Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Chung: Asian-Americans dread backlash in wake of Va. Tech carnage

Chung: Asian-Americans dread backlash in wake of Va. Tech carnage
By L.A. Chung Mercury News Columnist
Article Launched: 04/18/2007 10:03:01 AM PDT
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All day Monday, reeling from the unfolding carnage on the pastoral campus of Virginia Tech, I wondered the same thing everyone else did: Who was this shooter? Why did he do it?
When I awoke the next morning, the name of the perpetrator of the nation's worst mass murder was all over the news, and I had another reaction: Oh, no. He's Asian.
Actually, there was a collective flinch out there among Asian-Americans.
Twenty-three-year-old Seung Cho, a troubled student raised in the well-to-do suburbs ringing Washington, D.C., reportedly left a note railing against "rich kids" and "deceitful charlatans." School officials identified him as Cho Seung-Hui in the order his name would appear in South Korea, where he was born.
Now, Cho may be just the name of a guy described as "a loner" who barely spoke in class, but for a number of us, he has a face that looks like our brothers, cousins and friends. That association alone is unsettling.
Mai Hoang, a former Oakland resident, remembered vividly - and with the same flinch - the 1991 hostage-taking and siege of the Good Guys store in Sacramento that involved three Vietnamese brothers and another Vietnamese youth. Six people died, including three of the gunmen, and 11 were wounded. With the large Vietnamese population in Virginia and the shootings taking place in the engineering building, she was afraid this bloodbath was at the hands of a Vietnamese-American student.
"I felt terrible for being
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relieved on behalf of my community he wasn't," she said.
How does one explain this jumble of revulsion, shame, sadness - and empathy for his parents - that arises among Asian-Americans? It's hard to articulate, but it does.
Elaine Kim, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, said she has received all kinds of e-mail from concerned Korean-Americans.
"Everyone is sensitive to it, worried about it," Kim said. "I said, `Don't take responsibility for it. You have nothing to do with it!'"
Among minorities, we're not alone.
A black colleague once shared his unvoiced reaction when the Washington, D.C., area snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were arrested four years ago: "Oh, damn it, they're black!"
Local Muslims report having similar feelings when violence breaks out, hoping silently that no Muslim is involved.
Kim said one of her e-mails Tuesday came from a young Jewish man who first stated, "I remember being disappointed that Dylan Klebold was Jewish," referring to one of the teen shooters of the infamous Columbine High School massacre. "And he asked what I thought about Cho being Korean," Kim said.
I can't say I know a single white male who read about Jeffrey Dahmer's serial killing and thought, "Oh, no, another white guy" - FBI criminal personality profiles notwithstanding.
As minorities, we all feel that we have to "represent," to use the modern phrase. That we have to show that our people are normal - shocked like everyone else, saddened like everyone else - and that we stand for sanity, for decency and, yes, as obvious as it is, that we have utmost sympathy for the victims' families.
We feel the need to represent - and also to distance ourselves. First up was the government of South Korea, which expressed its shock and condolences. The Korean American Coalition in Washington, D.C., extended its sympathies "on behalf of the Korean community" and announced a memorial fund for the bereaved Virginia Tech families.
It comes out of genuine concern. And out of fear of a backlash.
We're afraid others are only going to see the Asian part of the shooter's identity. Or his immigration status. We're afraid that the violence will somehow be ascribed to his Korean-ness, or that his legal permanent residency - as repeatedly mentioned in news reports - is relevant to his mad actions.
"They keep saying he's a `Korean national,' but he's been here since he was 8," said Hoang, the news editor who contributed to the blog, "Trip Master Monkey," a posting about the backlash. "He's Americanized."
Now and in coming days, this tragedy will spark discussions about campus security, gun control, mental health care. Hopefully, we can all recognize the red flags his professors and others saw.
Lucinda Roy, director of the creative writing department, described in a New York Times opinion piece the coming together of races, black and white, on the campus over the tragedy. Playwriting classmate Ian McFarlane posted on AOL News his wish that by releasing Cho's plays, "... this might help people start caring about others no matter how weird they might seem because if this was some kind of cry for attention, then he should have gotten it a long time ago."
Perhaps all will see themselves as a community devastated by madness, not color.
Contact L.A. Chung at or (408) 920-5280.

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