EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in New American Media.
All across America, no doubt, non-Korean Asian-Americans are now heaving a sigh of relief. “Asian,” after all, was the four-alarm-fire word we saw throughout the day after the shootings that took the lives of 33 people at Virginia Tech. The shooter was “Asian,” the news reports said. But who was this “Asian,” exactly?
Before the news identified the killer as Cho Seung-hui, a 23-year-old English major from South Korea, all ethnic backgrounds were up for grabs. A friend from a small college town on the East Coast, who is Chinese, called to say: “Please, please let it be some other Asian. We’ll be in deep if it’s Chinese.”
In a popular Vietnamese chatroom, Vietnamese college students were writing to each other to speculate. One said, “I have a bad feeling. It might be Mi’t (Vietnamese slang for Vietnamese).” Others wrote in advising each other on what to do.
The blogosphere buzzed with speculation on the identity of the killer. The waiting game was as tense as waiting to find out who the next American Idol might be. On another blog, debbieschlussel.com, Schlussel speculated that the shooter could be a Muslim Pakistani. “Why am I speculating that the ‘Asian’ gunman is a Pakistani Muslim? Because law enforcement and the media strangely won’t tell us more specifically who the gunman is.”
A Muslim Pakistani friend, an engineer who refused to have his name mentioned, emailed me to say, “If he’s a Paki and Muslim, we might all just pack up and go home. I’m praying that he is some other Asian.”
Let it be some other Asian! This was the prayer among so many Asian-American communities. And not just Asians.
“Every time there’s an incident like this, every ethnic group is on pins and needles,” said Khalil Abdullah, an African-American colleague. An Anglo shooter may be an individual, a loner, but God forbid a person of color goes on a shooting rampage. His whole tribe would be implicated. “I still recall my aunts when President Kennedy was assassinated. They were praying that it wasn’t a Negro.” Many ethnic communities do not feel that they belong to the core of the American fabric, Abdullah added. “The action of an individual can cancel out the good image of an entire group.”
Case in point: A Virginia Tech student and Chinese-American blogger was initially thought by many bloggers to be the culprit. He was reputed to have a penchant for guns and many photos of himself posing with his rifles. More than 200,000 people have visited his sites since the shooting and many left angry, racist epithets against Chinese. He told ABC, “Right now, pretty much the Internet thinks it is me… I am just interested in trying to clear my name.”
As a Vietnamese-American, I have always found the word “Asian” to be too generic to be a useful identifier. Asia is the largest continent with the largest and most diverse population in the world. In Asia, people identify themselves by their national or ethnic origin, not as “Asian.”
Yet, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, many of us–including myself–used the word to refer to any other “Asian” besides us.
In the end it wouldn’t have worked for very long. To be a minority in America, even in the 21st century, is to be always on trial. An evil act by one indicts the entire community. Whoever doubts this need only look at the spike in hate crimes against Muslims and South Asian communities after 9/11.
After the shootings, my best friend, a Korean-American lawyer in Washington, D.C., felt in his bones that somehow a Korean was responsible. He didn’t know why. But, “one thing’s for sure now,” he said, “we can safely lay the model minority theme to rest.”