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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Asians on edge after Virginia deaths


Like many people last week, I was glued to the television as news of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech unfolded.

I recalled my family's anxious moments in 1966 as we waited to hear from my older sister, who was a student at the University of Texas when Charles Whitman killed 16 people and injured 31 others.

I was watching the news from Blacksburg, Va., when I heard those ominous words from a reporter at the university: "The suspect is an Asian male."

Suddenly this heinous crime took on a new dimension. And like many people of Asian descent in this country, I began to worry about a possible backlash after Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself.

Though Mr. Cho had lived in the United States since he was 8 years old, initial media reports focused on the fact that he was a South Korean national. Headlines in several major newspapers used "Korean" or "Asian" in headlines. Reporters in South Korea interviewed Mr. Cho's great-aunt, a woman who had not seen him since he left the country. CNN interviewed a Korean-American psychologist and asked if Koreans were more prone to mental illness.

The New York Times published a story that suggested Mr. Cho may have been influenced by the Korean film Oldboy, directed by Park Chanwook. The South Korean government issued an apology to the people of the United States for the actions of Mr. Cho.

The Asian American Journalists Association put out a media advisory stating that race should be used as an identifier in stories only when it is pertinent. After the advisory was issued, the group's national office received more than 100 e-mails, letters and calls – most of them negative, according to Janice Lee, the association's deputy executive director.

"Some accused us of being racists," she said.

Is Mr. Cho's race a part of the story, or is the story that, as Asians, we will always stand out?

Why is race an issue for Mr. Cho, but not for the UT sniper or Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold?

But it should be no surprise that the backlash has begun.

Some Korean merchants have told reporters they are bracing for the worst in Los Angeles, where civil unrest among the Korean, black and other minority communities erupted in a riot in 1992.

A few Korean churches have reported receiving threatening e-mails.

Reports of Asian students receiving threatening messages, being spat upon or having their car tires slashed are trickling in from different parts of the country. One Asian student in Alabama was badly beaten last week, but it's not clear whether that attack was related to the Virginia Tech shootings.

"It may be difficult to track these hate crimes, much less link them to what happened at Virginia Tech," said Ms. Lee of the Asian journalists group. "Many of these reports are just beginning to surface." There is a tendency among Asians not to go public or report such crimes.

But what has been very public are the anti-immigrant and anti-Asian blogs posted after the Virginia Tech massacre. One blogger has listed "major" crimes or mass shootings committed by "foreigners" in this country. However, these figures would be minuscule compared with similar crimes committed by U.S. citizens.

Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why Asian-Americans are nervous.

"Many members of the community have been apprehensive," said Thomas Park, chairman of the Korean American Coalition in Dallas and Fort Worth. "But there have been no problems in this area so far."

Mr. Park also said the Korean Council of Churches and Pastors' Association held a memorial service for those affected by the shooting Sunday at the Binnerri Presbyterian Church in Richardson.

"Korean-Americans, as all Americans, are shocked and horrified by the senseless killings that occurred at Virginia Tech and grieve for the victims and their families," Mr. Park said.

Chong Choe, president of the coalition, said that while the crime was horrific, "we must understand that it was the act of one individual who happened to be Korean – not because he was Korean."

"The shooter could have come from any country – and the outcome would have been the same. It was a horrible, horrible thing. His race was not a factor. But what was a factor was that this young man had some serious emotional problems."

Mr. Choe also explained that the Korean-American community has two perspectives on the shooting.

"The first generation tend to take on the responsibility of the entire community," he said.

"It is part of the Korean culture to act on behalf of the collective consciousness – in other words, the actions of one Korean reflects on the entire community," Mr. Choe explained. "Perhaps this is why the Korean ambassador to the United States felt it necessary to apologize."

It is this same mind-set that led South Koreans to demand an apology they never received after a U.S. serviceman struck and killed two young girls in South Korea during the 2002 World Cup. The serviceman was driving a tank along a country road and did not see the girls.

However, Mr. Choe added, second-generation Korean-Americans understand and accept that one can act independently of the community.

"The actions of one Korean does not necessarily reflect on the rest of the community," he said. "And this is what many of us follow."

Mr. Park and Mr. Choe both said the media's interest in Mr. Cho's ethnicity is understandable.

"People were hungry for any information. It was a part of the story," Mr. Choe said. "The trouble is, it was not the only story."

He's right.

As a journalist, I understand the need to immediately feed the public's thirst for any and all information about Mr. Cho. But I can't help but feel that some in the media missed an important part of the story.

Mr. Cho's history of emotional instability has been well-documented. Yet he had no trouble going to a store and purchasing guns and massive amounts of ammunition.

This is as much a story about the state of this country's health-care system and lack of gun control.

I think this says more about what happened at Virginia Tech than whether Mr. Cho played video games or watched a violent movie.

But don't get me wrong. I'm sure race played a role in Mr. Cho's life – just as it does in the lives of every immigrant living in the U.S.

A statement made by Mr. Cho's sister, Sun Kyung Cho, haunts me.

"This is someone that I grew up with and loved. Now I feel like I didn't know this person. ... My brother was quiet and reserved, yet struggled to fit in."

Those words could be used to describe many young people in the United States – regardless of race. [Link]

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