seattle PI guest column on the tragedy of virginia tech

Here’s the guest column I had the privilege of writing for the Seattle Post Intelligencer [published for Tuesday, April 24, 2007].  I’ve also included some other reads I have personally found very moving and insightful.  I was limited by time and a word count, but hoped that this ‘guest column’ would be a source of healing, deeper understanding, and blessing to many.  I wish I did a better job, [and given them my own title], and spoken from a larger Asian perspective.  One clarification I want to make – while I and other Koreans/Asians grieve and feel pain and ‘shame’ over Seung Hui Cho, we are not the victims in this tragedy.   My hope was to convey that no matter who or what we are, we are all connected to one another – not just because of our ethnic identity but our larger human collective and narrative.  Because of the invitation to address the larger Washington readership, I chose not to be preachy.  Much of this editorial comes from some initial thoughts shared in a blog entry from last week entitled, ‘Making Sense of the Senseless.’

Here’s the direct link to the Seattle PI column:

Like everyone else — here (Seattle), there (Virginia), West (United States), East (Korea) and everywhere (the larger world), I have been shocked and horrified over the Virginia Tech shooting. I have been trying to make sense of something that is senseless.

Personally, the emotions have been even more convoluted because of my bicultural identity. I was born in Korea, immigrated to the United States at the age of 6 and thus am Korean American. I am also a U.S. citizen; I am a Korean American male immigrant and even share the same surname as the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.

Once I discovered that the gunman was Korean American, I had some initial fears of racial backlash. As a proud citizen of this country, I do not believe there will be any overt backlash. It would be nonsensical for people to associate the heinous crime to Koreans or Korean Americans simply because of Seung-Hui Cho’s ethnicity.

In that same vein, it would have been preposterous and unjust for us to place blame on African Americans for the actions of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo in the Beltway Sniper attacks of 2002 or to ask white Americans to share blame with Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995.

But in the days after the identity of the gunman was revealed, many in the media and larger culture may have been perplexed by the responses of Koreans and Korean Americans. Many Koreans expressed embarrassment, shame and even guilt. State Sen. Paul Shinn fought back his tears as he apologized to fellow lawmakers. Even despite being reassured by others that an apology was not necessary, he continued.

Although I personally don’t feel the need to directly apologize for the actions of Seung-Hui Cho, I understand why Shinn and others feel the need to do so. Although not apologetic, I share in deep pain, embarrassment and shame. I share in the deep pain because when I see images of this young man, I don’t just see a “crazy Asian killer,” I also see someone whose life story sounds very similar to mine. Such words as lonely, isolated and quiet were often used to describe my younger life as I struggled to fit in as an immigrant.

I share in embarrassment and shame because I see Seung-Hui Cho as a part of my larger community. As Koreans or Korean Americans, we share not only similar life stories but also a communal bond. Contrary to perhaps the more “individualistic” worldview of Westerners, Koreans have a certain communal identity.

One can contend that to be Korean is to be communal. No one is an island to themselves. For that reason, Koreans tend to rejoice and mourn on the successes and failures of fellow Koreans. We rejoice with individuals such as James Sun (“The Apprentice”), Michelle Wie (LPGA golfer), Yul Kwon (“Survivor: Cook’s Island), Hines Ward (NFL player) and Yunjin Kim (ABC’s “Lost”).

And because we are a communal culture — not only as Koreans but also within our Korean American immigrant experience — we mourn and feel deep pain and shame over Seung-Hui Cho.

Last week, someone asked me “Why am I mourning? Is it because of the one or the 32”? For me, and many Korean Americans, the answer is both. We are mourning because of the 33. We are mourning because great pain and harm have been inflicted upon the lives of 32 individuals and their loved ones — each one with beautiful lives, stories, dreams and futures.

We are mourning because the one, Seung-Hui Cho — a part of us — chose to commit a horrible act of violence and devastation. Last week, my wife and I have broken down in tears in random situations. We cry and pray for the 32, their families, the students and community at Blacksburg, but also cry for Seung-Hui Cho and his family. We cry because in him, we see a younger brother. And so, we grieve for the 33.

Although I know that it is not necessary to apologize, I do want to share these words. On behalf of Koreans and Korean Americans, I want to extend our deepest condolences and love to all the families of those affected by the tragedy at Virginia Tech. It is my sincere hope and prayer — that no matter who or what we are — we grow to understand we are all connected to one another.

May each of us take to heart the ministry of reconciliation, the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and ‘other’ and be peacemakers.

Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!  All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other.  God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing.  We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you. 2 Corinthians 5:17-20

Worthwhile Relevant Reads: 

Cho Family Statement [Sun Kyung Cho], Guilt, Shame,and Corporate Identity [elderj],To Blame is Human [James Choung], A Lesson in Your Apology [Philadelphia Enquire Editorial], One of Our Own [Bo Lim], Nikki Giovanni Convocation Address [N. Giovanni], Making Sense of the Senseless Comment [rk], Va Tech VictimsPics & Stories [NY Times], and Silence of a Murderer’s Mother [Diana Bass].

16 Replies to “seattle PI guest column on the tragedy of virginia tech”

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  2. Thanks so much for writing the guest editorial. I’m Korean American–I didn’t understand or want to acknowledge my emotional reaction to VA Tech. You’ve captured my sentiment and have enabled me to understand my feelings, and I do feel some relief and peacefulness because of that. Thanks.

  3. hello.
    my dad is originally from korea, during the korean war he fought for the us and then came to the us and attended school.

    my mom grew up in hawaii her mom came from korea as a picture bride and married my grandfather who worked in pineapple plantations, my parents were divorced and i was raised by my mom who was much more culturally american than my dad. thus i did not have the level of exposure to korean culture that perhaps you did.

    however my main cultural experience was that of being asian american and being subjected to the various racist experiences that asians as a group share in the united states. i do find it somewhat odd that asians refer to other asians by ethnicity “that person is chinese, korean etc.” and then refer to white people as “american.” the american racism experience does not target asians by a particular ethnicity but rather asians as an entire group regarding the shooter i really do not think that the main backlash concern is against koreans but rather is more likely to be against asians as a whole , although as a subset koreans may be subjected to more harassment.

    overall i really have not seen that much of a racist reaction in the media nor have i experienced any personally. i do still have some sense of tension or anxiety, i recall seeing the shooters picture at work and wondering if someone was going to make some smart comment to me . it is of course ridiculous to blame an entire race for the actions of one individual but there are lots of stupid people and stupid people tend to also be loud people.

    thank you for your article.

    on another note you might want to check out an upcoming movie called americanese the plot was written by a uw professor, it is the first of its kind movie about a particular type of asian american experience (the half white half asian girl with the white dad who has a bias to only date white men and has broken up with the only asian guy she ever dated).


  4. Everyone: thanks for the comments and dialogue. There are so many complex layers to this situation; Seung’s cultural background is but one small part as his mental health seems to be a growing factor in this entire situation. Another factor seems to be his isolation and loneliness.

    My hope in writing the column was to give folks a contextual understanding why Koreans or Asians choose to respond with guilt and shame. In my opinion, I do not believe that ‘shame’ inherently is a bad thing. In fact, I’m also compelled to write a follow up post or article since so many people [especially Koreans] keep bringing up this shame thing without it’s proper context. Shame occurs when one chooses or is chosen to live in a very communal context with expectations. You let people down or bring dishonor. Again, shame is bad when there’s a lack of grace but shame is inevitable when we live in community. Shame gives opportunity for forgiveness, grace, and restoration. The problem: it is true though that Koreans/Asians need to work on that grace thing a little more.

    The Western worldview is much more individualistic; it’s driven by self and the middle class working mentality that I’ve worked hard and I’ve earned it. Because the Western worldview also tends to have an elevated of self, it’s tempting to perpetuate a level of ‘victimization.’ It can’t be my fault so it must be someone else’s fault.

    Being bicultural, I live in the synthesis of those two worldviews. I think…

  5. Eugene, Greatly appreciated the column. Speaking in the public square is a different thing than speaking in the church and thus I agree it was wise not be preachy. But we as the church need to speak and dialogue in both spheres. I also feel similarly about the experience of collective shame. I’ve heard comments (from including Asians) that Koreans ought to stop mourning this tragedy. I think it is quite beautiful that Koreans, esp Christian, around the globe are mourning. I think it is beautful that Korean Christians are collectiing funds to distribute to the families of the victims. Now I think it is important that we mourn for 33, not just 1, and certainly there ought to be limits to this collective notion (Koreans ought not to be blamed for the kilings). This tragedy has been a reminder to Koreans that everyone is, and ought to be connected.

  6. I read your article via the Seattle PI website. Thank you for your words, thoughts, and perspective into the horrible tragedy. Maybe, I’ll stop by your church some day.

  7. Hello Pastor Eugene,
    A friend of mine forwarded me your article that you wrote for SeattlePi and as a Korean-American Christian residing in Southern California, I just wanted to leave you a comment and say that it was well written.

    I agree with you. We should mourn not only for the 32 lives lossed but even for the killer/sinner, Seung-Hui. Like a friend of mine wrote on her Xanga, “we’re not too much different from the gunman. We’re all capable of murder. We have the power to kill or to give life. We can speak death in our words, thoughts or we can speak life…” So as crazy as it may sounds, I pray and mourn the loss of a lost brother as well. Who knows, perhaps there were the few that reached out to the gunman and tried to help but inevitably it was not enough. I can go on and on about this one and my heartaches for those involved.

    I hope that going forwards esp. after this sad event that we all choose to live and be a consistent source of encouragement to those around us. We can either lift a person’s spirit, change the atmosphere in an hostile environment, lighten the burden of someone, just by speaking words of truth letting them know that we value them as much as God values us.

    Overall, it’s difficult to understand why it occurred but I pray for healing in our hearts, challenge/encourage one another and an opportunity for God’s work to be done.

  8. Asian in general reflected by what media mainstream has said, “a poor, sad, sick”. This poor, sad, and sick Cho is no different than his group; poor, sad and sick Korean or poor, sad and sick Asian. Imagine that happened in this beautiful and glorious America.

    Let me ask Seung-Hui Cho these, Did you killed them (32 victims) because you can’t get laid? no white girl would date you? All the jocks in HS or VT judged you by what or how you look or sound (or RACE?).

    What is wrong? American society that is PREJUDICE toward you? American Culture that prohibits Asian male to date any race but supporting Asian females to better their future by marrying white or black dudes? American Media mainstream that only pictures Asian male as either a Jackie Chan (a funny Kung Fu Actor but can’t speak english) or a John Hung (a mentally challanged looking Asian-wannabe American Idol-but can’t bang). There are many question that I want to ask you but you already dead! I felt your angers, I heard that cry before, and I been rejected as man, I hates those people that made fun of you. I went to see a counselor and she was an ignorant African American and I ignored her advice because she think I’m helpless anyway. Another retro discrimination that I felt lately in this country. I been there before Seung-Hui, I moved on, and now I am in overseas serving the basic values that you hates and killed, Freedom. I am sorry for not being there and confront what you can’t, I am sorry for not taking you to see other Asian girls that might more receptive toward your behaviour, I am sorry for not defending you when those jocks made fun of your deep voice, and I am sorry for not telling you that stripper is waisting your money by not dancing for the hour that you have paid. I am sorry!

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