Now I know why…

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.

5 thoughts on “Now I know why…

  1. isn’t this just so horrifying, though? whatever the reason, that Cho felt compelled to commit this massacre, and that dozens of students and professors died? it’s just so horrifying.

    my editor asked me to write a story on this, and i just finished it, writing hurriedly and pouring an uncommon amount of emotion into a magazine article.

    there are so many questions.

  2. I have to comment on a few of your statements here…

    “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.”

    Somehow I imagine they would. In fact I know they would. It’s not like they are singling him out because he is Korean. It’s just another detail about him, like the fact that he was 23 and an English major–and for most it carries no more weight than that.

    “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.”

    OK, I’m sorry if this comment aggravates me, but it does. The reason that America is “happy to label him Korean” is because he *is* (or should I say “was”) Korean. He was a Korean citizen who lived in the States with a green card. It’s not an issue of anyone “labeling” anybody anything, OK?

    The problem, of course, is that many *Koreans* (especially the media) are reading too much into it, and apparently you’ve bought into the hype.

    I’m not arguing that he wasn’t far more American than Korean, culturally speaking, I’m just a little annoyed that you’re making such a big deal over him being “labeled” Korean. It’s a non-issue.

    Sorry if this is a little harsh in tone, but this is something that has been bugging me all day (not just your post).

  3. Jade,

    Yeah, it’s nasty. Not so traumatic to me personally — I think, well, that’s a symptom of this gun problem your society has, and as long as both sides of the government pander to a loud, idiotic minority, you’ll continue having it. But it’s quite sad. I’d be curious to read your article… where will it be published?


    I don’t know that the British national thing would have been mentioned so soon, honestly. This was in the first reports on his identity. I’m not saying that it’s racist labeling, necessarily, but that placing that designation on him is of great importance to at least some people. And as the previous commenter, a Korean-American, suggests, there are reverberations of this in the Korean-American community — she was the one asked to write about it. The identification of Koreans with this is more interesting, but I’m not sure that the “labeling” is exactly a non-issue. I’d wager that if he were white, the nationality thing wouldn’t be one of the first things mentioned in reports on his identity.

    However, many more things what mostly bugged me was (a) gun nuts kneejerkingly defending gun’s widespread availability, (b) that they keep talking about his writing as if it’s a sign of danger (while, say, Jack Womack or Bret Easton Ellis or any number of writers write things much more violent than that, and don’t kill people), and (c)that some dolts are blaming the teachers for not doing something, when at least some teachers were reporting his weird behaviours to administration.

  4. I would agree with you if you are saying that the label was important to Korean or Korean-American commenters. As far as its importance to other individuals, I doubt it has very much. So why was it mentioned? For accuracy’s sake, I believe. Initial reports were that the individual was Chinese (since many assume that all Asians are Chinese).

    I still disagree about nationality being mentioned if the perpetrator had been white. I believe it would have been mentioned if the shooter had been a foreign national, simply as another biographical fact. I suppose the only way to prove this would be to find a similar incident where the perpetrator was a white foreign national, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    The brouhaha about his writing bugs me as well. As they say, hindsight is 20-20. I’m sure that if Womack or Ellis had murdered thirty people in cold blood they would be saying the same thing. It’s just people searching for answers.

    I just posted an entry on my site in which I go into more detail about my feelings. Maybe it will explain why I reacted a little harshly to your post here. (I’m a bit self-conscious about leaving links in other people’s comments, but you can just head over to my site and read it if you want–it’s on the front page now.)

  5. Charles,

    You may be right. I’m trying to think of a crime in which the perp was a white foreign national and can’t either. I am rethinking it, anyway. There’s an interesting book I’m reading now, about the history of race relations in America and of blackface minstrelsy, and some pretty interesting things are popping up in it, along with scathing criticism of the political correctness that underlies some criticism of things like mentioning his nationality/”race”. I’ll keep thinking about it.

    Yeah, hindsight and all that. In high school, I wrote things in my journals that were so horrible that the teacher should have sent me to the counselor. In fact, I wrote them to see whether he was reading the journals or not. It’s all art until someone snaps, I guess.

    (By the way, he was a horrible writer. It was like reading stuff by a pissed-off middle-schooler.)

    Do you mind if I link to your site in my comment? I think your thoughts are interesting and deserve to be read. Though, wait, the link on your name above is enough of a link, isn’t it?

    I’m working on an email responding to your post, anyway.

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