Reaction to the Virginia Tech tragedy – Today I turned 34. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem all that important considering the fact that over thirty people lost their lives at Virginia Tech just two days ago. No, let me rephrase that: thirty-two people had their lives taken from them by an individual who, unwilling to face what he had done, then took his own life. The story is all over the news here because, as most people know by now, the shooter was a Korean national.
When I first learned this I thought of a man with whom my wife once worked. He had spent most of his childhood in the States and moved back to Korea after finishing university. Apparently he had a very hard time adjusting to American society and was very bitter about his experiences there. I felt sorry for him when I heard this—he was going to have to deal with this bitterness for his entire life. Like Cho, the VA tech shooter, he went to the States at a young age. I remember thinking at the time that it was a bad age to move to another country—old enough to understand and be affected by the cruelty of other children but not old enough to be secure enough to deal with it. Part of me wonders if this is what happened with Cho.
But this, like any other attempt to understand why this happened, is an exercise in futility. I’m sure there are a lot of young people who move to the States and have a hard time fitting in, but how many of them massacre over thirty people? I read that he had girl problems as well—who doesn’t? You can try to put together the pieces of the puzzle, but you will never be able to create a picture that is going to make sense. We can look at his writings, we can ponder the meaning of “Ismail Ax,” we can talk about cultural factors. But in the end there is no sense. There is no meaning. There are no answers.
So why am I writing today? I don’t know. A lot of things are going through my head right now, and most of them were triggered by a remark I heard on the news last night. The final story of the evening was the revelation that the VA Tech shooter was a Korean national. While the anchor did describe the incident as a tragedy, it was a typical news report—that is, more or less objective. But as is often the case, the anchor made a subjective, editorial remark at the end of the report: “Hopefully this will not lead to racism” (if this sounds familiar to some of you, yes, I was the friend who emailed the Big Ho with that remark).
My immediate emotional reaction to that remark was anger. I felt it before my brain had processed the information and tried to figure out why I should be angry. After a moment, though, I realized that I was angry because the anchor had taken that golden opportunity—an opportunity to reach out and say something human about the tragedy—and turned it into an “image management” moment. No doubt it was scripted, but that doesn’t change anything. Why, of all things, did the anchor say that? Why not say something like “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families.” I would have even understood, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the gunman’s family.” Because, honestly, I can’t imagine what they must be going through right now. How do you live with something like that?
Yet instead of saying something humanizing, instead of reaching out, she chose (or was instructed) to go into damage control mode. Of course, Korea has issued statements of sympathy and condolence, and there is no doubt in my mind that people here are shocked by this tragedy. But there is also no doubt in my mind that they are shocked more than they would have been had the shooter not been Korean.
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Korea will probably not be surprised by this. Just as Koreans identify with foreign athletes of Korean descent when they win a championship (Hines Ward, for example), they also identify with people of Korean descent when those individuals do something horrible. A lot of people here simply have a very hard time seeing people as individuals rather than representatives of a group—in this case an ethnic group. This is not inherently a bad thing, although most Westerners will see it as such. This tendency to identify with the group over the individual is simply a different way of seeing the world and, just like the tendency to identify with the individual over the group, it has its advantages and its disadvantages.
One of the advantages is that Korea, as a nation, can pull together in times of crisis. Of course, any nation will pull together in a time of crisis, as world events have shown time and time again, but in Korea the crisis threshold is much lower than elsewhere. It may take something like a 9-11 to pull the entire United States together (and even then, when you have Americans turning on fellow Americans, you have to wonder if the entire nation is really pulling together—or just being pulled apart), but in Korea all it takes is an appeal to patriotic spirit to spur people to action. I remember when the government here called for people to sell their gold jewelry to increase the nation’s gold supplies. I was impressed at how many people responded. Granted, it wasn’t an entirely egalitarian movement (i.e., the rich didn’t do as much as they could have), but I can’t imagine anything like that happening in the States.
The disadvantages, of course, are simply the flip side of the advantages. While Koreans have the ability to pull together and act as one, they also have difficulty recognizing individual choice and freedom. The assumption that people in the States are automatically going to leap to racist conclusions after the Virginia Tech shooting comes from the fact that this is the way most people think here. If a foreigner commits a crime in Korea, it is not the misdeed of a troubled individual, it is an attack on the Korean people by a foreign power. The inability to distinguish individuals from groups leads to many molehills becoming mountains.
It is this same way of thinking that makes concepts like the “Korean Wave” possible. Middle-aged Japanese women going crazy over the nauseating Bae Yong-jun? It’s the Korean Wave. Four Korean footballers take the English Premier League by storm? Korean Wave. Troubled young man kills thirty-two and then takes his own life? Korean—oh, wait. I’m sorry if it seems like I am making light of the incident here, but I am not. I am in fact quite serious. The same type of thinking that allows Korea to throw a national party when a half-Korean American football player wins the Super Bowl (all by himself, from what I hear) also throws the nation into a panic when a Korean national is the perpetrator of the United States’ deadliest shooting ever. This is why I cringe every time I hear someone talk about the Korean Wave.
Does Korea have anything to worry about? Kevin says no, and I agree with him. Most Americans are going to realize that Cho was acting as an individual, not as a Korean (whatever that might mean). I don’t think there will be any anti-Korean retaliation, but even if there is it will only be by inbred, ignorant hicks who are just looking for an excuse to hate anyone who doesn’t have the same color skin as them. But, to be perfectly honest, I can’t really see that happening either. Every English-language report of the incident that I have read has indeed mentioned his nationality, but only as another biographical fact, not as a decisive clue to the puzzle. People are searching for answers in his writings, in his relationships, and in his social history, not in his ethnicity.
What happened at Virginia Tech was a tragedy, and I hope I don’t seem insensitive for moving away from that to focus on something that might seem very trivial in comparison. The truth is that I don’t know what to say about the tragedy itself. The thought of such senseless loss of life makes me want to cry. That is about all I can come up with right now. The Korean reaction to the tragedy, though, is something to which I can react, and that is why I have made it the focus of my entry today.
I spoke to my mother this morning, and one of the things we talked about was this tragedy. I mentioned the Korean media’s reaction to it, and she said she understood why they might say something like that, even if they ultimately had nothing to fear. I suppose the reason it bothers me so much is that I live here and have to deal with this way of thinking on a daily basis. Will anything change because of this? Probably not. Kevin (in the entry I linked to just above) predicts that people will either latch onto any instance of anti-Korean violence as proof of their paranoia or, in the absence of such incidents, quietly forget about the issue without ever admitting they were wrong. Unfortunately, I think he’s right.
Ultimately, the Korean reaction to this tragedy goes far beyond the tragedy itself. it is just one example of a way of thinking that, while not inherently bad, can be misapplied. I keep saying that this way of thinking is not inherently bad, and you may be wondering why. I’m not attempting to be a cultural apologist. I just refuse to place the blame on a certain way of thinking, no matter how different it may be from the way I was raised.
So how could this way of thinking be applied positively in this situation? Well, Korea could stop focusing on fears that her image will be tarnished and come together as a nation to reach out to the family of the shooter, for one. I can’t really say what the national consensus on this family is at the moment, but given the general reaction to the tragedy it might not be all that good. In an article on CNN, for example, one Seoul resident is reported as saying, “But to find out that he is a Korean, I am ashamed and confused.” The shame and confusion, of course, are two different reactions based on group identification—shame because the actions of a member of the group have tainted the image of the entire group, confusion arising from an inability to understand how someone with whom the individual identifies (as part of the group) could do something so alien to the values that the individual perceives as sacred to the group. Of course, Koreans do not routinely express their shame at being Korean when a Korean commits a crime against other Koreans (the same goes for positive identification). Only when the group comes into contact with the Other does the group identification come into play.
I could go on in this vein, but I am already getting away from the point. The point is that many Koreans see this incident as a blight on the group’s image, something of which the entire nation should be ashamed. It is not a stretch to assume that Koreans will feel ambivalent at best toward the gunman’s family. Some might even hesitate to reach out to them for fear of being further associated with the tragedy—that is, if the Korean community were to pull together to support the family, outsiders might see it as “closing ranks.”
Or not. What do I know, right? But I do know this: the same group identification that is being applied negatively right now could be applied positively here. Instead of reacting in fear at what this incident will do to the group’s image, people could reach out in sympathy and love. Pulling together as a people doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But when that pulling together means building walls—be they defensive fortifications or not—it becomes isolationism, frog-in-a-well-ism. Don’t assume the worst and go on the defensive. That’s all I want to say.
And I’ve said far more than I had expected or wanted to, which probably means I’ve said too much. My prayers are with all those whose lives were torn apart by this tragedy. Healing is not going to come quickly, and it is not going to come easy. It will still be far off long after this story leaves the news and becomes another statistic in our tragic history, long after most of us have moved on with our lives. Today my thoughts are with those who, in a way, will never be able to move on.