He looks like one of us: broad cheekbones, full lips, olive complexion. Even the wire-rimmed glasses look familiar to me. He could be a younger brother or cousin. He could be my son.
Oh, no, well-meaning white friends say, Seung-Hui Cho has nothing to do with you.
Oh, no, fearful South Koreans and Korean Americans say, Cho doesn’t represent us in the least.
In fact, not only do Koreans disown him, but our entire species relinquishes responsibility. He’s a dehumanized “monster,” “wacko,” “sicko.” He’s a loner.
But I keep coming back to his image at this moment in American history when a Korean has never been so visible. I gaze at his Virginia Tech ID photo, and I wonder how someone who looks so familiar — so like family — could be so different.
Actually, I don’t think we’re so different. When I hear his life story and read his writings, despite what must be paranoid schizophrenic delusions, I begin to identify with the tragic figure of Seung-Hui Cho.
His photo reminds me of my struggle to learn English when my family arrived in Hawaii from Seoul, and of being afraid to speak in school. When we moved from Honolulu to Buffalo, New York, I remember nearly daily racist remarks in the school hallways and buses.
It was worse for my brothers. My brother Robert was eight, like Cho, when we emigrated, and learning English was far more difficult for him in the third grade than it was for me as a five-year-old. Rather than subject my brother John to first grade in a new language, my parents placed him in kindergarten with me. As they grew up, my brothers warded off bullying by playing sports, lifting weights, partying, and maybe getting into an occasional fistfight.
However, unlike Cho, we came from privilege. My father had advanced degrees and an established career. My mom, despite her hard-earned degrees, stayed at home to care for the three of us, determined to help us succeed and blend in. They renamed their sons after the Kennedys, and gave me a perky all-American name that was easy for them to pronounce. As we assumed our new identities, our birth names became middle names. We got English tutoring, and enrolled in music lessons, Little League, dance and drama classes, and SAT prep classes. By the time we were teenagers, we’d become the model minority: well-behaved, smart, and quiet.
But inside we were roiling. We questioned the pressure put on us to succeed. We were taken to the Korean church each Sunday, where clothing, jewelry, and cars seemed to matter more than beliefs and feelings. We were drawn to the American way of life, but couldn’t find the door to access it. We criticized Americans, “the rich kids,” for being superficial and materialistic, for their “debauchery,” at the same time we envied their freedom and pursuit of happiness. We didn’t know how to reconcile our Korean values of family, respect, and tradition with the individualistic America we were brought over here to exploit. We learned to dislike our thick eyelids and flat noses. We recognized Holden Caulfield’s phonies all around us. We felt like phonies.
If we questioned anything, “this SAT class is stupid — I don’t care what score I get, I don’t even want to go to college,” our parents would lay a guilt trip on us. “Be grateful you can choose. In Korea, you only get one chance. At your age, I woke up at 4 a.m. each day to study.”
By the time we reached college, we were angry at the inequalities and hypocrisies we’d experienced, frustrated with the pressures and restrictions put on us, and confused about our identities and values. Robert describes how he withdrew into alcohol, buzzed his hair, and was nicknamed “the sick one.” John, never academically inclined, dropped in and out of colleges, struggled to find a life path, lived with our parents, and died mysteriously at the age of 25.
Robert’s anger and frustration stemmed from a desperation for something more meaningful than the pre-med track he felt forced to be on. He’s an emergency room doctor now, married, and homeschooling his two daughters. He found meaning in life through his Christian faith. But he still looks at Cho’s photo and experiences a haunting sense of déjà vu, a “could’ve been.”
The gateway to the American dream is deliberately narrow. Robert and I squeezed through it, and despite the messy imperfection of our lives, we’re OK. I survived through grace, in the form of poetry, friends, and my husband and kids. John didn’t make it through.
And what about the families who emigrate without higher education, without savings, and without knowing English? What happens when you enter a business like dry cleaning, typically run by immigrants, that requires 60 to 80 hours of work a week? What if that business involves dangerous neurotoxins that raise the incidence of schizophrenia 200-300%?
What happens when your young son displays speech and social problems but otherwise does well in school? He gets teased and bullied but doesn’t complain to you about it. A teacher mentions “autism” but there’s no Korean translation for that word. Perhaps he’s been sexually abused, but how would you know? Anyway, he’s quiet, he eats, and does his school work. He goes away to college, and you hear little or nothing about any problems. This year he will graduate, and you hope he will go on to law school or do an MBA. After all, he’s an English major and likes to write. You came to this country in the hope of a good life for your children and grandchildren. What now?
Seung-Hui Cho was one of our own, and we failed to save him, and thus his victims. May this tragedy lead us toward greater compassion and understanding of the immigrant experience, class struggles, racism, environmental hazards, and mental illness. May we remember that we belong to each other, and when one suffers, so do we all.