LIKE SO MANY Americans, I was glued to the television Monday, watching horrifying images of wounded students at Virginia Tech as the day unfolded. But I grew even more troubled when I heard the first reports that the shooter might be Asian.
Here we go again, I thought. My wife and I watched nervously, desperately hoping that he would not turn out to be Korean or Korean American. When the media speculated that he was from China, I must admit to some relief. To my dismay, police on Tuesday confirmed that he was Korean American. His name was Seung-hui Cho.
My initial reaction to the shootings was, like anyone else, shock, disgust, sadness and disbelief. Then I began to worry about the possible backlash. Would the mainstream media portray this troubled man not as an individual on a rampage but as a racialized and stereotyped Asian? Would they fall back on the usual characterizations: quiet, hardworking but seething under tremendous pressure to excel in school?
Cho's ethnic background will undoubtedly trigger questions about what set off this Asian American male. But how much, if anything, does his ethnicity really have to do with what happened?
Cho had a history of anger and emotional problems, according to media accounts. He reportedly was taking medication for depression. Many people, and certainly a lot of overworked, stressed young students, suffer from similar conditions. Something snapped in this young man, and something went terribly wrong.
According to some reports, Cho's parents own and operate a dry-cleaning business, and they were so shocked by the events they have been hospitalized.
I'm sure that, in the weeks ahead, many Korean Americans will feel somehow responsible for this one Korean American student's action, even though it appears that this was the action of one apparently disturbed young man. This could have been done by anybody who suffers from severe depression or a mental disorder and is not properly treated. And yet, I too somehow feel responsible. Why? As someone of Korean ancestry, I feel a cultural connection and almost a moral responsibility for his actions. Many in the Korean community are already mourning the very idea that a Korean is responsible for these senseless deaths.
As we approach the 15th anniversary of the civil unrest in Los Angeles, the Korean American community here still vividly remembers how the mainstream media portrayed Korean immigrant merchants as gun-toting vigilantes, defending their stores as Los Angeles burned in 1992 — and we are still trying to overcome that stereotype. There are more than 500,000 Koreans in Los Angeles, the largest enclave outside of Asia, and this is the image many Americans have of them.
The Asian American community has long complained about the absence of Asian American faces in popular media. Even the initial media report of the shooter as Chinese reminds me of how Asian Americans all "look alike" to those outside the community. It would be grossly unfair to blame an entire community for the act of one member, but all Asian American communities — not just Korean ones — may be tainted by this tragedy.
The reality, however, is that Cho came to the U.S. when he was 8 years old and, at the time of his death, was 23 and an English major at Virginia Tech. In other words, he probably spoke fluent English and was culturally Americanized. He probably didn't know much about Korea and Korean culture. And yet the headlines will read: "Seung-hui Cho from South Korea."
I don't mean to suggest that there's no truth at all to some of the stereotypes about Asian Americans. It is often true that Asian Americans are hardworking or academically successful. Cho's parents probably did struggle to send him to college. Many Korean American students do grow up under heavy pressure to excel in school. Growing up as typical "model minority" students, many Asian American students find themselves having to cope with repressed anger, anxiety and rage.
Maybe Cho was under tremendous pressure to succeed. Or maybe his rampage had nothing to do with academic pressure but was caused by a failed romance or a deep depression. We may never know what triggered these senseless shootings.
I will not be able to completely shake my sense of responsibility as a Korean American for this tragedy. But I'm going to try. And when young people are stressed or depressed, let us reach out across all ethnic and racial boundaries and try to help them see that, in every culture, violence is not the solution.