who played the Korean-American character Harold Lee in the multicultural stoner buddy movie “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”
“At the gym this morning,” Kim wrote in an e-mail, “I overheard people talking about the shootings mentioning over and over that he was Asian, though I can’t ever remember anyone except black and Asian folks mentioning race in the Dahmer, Columbine, San Diego McDonald’s and UT Austin mass murders.”
“I’m a little concerned to say the least,” said Hyepin Im, founder and president of Korean Churches for Community Development in Los Angeles. Im participated in a Tuesday press conference with other members of the Korean-American community to express their shock about “a national tragedy,” and fears about potential aftershocks.
“We’re very concerned that this is going to be turned into a race issue,” said Im.
Reports indicate that Cho Seung-Hui came to the United States 15 years ago, when he was 8. In her experience, Im said, Koreans who come to America at that age are, by their 20s, “pretty much American. Put them in South Korea and they wouldn’t be able to survive.”
But, she said, press reports identifying Cho as a “Korean national” and “resident alien,” while accurate, suggested a stranger in our midst. Some early reports identified him as Chinese. Initial confusion about his name _ news organizations differed on whether he was Cho Seung-Hui or Seung Hui Cho _ stems from the fact that in Korea, the family name _ in his case “Cho” _ comes first, although some Korean-Americans Americanize the order of their name for convenience.
For decades the overriding stereotype of Asian-Americans, and especially Asian-American students, has been that of the model minority _ outstanding scholars, hard-working, respectful and focused. Violence is not part of the image.
But, it was Gang Lu, a physics student from China, who shot five people to death and wounded another in a shooting at the University of Iowa in 1991. And it was Taiwan-born Wayne Lo, who came to the United States as an adolescent, who in 1992 went on a rampage at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Mass., killing a professor and a student and wounding four others.
These are very rare cases, of course. But Im, who is working with at-risk Asian youth under a U.S. Labor Department grant, said that beneath the model minority image simmers a rising tide of delinquency and violence that American policy-makers have failed to come to grips with.
“The model minority stereotype hurts us tremendously in terms of getting resources,” said Im.
In fact, Im said, Asian-American youth are the only ethnic and racial group that have shown rising levels of juvenile delinquency in the past two decades. Asians have the highest proportion of juvenile to adult violence, she said, and Asian youths who commit crime tend to be more violent. Asian youth can be all these things with none of the obvious _ or stereotypical _ trappings of gang members or juvenile deviance, she said.
“If you see them, there is no visual sign,” said Im.
According to Min, immigrant children like Cho are part of an especially stressed generation. Often they cannot speak Korean fluently (Cho was an English major), and their parents, who often work tirelessly (Cho’s parents worked in a dry cleaners) and have little time for them, speak only halting English.
The community tends to be especially isolated from the mainstream _ with so many of its number working in ethnic niche jobs and attending Korean churches. Only Vietnamese-Americans, said Im, are more linguistically isolated, leaving the community especially unable to adequately represent itself at this cable-news moment.
“My first thought upon hearing that the killer had been described as `Asian’ was `Damn, why couldn’t it have been a white boy?”’ Hugo B. Schwyzer, a social science instructor at Pasadena City College, wrote on his blog. “Please understand, I don’t think the race of the shooter played a vital role in these tragic events,” Schwyzer wrote. But “I am deeply concerned about the possibility of anti-Asian backlash.”