With permission, I am posting an article submitted to a publication of Seattle Pacific University. This thought provoking article is written by Dr. Bo Lim, Old Testament Professor at SPU. He also attends Quest with his family and to prove how small the world has become, is a high school friend from Lowell High School in San Fran. Feel free to share your thoughts here and Bo will respond directly to any dialogue.
Because race is probably among the topics which produce the most misunderstanding, allow me to provide some initial remarks. First, I want to acknowledge that I am not a victim of the VA Tech massacre. The community of Blacksburg is the victim. Those who were shot or are the loved ones of such people, they are the victims. So focus should be placed on supporting this community during their tragic loss. But because of the speed of the media, questions are already being raised in regard to school security, gun control, and mental illness. Yet oddly the topic of Cho’s race seems to be largely unexplored. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that many lack the skills necessary to engage such a sensitive topic in public discourse. People don’t want to say anything that might possibly offend so they avoid the topic all together. It is precisely because of these reasons I do write – so that we as a Christian community might gain the knowledge and empathy required to “engage the culture, transform the world.”
Race is unavoidably an issue in this tragedy. As soon as Cho’s identity was released, the media attention turned to the South Korean President’s reaction to this news and the possibility of strained relations between the U.S. and South Korea. Every time his name is spoken and his photo is shown we are reminded once again that he is not whom we expected to be. Just the other day while sitting in a café someone asked me, “Are Koreans more violent than other people?”
When I found out that the murderer was Korean my wife and I responded with what I suspect to be the same reaction of most Asians in the U.S. – shock, shame, and anxiety. We were already mourning a horrific tragedy. The last thing we wanted was to fear the possibility of discrimination or prejudice toward ourselves or our children. Whether the threat was real or not, many of us felt a little uneasy venturing out of our homes the next day. A Korean-American SPU student shared with me that her father, the day after Cho’s identity was released, was accosted by another man while going to a bank in Tacoma. The man asked, “Hey, are you Korean?” He then advanced toward him menacingly and yelling racial slurs including, “Go back to Korea!” Now I suspect that such an encounter will likely be labeled an “isolated incident” and the actions of “wackos and idiots.” But even if they are rare and the actions of the town dolt, they are still painful and leave a lasting impression not only upon an individual but on a whole community.
Asian cultures oftentimes possess a strong communal identity in contrast to Americans who emphasize the individual. So I can understand why a Korean woman would profusely apologize for the actions of Cho at length (40 minutes!) while she cut the hair one of my colleagues. I suspect most, like this professor, would probably respond, “You don’t need to apologize, you have nothing to do with Cho.” This is absolutely true. Yet in a sense we feel a connection to Cho. In communal cultures, every individual’s actions are interpreted to reflect the values of his/her community. Christine De Leon in More Than Serving Tea recalls how she identified with Michelle Kwan during the 2002 Olympics. She writes, “When we see Asian Americans get promoted, we cheer. When they fall on the ice, we cry with them. Our Asian value of being a communal culture allows us to share both their successes and their failures.” So this Korean woman is expressing to my colleague her identification with Cho. That is, she is telling him that one of her own did this terrible thing.
As a Korean-American, I empathize with both the murderer’s family as well as the families of the victims. My wife’s parents like Cho’s also owned a dry cleaning business. She has repeatedly said, “I wonder how they’re doing. I feel so bad for them.” At the same time, I have come to tears upon hearing the stories of the survivors – their pain, their loss. I’m a proud UCLA alum, and yet even I felt like chanting, “Hokies! Hokies! Hokies!” along with the students of VA Tech even though I haven’t the faintest idea what a Hokie is.
I appreciated Robert Siegel’s commentary on Apr 18th edition of NPR’s All Things Considered. After reading Cho’s disturbing and violent script for a play Siegel comments, “I didn’t get the impression that his preoccupations were especially exotic or in any way Korean. Pedophilia, Michael Jackson, Catholic priests – this is the stuff of our news pages and culture, not some foreign country’s. His ability to buy a gun reflects an American interpretation of liberty – an idea which if not unique to us, is certainly no Asian import.” He then goes on to cite the previous day’s description of Cho in the Washington Post. They described him as a “local, a Centerville Virginia student. Like the kids who murdered at Columbine, Seung Hui Cho killed and died as one of us.”
I suspect Siegel’s intentions were to diffuse any racial profiling of Asians and for that I am grateful. He characterized Cho not as a foreigner but as an American and described in detail how VA Tech has a large, vibrant Asian student population as to imply that Cho should have felt welcome there. Yet this is only part of the story. Perhaps at VA Tech he was not discriminated against, but we are now finding out that he may have been teased and bullied throughout middle and high school. An Apr 20th story in Yahoo! News reads, “Once, in English class at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., when the teacher had the students read aloud, Cho looked down when it was his turn, said Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech senior and high school classmate. After the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho began reading in a strange, deep voice that sounded “like he had something in his mouth,” Davids said. “The whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, `Go back to China,'” Davids said.”
The media is quick to seek biological or psychological reasons to answer the question, “Why did he do it?” Was he psychotic? Did he have brain damage? Certainly important questions. But let us not neglect social reasons as well. I recognize that people of all races are bullied and teased. But they’re not necessarily treated as foreigners, aliens, or outsiders and told to leave. I agree with Siegel that he killed and died as an American. Yet although he lived in the United States, did he feel welcome as an American? My hope is that as this tragedy spawns a reexamination of issues like gun control, school security, and mental illness, we would not neglect to ask ourselves the following questions: “How do we treat those different than us?” “What does it mean to be an American?” “From whom did these high school students learn their racist behavior?” “What effect does experiencing racism have on an individual’s psyche?” My prayer is that we would not only probe deep into the mind of a murderer but also gaze deep into the soul of a nation. Seung Hui Cho is after all, one of our own.