When the face of Seung-hui Cho, a k a Cho Seung-hui, a k a Seung Cho, a k a A. Ishmael, Ismail Ax, Question Mark, Spanky, a k a the Virginia Tech gunman, first flashed across the television screen, I felt my heart sink. Not just because of the thirty-two murders he had committed twenty-four hours earlier or because he was a South Korean immigrant–although for those reasons, too–but because, at that dreadful unveiling, he reminded me of a cousin of mine who died on his twentieth birthday of a drug overdose in someone’s basement in Austin, Texas. Upon his memory now lies another ghost, one of a mass murderer, the most notorious Korean American in history.
On second glance, my cousin and Seung-hui Cho don’t look that much alike–so what’s in a face? What’s in blood, race, nation, culture, folk? What’s in this moment when by some kind of spectral kinship I feel, suddenly, very Korean?
Across the diaspora, Koreans are asking the same questions, or at least are stuck in the same loop. President Roh Moo-hyun has expressed condolences and apologies on four separate occasions, saying, “I and my fellow citizens can only feel shock and a wrenching of our hearts.” South Korean Ambassador Lee Tae-sik suggested that Korean Americans “repent” for Cho’s crimes by fasting for thirty-two days, one day for each of the dead. Korean newspapers and diplomats worried that the Virginia Tech massacre would imperil US-Korea relations, particularly a proposed free-trade agreement between the two nations. The Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published an op-ed by Hong Sun-tae, a professor of business administration at Hanyang University, who, taking cues from both George W. Bush and corporate capitalism, called on Koreans to “make haste before the negative image of the Korea brand is embedded in people’s hearts and minds.”
But it is among Korean Americans that this sense of implication has been most keenly felt. The Korean American Coalition has established a Virginia Tech Memorial Fund to compensate the victims’ families. In Korean American churches parishioners whispered and wailed tearful prayers. At Virginia Tech and other colleges, Korean students fled campuses fearing retribution, while university presidents warned students not to direct their anger at “innocent members of the Asian Pacific American community.” As news of the killer’s background emerged, Asian American bloggers anticipated anti-Asian violence and cautioned the media against circulating Orientalist stereotypes about kamikaze killers, wronged honor and vengeful Asian males.
As it turned out, there were few reports of anti-Korean or anti-Asian violence, and apart from some xenophobic websites, the media’s relentless coverage has been largely free of the worst racial and ethnic stereotypes. (Instead, the focus was on Cho’s writing, hoping some mix of literary analysis and pop psychology will unravel the mystery of his madness.) But race still colors perceptions of the events. Cho’s hardworking immigrant parents–who, like my own, toiled as dry cleaners–and thoroughly assimilated sister (a Princeton graduate who works for the State Department) epitomize the “model minority” against which Cho’s silence and alienation seem all the more inexplicable and deranged. Race and culture, moreover, figured in Cho’s recent past. He was taunted by high school classmates for his broken English, which his college roommates assumed accounted for his silence, until they discovered, among other things, that their mute cohabitant was an English major.
Ultimately, though, Cho’s actions would be easier to comprehend if he had railed against white Americans or directed his fatal gunfire only at whites. For then Cho’s story would have neatly inverted the model-minority myth, replacing the racialized fantasy of perfect assimilation with an equally racialized nihilistic antagonism. But Seung-hui Cho did not provide us with such a story line, no chickens coming home to roost. Cho’s targets included Korean and Chinese students. He reviled “snobs,” “brats” with “trust funds” and a taste for “debaucheries” and “vodka and cognac,” but such resentment suggests class rage more than racial antipathy. His plays, Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, are populated with white or racially undefined characters, and their fury centers on sexual trauma rather than racial alienation.
Unlike the London bombings of 2005, Cho’s actions do not appear to be politically or ideologically motivated. Those terrorist acts prompted much hand-wringing over British national identity and Muslim assimilation, but in some sense the lines had been clearly drawn. Leftists and Muslim community leaders could warn of growing cultural and economic disenfranchisement; conservative nationalists could propose tightened borders and monoculturalism.
No such easily discernible agendas emerge from the Virginia Tech tragedy. Korean Americans are left with a figure we can neither completely claim nor completely reject–although some, like Adrian Hong in the Washington Post, are pushing mightily for rejection. Calling Cho a “deranged individual act[ing] on his own initiative,” Hong spoke for many Korean Americans when he said, “If our heads are hung low, this should be in grief, not in apology or shame.” Others have explained the outpouring of remorse in terms of Korean cultural homogeneity; UCLA anthropology professor Kyeyoung Park observed, “In Western culture there is an emphasis on guilt; in many Eastern cultures the emphasis is on shame.” But the tears in Korean churches evoke something else too: what literary scholar Anne Anlin Cheng calls the “hidden grief” of assimilation, the sense of loss and failure that haunts the model minority. What is evident to so many Korean Americans is that Cho was unmistakably one of us, and his experiences, up to and including those of April 16, were shaped, if not fully explained, by that identity. How much and in what way racial alienation affected his obvious insanity, we may never know. And so we are left with another stereotype–that of the inscrutable Asian, the eternal, unknowable enigma.