2.5 months in Seoul, South Korea
Friday, April 20, 2007
VIT: Understanding the Shame

Like everyone else, my first reaction when I heard about Virginia Tech was shock, followed by worry and empathy for victims.

However, my emotions became more complicated when a day and a half later, I found out that the shooter was Korean. Like many Korean Americans, I couldn't help but feel shame and distress, feeling somehow implicated in the incident. In fact, I felt slightly sick knowing that all that carnage was caused by a Korean. Illogical? YES. But it was a natural reaction mirrored by many Korean Americans:

"I think we, as the Korean-American community, hold responsibility to a certain degree," Joseph Juhn said.

"I hope the mainstream American society at large would understand how sorry we feel." - Park Young Sup, president of the Korean Community Center in Doraville.

Objectively, this makes no sense. Why are Koreans apologizing? As Adrian Hong wrote in the Washington Post, Koreans aren't to blame!

Part of the reaction can be attributed to highly collectivist Asian culture, the ingrained emphasis on family and community. It resulted in emotional distress among the ethnic community after the incident, which Cho Seung-Hui's parents felt even more intensely (they were hospitalized for shock). The Virginia Tech shooting was especially highly publicized in the South Korean media. Many Korean officials expressed their apology and regret for the incident.

Much of the emotion, however, can be linked to the the model minority stereotype in America. As stereotypes go, it seems more positive than most. In fact, the image of the intelligent, hard-working, moral Asian is embraced by many Korean American households. Think Ivy League.. think i-banking and med school... Harold Lee in the movie Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. Personally, I grew up with cut-outs of news articles featuring Korean Americans' achievements on the fridge. and always had the vague sense that my high school and middle school academic successes were somehow adding to the prestige of the Korean American community.

Rather than trying to fight stereotype like many groups do, Asian Americans have embraced the idea of a model minority. The result is a strengthening of the assumption that every Korean is representative of Koreans in general. And Cho Seung-Hui, as a mentally unstable Virginia Tech gunner, now stands in the way of the ideal of the professional-career, church-going, compliant Asian.

Maybe it's time we got rid of the model minority stereotype anyway. The assumption that all Asians are anger-less, mentally healthy individuals seems to be a factor in Cho Seung-Hui's inadequate mental health treatment and his subsequent rampage. If any racial implications are to be drawn from the event, the episode has shown that the desire to appear a flawless minority in American society combined with the Korean stigma of mental disorders can have disastrous results.

No matter how positive it may be, the model minority stereotype needs to be de-emphasized, especially by the Asian American community itself. We need to accept that all races have their murderers, their mentally ill, their smart, and their dumb. Even Koreans.


posted by Jane @ 12:23 PM  
  • At 6:15 PM, Blogger Adrian said…


  • At 4:06 AM, Blogger chigiao278 said…

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Name: Jane
Location: New Haven, CT, United States
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