April 19th, 2007
Following up on my last post about Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman, the evidence that’s coming out seems to suggest that among other things, he felt ridiculed for his social class background (at least in comparison to the ‘rich’ kids that he railed against in his suicide note and video) and for being quiet -- but apparently not specifically for being Asian.
In other words, it does not seem that he was lashing out in reaction to incidents of racial prejudice or discrimination. I personally feel somewhat relieved to know that prejudice can now be removed from the equation. Why is that comforting to know? Because to me, it means that Asians and Koreans on the one hand, will not have to engage in the “blame game” with non-Asians on the other (specifically those who would have been the perpetrators of prejudice against him).
Nonetheless, a different aspect to the media’s coverage of his situation has gotten my attention and that of many others. Specifically, a lot of analysts, commentators, and observers have brought up the fact that he originally immigrated to the U.S. from Korea. One example of this is to refer to him in the traditional Asian way of using the surname first -- Cho Seung-Hui, instead of the American version-- Seung-Hui Cho.
Does his immigrant status make a difference in trying to understand what he did?
For many Asian Americans, the answer is no. First of all, even though he was originally from South Korea, he immigrated at a relatively early age -- 8. According to sociologists and demographers, that makes him part of the “1.5 generation” -- in between the first generation (that would be his parents) and the second generation (those born in the U.S.).
The distinction of being 1.5 generation also includes being raised and socialized primarily as an American. In other words, most of his formative schooling took place in the U.S. and by all accounts, he was perfectly fluent in English. In fact, he was so Americanized that he majored in English, rather than majors normally associated with Asian immigrants such as engineering, math, the ‘hard’ sciences, etc.
So why is it that so many people commented and even focused so intently on the fact that he originally immigrated from South Korea?
I think the answer is that they were consciously or unconsciously trying to culturally distance themselves from him. In other words, by emphasizing that he was an immigrant, they were basically saying “He was a foreigner, an outsider -- he wasn’t one of us, he wasn’t a ‘real’ American. ‘Real’ Americans would never have done something like this.”
That is, even though he was basically socialized as an American, much of America refuses to accept that he was in fact an American. And with underlying sentiments like that, they only function to reinforce notions of Korean Americans and Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. In other words and unfortunately, many Asian Americans still need to overcome the perception that they are not “real” Americans.
This particular stereotype exists even though many Asian American families have been in the U.S. several generations, even though we tend to be the most educated racial group in the U.S., even though we are the group most likely to have high-skilled jobs, and even though on the family level, we have the highest income of all racial groups.
Of course, there are specific ethnic differences in this generalization, but the point is that in virtually all other respects of what it means to be an “American,” we meet or exceed those standards. But for various reasons, most of which have to do with our skin color and distinct physical appearance to be perfectly blunt, we’re more likely to be seen as foreigners.
That is exactly what is going on in this instance, with the American media’s focus on Cho’s immigrant status. In trying to distance ‘real’ Americans from him, American society is only reinforcing the notion that Asian Americans are not ‘real’ Americans. In the end, even though we may grieve and cry just like the rest of American society, we still have to pay a price for what he did.
Possibly Related Posts:
- Asian Identity of Virginia Tech Gunman
- Immigrants and High-Tech Entrepreneurship
- Viet Nam Trying to Becoming High Tech
- Korean Reaction to VA Tech Shootings: Guilt vs. Solidarity
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