Friday, April 27, 2007


The Ethnic Slant

I was astonished to read an editorial on MSNBC regarding the Virgina Tech massacre with the header: "Loving the US and Hating It Too." The deck reads: "For South Koreans, the story of Cho Seung-Hui underscores a nation's ambivalent relationship with America."

Oh, really? And exactly how does a mass shooting in America underscore how "ambivalent" South Koreans feel about Americans?

But behind the Korean public's fascination with the tale of a native son who made good before making spectacularly bad, was the ambivalence of the country toward the United States. Koreans have long had a love-hate relationship with America. Young people there routinely take part in protests against the American presence in their country and what they consider its unilateralism, but at the same time see the country as a true land of opportunity.

So, South Koreans look to America for opportunity, but also harbor anti-American sentiment and this has exactly what to do with a mass murderer? You mean that it's just a short step or even a short leap between protesting American policy and . . . killing innocent students?

I suppose the visceral reaction I had is akin to the one felt by those who believe in the right to bear arms in the US, or even those who were annoyed once again to learn that video games were being blamed for Cho's actions. One report even blamed the movies. And I, the occasional gamer and movie goer, was similarly vexed to watch what are generally harmless forms of entertainment once again considered the cause for a psychopath's actions. But the above MSNBC editorial struck a raw nerve in me.

Is it really right to look at the deranged actions of one person and place it and him in the context of his community? Do we really need to learn that 1) Cho killed a bunch of people and 2) Koreans like to protest America? Are these things naturally linked in some sort of logical manner? Perhaps so, if we read the journalism that details how Koreans don't "talk much" to their children, pushing them, instead, to succeed. (Oh, those cold Asian parents).

Cho's isolation as a youth may have been exacerbated by the strains of the Korean immigrant life, sociologists said. Parents, working one or two jobs to provide for their families, often have little time to spend with their children, let alone have meaningful talks with them. Cultural stigmas make it difficult to deal with the mental illness or emotional stress of a child.

And then I got to thinking, when, in reading the analysis of other spectacular crimes in a magazine article have I been encouraged to view a person's motives in the context of their culture? Obviously 9/11 comes to mind. I, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, read books, listened to NPR, read the papers in some sort of desperate attempt to "understand." And along the way, there were more than a few glib references to the Middle East as some sort of understandable generator of violence. As though there weren't more to the country than that.

In the case of Timothy McVeigh, I don't remember anyone writing about his "community" and how it had primed him to take the actions he did. Instead, I remember reading how he was deranged, and which philosophies influenced him. In other words, he acted "alone" and out of personal resentments. No one tried to examine his religious beliefs, the socio-economic group in which he grew up, or his race.

A long time ago in college, I remember reading an excellent book by Rian Malan titled "My Traitor's Heart" in which a South African journalist tried to uncover the motives behind black on white violence in his country. One observation stuck with me from that reading; Malan recounts how, when visiting the family of a murderer, the family itself claimed to have always found the murderer to be an odd person. In other words, he didn't fit in their community.

This is a point of view which you can also find in the many articles appearing after the Virginia Tech tragedy.

“From the beginning, he wouldn’t answer me,” Kim Yang-soon, Cho’s great aunt, told AP Television News on Thursday in South Korea. Cho “didn’t talk. Normally sons and mothers talk. There was none of that for them. He was very cold.”

Or this.

After hearing Mr. Cho read one of his sinister poems in a creative-writing class, dozens of his classmates did not show up the next time the class met, so as to avoid the young man, according to the teacher. This is what most human social groups do, when they collectively register a threat: they move away, socially and often literally.

To me, this kind of insight is far more helpful. Since I know what it's like to belong to a culture with very strong community ties (Japan), I know that feeling of wanting to take responsibility when a member of the tribe, so to speak, goes astray. But to turn around and examine the community as having caused the person to act violently, strikes me as ignorant and somewhat elitist. Is individuality only afforded to wealthy nations and their criminals, but not to everyone else who, in their poverty and ignorance, act in a Borg-like collective fashion?

I'm definitely a far less helpful person when I've had to ride the subway in the summer at rush hour for weeks on end. It affects me as a person, and I've no doubt that if you take this kind of pressure to an extreme degree, some people will be pressed to do things they wouldn't otherwise. But that's some people. In the case of Cho, it seems he was or became such a person. Others have suffered the pains of immigration and haven't gone on to commit mass murder.

And yet, I am also left with this dark observation. I spent the first Christmas after 9/11 in the UK. This was long before the Iraq war started, mind you. And I was stunned to hear just how much anti-American sentiment was voiced that winter. There I was, token American, all ears for anyone who wanted to air grievances. It struck me as a very dark thing to learn--while many decried the attacks, they also sort of "understood." It's not like I hadn't know that anti-American sentiment existed. I was very unsettled to hear, however, how much more vocal it had become after the attack. Perhaps this is the kind of viewpoint the author of the MSNBC article was taking. But without a little more context, it's hard to tell.

Until I hear something that persuades me otherwise, I'm sticking to the view that
this shooting isn't some kind of reflection of South Korean attitudes toward America; it's a mental health issue, made more complex by Cho's immigrant status.

As for the Korean collective grief and shame over Cho's actions--that's the kind of responsibility a community minded culture takes when one of their own has done something that they themselves find apalling. It is not, in other words, an act which "underscores" the deep seeded, private wish fulfillment of any sane person.

First posted at Japundit.

Hey Marie, I'm really glad you left a comment at my blog because I never realised you had your own blog too! I've always really enjoyed your contributions at Japundit. Japundit is one of those sites I can't stop reading even though I think it's a bit hit-and-miss - there's enough really good stuff in there to make it worth it. I'll be keeping up with your blog here too from now on.

PS I hope I get back to Japan one day too... I lived there for a year and a half (teaching English like everyone else does :) but only now, six months after I have left, am I realising how much of a hold the country still has on me, in ways I just can't explain.
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