I was wondering why my students were all so aware of those shootings in Virginia. Turns out the susopect is Cho Seung-Hui, whom they describe as a “Korean national”. I had to wonder whether he did his military service in the recent past, since the reports said that he was a Korean citizen, and since I also read that he was apparently a pretty good shooter (though he’d only recently bought the gun). I’ve seen guys come back from military service, shall we say, not quite “right.”
But it seems this Koreanness is more of a label. Nobody seems to know much yet, except that he’d been in the States the vast majority of his life. In fact, he’d lived in North America for a larger proportion of his life than I have, at this point – I emigrated to Canada as an infant (I was a British national at the time), but I have been outside Canada for 5 years now, longer than Cho could have been. If it were a British national who’d been in the US all his life who went on a killing spree, would the media be saying it was a British student? Somehow I imagine not.
The kneejerk reaction of gun nuts is so pathetic. Right to bear arms? Don’t we all have the right not to live in a place where (a) crazy isn’t dealt with in any effective systemic way, and (b) crazy can buy a gun without a problem, and (c) well, you know what comes next?
But one interesting thing is the description made of his behaviour in class in the interview linked in this article. One-word answers to five-minute-long questions seems so normal to me, now, having taught over in Korea for so long. Not just with kids who can’t speak English… with students who can, too, as Cho obviously could. That’s more interesting in that it shows how different American classrooms are to Korean ones, but that says nothing of Cho, who grew up in American classrooms. His writing (linked here) is a testament to how, disturbed or not, he was very much an American, regardless of the “Korean” label placed on him in the news. But it does interest me how the label of crazy, and cultural differences in behaviour, are important in signaling things like mental illness.
This also raises the question of cultural differences and about culture in terms of family background, though. With stigmas in Korean culture the way they are concerning mental illness — universal stigmas, but much stronger ones among Koreans I’ve known — I wonder about how much of this his parents sensed… not that they should be blamed, but I wonder how many warning signs he gave off — especially warning signs of a particularly Western sort — and how aware they were that something was wrong with him. I’m not blaming them, mind you… parents of any culture are loathe to see anything negative about their children, but male sons in a Korean family seem to me to get special treatment when it comes to excusing weird or bad behaviour — many older sisters and youngest sons have told me so — and how that relates to denial is an interesting question. But parents of crazy people the world around spend at least some time in denial. It’s natural.
Now, I’m not reading K-blogs these days, but I bet some of them are full of white expat teachers crowing about how yet another Korean has behaved badly, gone koo-koo, and confirmed their nastiest feelings about Korea. They would do well to note how this kind of thing doesn’t often happen here in Korea, whatever else does. I’m actually more curious now about what systems exist that prevent this kind of thing happening in a society where mental illness is so stigmatized that discussion is verboten. Besides gun control, what else keeps the crazies here from doing what this guy did, and what happens so often in the US (and, sometimes, in Canada too)? It’s an interesting question, especially noting the way I’ve observed that people who seem obviously mentally ill to me, are not considered that way by a large number of Koreans. (And I’m not just talking about crazy foreigners, whose oddness they chalk up to cultural differences, either. I’ve known people who were obviously mentally “unstable” in some way, and yet I seemed to be the only one who thought so.)
As for the way administrators reacted when his teacher reported his being apparently disturbed, it’s not surprising: administrators the world over are like that… and so it goes. They’ll do some spin to protect themselves, but finally nothing will change. Administrators’ jobs are all about things that have nothing to do with education, so it’s not surprising. But to say it’s all about “free speech” when the guy is disturbing all of his classmates… that’s so weak it’s not even funny. I think, if a teacher says, “This student is scaring his classmates and me,” and isn’t in the habit of saying such things about every random disliked student, then it should be looked into.
UPDATE: I did go ahead and peek at the K-blogosphere for a moment. Michael has interesting things to say about how, while shooting sprees don’t happen like this in Korea all the time, they have — he claims that the world’s worst on record did, in fact, though I am sure that there are worse, perpetrated anywhere in the British Empire, which simply were never counted as such — and about other issues in Korean society that may or may not link to it. He’s not just a foreigner snidely saying, “See? That’s Korea for you,” so I think his post is worth looking at, especially when thinking more generally about the dynamics of family issues in Asian-American subculture. The problem being that most Korean-Americans with comparable exposure to the same culture don’t go on killing sprees… and that relatively plenty of non-Korean-American Americans do this kind of thing.
I think it’s really interesting, and sad, that America’s happy to label him Korean, and Korea seems to have accepted the label, too.