[Update: I stand by my piece, which is mostly a bunch of questions, rather than statements linking race and culture in the explanative way it is being taken. I merely pointed out that as an American working deeply in the education field for years now, and having identified just such problems (and seen them connected in the Korean-language media for years), that perhaps questions about culture, as related to specific conditions that surround child-rearing, education, being educated overseas, the taboo of discussing mental health in Korean society, etc. might not have played some role here, on top of the fact that many Asian and Asian American males indeed might have specific ways of feeling alienated in "white society."
Obviously, to even broach mere questions is deemed "racist" by many readers. Fine. I don't delete comments (unless they are abusive) and people have a right to come in and say what they want – that's why I blog, after all. Yet, before we start flinging around the "R-word" I hope people actually think about what I'm saying, and remember that what I said was that cultural context may be helpful as far as looking at context, but that "Korea" and the rest of the world should look at him as an individual. I spend half my post saying that, and the two need not contradict.
And yes, when it comes to the fact that most serial killers have been/are still white men, it does astound me that America seems to have trouble talking about this obvious fact, and mums was the word when Columbine happened. Yet, broaching the topic is going to get one accused of saying their horrendous acts were committed "because they were white," which would again, be not what I said. But pundits of all kinds of backgrounds have license to talk about the concerns of "black youth" as it relates to drugs or violence for years. I don't call doing so "racist" although some strains of it certainly can be.
For those who call such explanations as this "back-tracking," well, I guess you can call it what you like. I feel that despite the obvious difficulty anyone can have theorizing culture as a backdrop for what are undeniably individual actions, people are only reading one side of what I am actually saying, even after I have carefully delimited the extent to which "culture" can be expected to lead to culpability.
I speak as an educator who watches (and inevitably participates in) the nearly inhumane grind of the education system here, the extreme testing regime these kids are expected to endure, the harsh penalties meted to those who can't, the sudden skyrocketing of youth suicide due directly to mental health problems linked to academic achievement, and myriad other pressures that quite often lead to education in the US as a goal for Korean kids. And even in the Korean American community, the culture of such processes, as well as the patterns of culture do not necessarily end with a green card or an American address.
So, in that context, this does frighten me, and I think this incident, while extreme, does warrant reflection on some serious structural shifts in Korean education, the family, and other factors between which Korean kids get crunched in the middle. If you want to call such efforts or lines of thinking "racist", I can't stop you. Yet, I think it's significant, from this side of the water, to think about the fact that yes, he is not a white kid from Colorado, especially against the backdrop of what's been happening in Korean education in recent years, as well the socialization of males in Korea and Korean culture.
And since mine is an identity partially shaped AS an Asian American man, as well as an African-American one, I have a more direct interest in asking these questions. And if you think I am saying I lay claim to all the answers, I want to make very clear again that I don't profess to have them, and I don't consider culture as responsible for his actions here. But to assume from the very beginning that "it doesn't matter," when I think it may be worth looking at, especially given the copycat nature of high-profile suicides in Korea over just the last couple of years, I would hate for there to be a similar effect over there. Call it "racist" if you will, but mental health professionals have been saying for years that there are cultural factors when it comes to mental health concerns, especially in communities in which such talk is considered taboo. I guess to raise such issues in this context, no matter how carefully prefaced or qualified, is taboo as well.
So, are all Muslims terrorists? Clearly not. Are the vast majority of terrorists in recent years Muslim? Clearly, yes. I don't confuse the logic, yet it's easy to do. Yet, the mainstream media talks about the mindsets and motivations of many of the young men who get recruited up into horrible acts. To talk about "culture" as some generalized, essentialized force would indeed be "racist;" but to talk about the factors of poverty, religion, and the motivations for entering such groups isn't; they are reasonable questions. Do they dismiss the actions of individuals? No. People are all responsible for their actions. Just as we talk about the "culture of poverty" or in more recent years, have more elevated conversations about African-American culture and what often leads black male youth to join gangs, or commit crimes in ways that white males generally don't – I also don't consider that "racist." But is a black gangster responsible for his acts? Damn straight s/he is.
I find it unusual that it can be legitimate for me, as a student back at Brown in the 1990's, as an active Asian American and "multiracial" on campus, to listen to job candidates for the Psych Services position talk about the "special mental health needs of Asian American youth" and for Asian American campus reps to sit there and nod approvingly while they talked about educational and familial pressures, relate those to Asian American notions of masculinity and femininity, and a lot of factors that I mention in this article as clearly relevant, but merely broach the subject now is completely out of bounds. Unlike the mainstream American media, or whichever talking heads are on TV right now in the States, I've been thinking about something like this happening for years now, in a Korean context; I've actually wondered when and if something like this might happen, and how this may play out. I come at this from someone who lives and works in South Korea who works with kids in high schools, college, and alternative schools daily. And as I look at this both as an Asian American and an American living in Asia, I don't think cultural pressures and patterns can be so easily discounted out of hand, as mere "racism", and suddenly unworthy as points at least worth thinking about.
In the end, Cho wasn't just another white kid who committed yet another school shooting. But he also isn't the representative of Korea, nor his diasporic nationality, nor his supposed "race." He was a warped individual. I am simply saying that perhaps there are factors in his "warping" that may have had cultural aspects worth thinking about, especially for those of us concerned about the mental and spiritual health of both Asian and Asian American youth.
And that's where I'll leave it. If you're looking for "answers," keep looking, and don't think you'll find them here, or blame be either for professing to have them, or not having them. I don't, and don't claim to. I lay out some things to think about below, but mostly ask a lot of questions that I think are worth asking. And I am somewhat surprised that even broaching the topic, no matter how tentatively or awkwardly, is somehow "racist."]
This is sort of a followup piece to "The Walking Wounded" post that clearly is spurred on by the recent events at Virginia Tech, with the mass murder-suicide of Cho Seung-Hui, the worst in American history.
As I try to formulate a response, I do so while trying to stay true to my own intellectual convictions, while trying to make sense out of something that is far more complex than any single person can make out.
How will I interpret this? How can I? I can't profess to know the mind of the killer, nor work from information that I don't have. And the media speculation will go on and on, while the Korean media will work in "national shame" mode that is the necessary flip side of the extended "national pride" that is taken in anyone of Korean descent who does anything of note overseas.
I'm of two minds about this, but I don't feel my impulses are in conflict. On the one hand, I feel like this incident makes it worth looking at some of the social factors that very well could have helped determine one man's actions; on the other, we have to remember that Cho was an individual, and that the faulty logic that "Korea" is the bearer of collective guilt over this incident is just as flawed as Korea taking full responsibility for a member of its "own" who had been socially cast aside, as was the case with Hines Ward. My posts on the issue:
혼혈인 내가 '워드신드롬'에 짜증나는 이유 (in Korean)
한국 영어사전은 인종편견 전시장? (in Korean)
More interesting to me than the details of all this and trying to figure use the blunt tool of structural arguments and social psychology to tease out the subtle and complex motivations of an obviously troubled individual, are the implications this will realistically have for Korea tomorrow morning, when this hits the Korean public when it gets up to read the paper or catch the news over coffee and the morning commute.
This is a big moment – and I am thinking mainly along these two lines. There will be a lot of things worth thinking about, social problems worth looking at – but at the end of the day, Cho was an individual. And "Korea" can no more be held "responsible" for this horrible crimes than it could have been for Hines Ward winning the Super Bowl.
On the issue of someone like Hwang Woo Suk, the folly of setting him up as a hero and the irony of his inevitable fall was much more of a marker of the society in which he lived, because his status as a public figure depended on the collective mind and will of the public. He was not a true individual, but rather a figure created according to the needs of a government, media, and public who created him.
The shooter in Virginia was a Korean (the extent of his ties here having yet to be determined, regardless of when he apparently gained residency there), but he was also – and importantly – an individual. That is something that will be hard, but necessary, to remember over the days and weeks to come.
Cho Seung-hui will live in the national identity of Koreans forever. He is the anti-thesis of all the national "heroes" whom Korea imprudently lauds as extensions of the national character (again, Hwang Woo Suk), as somehow expressions of the positive character traits imbedded into the genetic material of Koreans itself.
Now, after this horrible affair, perhaps the faulty logic of those connections will be apparent. I wonder if the move will be away from that logic itself, or an ongoing circus show of national shame. I do hope that the logic of not performing the latter will be apparent. Strategically, the best thing to do would be for the South Korean government to express its remorse and regrets, make meaningful yet symbolic gestures expressing those sentiments, and move on. If an American did this while studying in another country, I would expect the same from my government. "That crazy dude has nothing to do with me."
But that's not the way this is going to go down, is it? At least at first.
There is going to be serious national shame, expressed through the shock of this "representative of the culture" – even if the kid had been living in the States most of his life. There will be Korean media pointing at the parents, expressions of shock that "a Korean could do such a thing" (despite the fact that violence in the schools and against women are actually rampant in Korean society), and the glee that many people here in South Korea have at pointing out "American" character traits whenever horrible things happen in the US will be inevitably tempered.
Because the flip side of the logic now applies, like a mofo.
Let me just say that I don't know the details right now, besides the basics of the shooter having been identified. Nor does anyone else at the present time, really. I'm writing, getting a million Messenger messages a minute, and don't have time to closely scan the papers as I write this, not that there's a lot of information, anyway.
In a way, I don't want to, as I want to write what I write clean, before the details make the issues temporarily more obfuscated, as they surely will. But in the end, will we ever know why Cho did this? Like the Columbine shooters, we'll speculate forever. Even when if and when we realized a concrete motive, how does one truly know when or how an emotionally fathomable rage becomes a horrible, inexplicable madness?
So I'll go with what I got, which is a lot of opinions about South Korean society, education, and social problems involving youth, education, and women in this society. I will say right now that I am extrapolating far too much from this incident from the git-go, but I think my lines of argument will tend to make more sense than the Chosun Ilbo or Hangreoreh will, or most "explanations" of this horrible incident. In a nation that wants to crack down on the rash of gang rapes and ongoing sexual violence committed against girls and women by launching a campaign against foreign porn sites as the main solution and logical conclusion, what, oh what, sense will the media make of Cho Seung-hui?
Let me just start by saying that I see a lot of social factors converging that might offer a social context – not an explanation – to this situation. It's also an excuse to talk about some social issues in Korea (since this is, after all, what this blog is about) and do some more productive hand-wringing than I think the mainstream Korean media will.
I wouldn't even be surprised if this is used as more ammo to show just how much America can "corrupt" good Korean youth. Just like Western porn is responsible for Korean boys (and girls!) conspiring to rape and sexually extort the victims that have made the news in a couple of pretty scandalous cases over the last few months.
And since my posts can tend to go on quite a bit, let me just list these topics, in no particular order:
This isn't new (HT to reader).
Several years ago, I was with a group of university administrators being given a tour by the US State Department, hosted by Fulbright Korea, and being given a tour by a respected mentor of mine when several of the administrators stopped to ask a question that seemed to be burning at them for some time.
"Why is it that Korean male students seem to have the most trouble adjusting to life in the US?"
Kind of surprised, but yet not, I and my mentor pressed further, and they explained that the students who had the most disciplinary problems of all their international students were Korean males. These representatives of large state universities all then cited incident after incident of Korean males threatening Korean students seen walking with a foreign man (a graduate student walking with her black professor – she received dozens of insults and death threats on her answering machine), physical conflicts with other graduate students over simple matters, and a some domestic violence in cases of Korean couples living on campus.
In that conversation, what came out is that many Korean men felt displaced and disempowered as males who lived in a society that catered to them, while in the US, those forms of automatic power and status – being male, rich, or having come from Seoul National University – mean nothing. And at the same time, Korean women experience a social liberalization compared to where they would often be in Korea; many Korean female friends and colleagues of mine who studied in the US cited how they felt constricted and uncomfortable (부담) when a Korean male would end up in a seminar with them, because often, the man would expect them to acknowledge or "respect" (인정) them. When they didn't receive it, and often were dressed down by people younger than them or female, or by the professor in front of the class, they often felt particularly frustrated. And that has been a big issue and has led to social conflict and trouble before.
And that is just about all I'll say on that.
Then there's the interesting fact that the record holder for the worst shooting in world history, Woo Bom-gon (우범근), is also Korean, this time a Korean national who lived in Korea. That's not in the least bit interesting? From about the only other site on the Internet I could find on this subject (there is exactly one I could find through Korean search engines, and that's a pretty weird site):
South Korean spree killer. Has argument with girlfriend. Being a police officer, Woo Bum-Kon robs the police armory and goes on a drunken 8 hour shooting spree through three villages, leaving 57 dead and 35 wounded before he suicides with two grenades in Uiryong. The Korean interior minister resigns. (28 Apr 1982.)
Sound familiar? So the top two spots for shooting sprees in history are now held by two Korean men. Hey – I just find this interesting. Is this information not somewhat relevant to the issue at hand? Don't know why the Korean media isn't picking up on this. Or maybe it will? This is another interesting fact to throw in with the others. Even The New York Times had a piece on it back in 1982.
Well before this incident, and with the high number of suicides and actually pretty gruesome serial murders that take place in this country without guns – and I've heard Koreans joking about this as well – people wonder what Korea would be like if guns were legal and freely available here. Given the recent spate of violence and suicide in the schools here, I also give a shudder.
Suicide is rampant in South Korean society.
It's the #1 cause of death in people in their 20's and 30's in Korea. And since I consider these incidents of mass murder as actually horribly violent forms of suicide – "take a few with you" – I think it's something worth thinking about. I've blogged about this extensively, especially as it's related to the education system. How do you add up the affects of parental, societal, and other kinds of pressure on Korean youth, the extent of which few American kids I know even come close to feeling?
I've already said enough about this that doesn't need to be rehashed here; it's better to just read them directly.
Violence against women is endemic in Korean society.
What would be called stalking or considered inappropriate is often standard practice here in terms of dating, sex, and marriage. I often cite the case of when I saw a man slap his apparent girlfriend as hard as he could, sending her head back with visible shock. In front of a police station in Chungmuro, where, as a photographer, I had made my haunt. I immediately walked over, shooting away with my motor drive, saying that "you can't do that" and that I witnessed it. He looked annoyed and ignored me, at which point I walked to the police station about 20 meters away and informed the older officer on duty of what I had seen, in fluent Korean. He seemed annoyed, but obliged to get up out of his chair, and he went over to the door, cracked it, observed the couple still fighting, and said, "It's OK. They know each other." After I asked him if "this is all cops do in Korea" and "shouldn't he go check?" he just told me to go home. He never even asked if she was in trouble.
That's a lot better than the incident, circa 2004(?), when a group of boys from some small town outside of the capital were convicted of serially raping 2 high school students (they had been in middle school at the time, if my memory serves) after one boy had had consensual sex with one of the girls but had videotaped it and used it as a weapon to make her sleep with other boys – up to 30 or 40, I recall – and also impress her friend into similar sexual service. When this was discovered, the girls were berated by police as having run a prostitution ring, and were called sluts and whores, while the parents of many of the boys as well as members of the community gave death threats to the girls' mothers for "ruining their sons' lives." And such stories keep popping up again and again here, while the tendency is to not punish the men at all, if possible. I personally attended a small protest around a large police station in relation to this issue, which many Seoul residents and the more enlightened did, to their credit, find reprehensible.
But the level of violence against women here, as many Fulbrighters have heard as they lived with Korean host families all across the country, in apartment complexes where you regularly hear women being viciously beaten and screaming at night – no one calls the cops, except for me, it seems – and the many times I've seen women just straight slapped around in public...the level of violence against women that is readily apparent if you live here is undeniable. I can't speak for all foreigners here, but this is something I hear again and again and again. And yes, there is sexual and domestic violence everywhere in the world, but this is a place where I can't even count on two hands the number of times I've seen a women slapped down in public. And no one does anything. How much is a woman's body really worth here?
Other factors? In the end, we just can't know.
So it's not even clear how much time Cho spent in the US, although it appears he has spent a considerable amount. The information is changing by the hour. How does one sum up one's connection to culture(s)? But I do think it is worth at least mentioning the factors that often affect Korean men living as foreign students in the US, the pressures that come from living in one of the least happiest developed societies in the world, where I argue that the mental violence of the repressively harsh developmental dictatorship has finally started to find expression, even as the pressure cooker that is the failed Korean education system sends more and more Korean students overseas at an earlier age, to experience more stress and even higher parental expectations.
What can we make of this? Well, it just strikes me that the motive for a male Korean student to commit this heinous act apparently includes being feelings of revenge against his girlfriend and was precipitated by a fight with her.
Beyond that, one can't really speculate. One can only talk about factors that might illuminate. But speculate and make specious extrapolations the Korean media will, and I assure you, dear readers, that they won't stop at mere speculation around social factors, but there will be a slew of culturally essentialist assumptions that lead to really suspect "conclusions" as to what the "real problem" was.
It will get more complex if he turns out to have lived most of his life in the US. Then, the onus of cultural responsibility can and will be shifted to "America."
If his ties to Korea are stronger, then perhaps his parents will be blamed for his actions. They will be anyway. Although it is not a nice thing to foresee, I wouldn't be surprised if other suicides out of shame come from this, especially if "national blame" gets shifted to the individual, and by extension, the parents.
But sometimes, we just can't "know." The pathology of the individual isn't something nations should be responsible for, because this isn't a logical or fair thing to do. If I go out right now and kill all of my officemates and then blow up a building, much will be made of my political leanings, little "signs" from the scribblings on my blog here, and most likely the anger I had after Katrina and talking about the song "Bin Laden Didn't Blow Up the Projects."
But maybe it was me. Me who was crazy, me who wanted to take out my anger in a horrible way. Is my nation responsible? Is Bush? Are my parents? Was it because I played Sniper Elite on my Xbox, or Halo 2? When the process of going over Cho's life with a fine-toothed media freakout ends, I'm sure we'll see a lot of such explanations. But in the end, I don't think we can ever know.
How does one know the face of madness like this? If we could, wouldn't it be easy to spot and prevent?
However, this incident leaves a lot to think about. Not the least of which is the fact that the linking of "national pride" is just about as useless as the linking of "national shame", but the cultural logic of this is far from out of favor.
Perhaps if one positive thing comes out of this, it will be a national discussion of a lot of these issues, and if we're lucky, people will be even asking the question, "Does 'Korea' even really need to feel responsible for this?" One might even see an angry rejection of this "national shame" – which in some ways, I think would be healthy; psychologically, it may be useful and hence, inevitable.
In the end, this will be the beginning point for a lot of different discourses around culture, race, and nation. People can and should now talk about all the things that very well may have gone into influencing one Korean man's way of expressing his anger, however inappropriate that may have been. There are cultural patterns to things that are caused by clear and present structural influences, customary and culturally-informed modes of interaction, and a great number of things.
But that doesn't mean "Korea" is responsible. Thinking about both factors will involve walking a subtle line that will be very, very easy to cross.
I just hope the conversation can be more elevated than some of the things I can imagine being said about this incident, this one troubled man, and the culture of which he was, to some extent, a part.
A few more thoughts...
And on the American front, things are still swirling. How will race, gender, and sex play into this, as well as the stereotypes of Asian Americans in general and Korean Americans specifically?
One thing that occurred to me was that I'm sure Arab Americans are breathing a sigh of relief that the shooter was not of Arab descent or Muslim. That's the last thing the Arab community needs in the States.
I'm sure most people were expected the shooter to be a white male, as almost all mass murderers in recent years have been. What is interesting is the fact that the mainstream American media has never made much of the fact that serial killers are almost exclusively middle-class, white men. The FBI and criminal psychologists have this as a base assumption; interesting that in the public mind, this is not even a question. Imagine if nearly all serial killers were Korean; or Arab; or black; or female. Then, it would mean something, right?
The gun control lobby will have a field day with this, while the NRA will likely emphasize (thanks, Jacco, for changing my mind about this) the kid's immigrant status and the fact that it wasn't the gun who killed those people, but an immigrant on a visa. Yes, people kill people, and it's not just the guns; but is sure is easier with a Glock 9mm with a low trigger weight that pops off bullets as fast as your index finger can flex.
And back in Korea, I really hope that after the nation has gone through the expected paroxysms of guilt and shame, that some South Koreans will tire of it and say, "OK, enough. Why do I have to feel bad about some crazy kid who cracked? It's not my problem." And I think I'd feel the same way; I'd have to agree.
From there, if that happens, the real interesting questions and debates can begin. More than anything, I hope that this might be what it takes to partially break the foundations of national identity into smaller and more interesting parts, ones that can be digested by a logic other than the dichotomy of "pride and shame" and into something more complex.
An even more unlikely hope will be for the Korean media and by extension, a large part of the populace, to move past the crude and problematic stereotyping and categorical thinking that defines a lot of the discourse around foreign others, and even Koreans themselves. Perhaps now, the logic that because the murderer who dumped a girl's body in Ansan Station turned out to be Chinese means that "Chinese are dangerous" will now become suspect. Or that "Arabs are dangerous and terrorists" if the shooter in this case had been Arab, or that "America is dangerous" because of this incident, when it's much more likely that you'll be killed in a car accident than shot by a Crip in a driveby or even a crazed killer in a school.
Because by extension, that would mean that "Koreans are dangerous killers" who should be avoided, or "are all about to snap." I doubt Koreans would accept that, as well they shouldn't. I just hope that this can translate into the realization that the logic is equally flawed the other way around.