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The Korean-American Burden

New America Media, News Digest, Aruna Lee Posted: Apr 18, 2007

Editor's Note: The killings at Virginia Tech by a South Korean have stirred feelings of humiliation and anger in the Korean-American community. NAM writer Aruna Lee takes the pulse of the Korean-American press.

SAN FRANCISCO While the tragedy at Virginia Tech has stunned the nation, for the Korean-American community the news that the shooter was one of their own has caused both shock and humiliation. Many say they fear a backlash against Koreans in retaliation for the murders.

candleOn April 17, one day after the shooting, news reports identified the shooter as Seung Hui Cho, 23, a U.S. resident alien from South Korea. A senior at Virginia Tech majoring in English, Cho has been described by classmates and professors as a loner who rarely spoke. Reports stated that he had been undergoing treatment for depression prior to his deadly outbreak.

The Korean blogosphere filled with rumors that Cho's parents committed suicide following the news of his crimes, statements that the Korean embassy in Washington, D.C. insisted were false. Bloggers also wrote of their anger and remorse over the news of Cho's rampage. Some denounced Cho as a murderer who destroyed the image of the Korean community.

Others tried to learn more about Cho through the Internet. A statement on one Korean blog, purportedly attributed to Cho, read simply "hurt... sadness; all the worse because I can't tell anyone. I hate this situation."

South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun released a statement immediately following the announcement of Cho's identity. "We are shocked by this unimaginable tragedy. I want to extend my personal condolences to the bereaved families and my prayers for the quick recovery of those injured."

korean americans mourningYet while Koreans have expressed their sympathy over the deaths at Virginia Tech, many are also afraid they will become targets of revenge attacks aimed at the Korean community. These fears are felt all the more deeply as Korean-Americans prepare to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the riots that erupted in Los Angeles, which targeted Korean-owned businesses.

Korean media in Washington, D.C. reported that a majority of Korean businesses had closed early following Cho's identification. A report in the Chosun Daily noted that Korean students at Virginia Tech locked themselves inside their dorm rooms, too afraid to come out. The same report stated that some Koreans had even begun preparing to leave the country.

There is also a growing concern among Korean politicians and families that the events at Virginia Tech will negatively effect ongoing deliberations over a visa waiver program for Koreans coming to the United States.

Other Koreans say they are bothered by the media's fixation on Cho's nationality. Kathy Song, a reporter with the Korean-language daily Korea Daily in New York, says she worries that this will only increase racial prejudice towards Korean-Americans.

According to Korean news sites, Cho's family left behind a difficult life in Korea, coming to the United States, where they opened a small laundromat in the Washington, D.C. area. Their long hours and Cho's inability to speak Korean complicated communications with his parents, something Korean psychologists say increased his feeling of isolation and depression.

Hana Lee, a South Korean student at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Korea Times in Los Angeles that many Korean students feel isolated on American college campuses. "It's easy to feel lonely here if you don't have friends because of the culture, which stresses individualism and independence."

Hilary Finchum-Sung is an academic advisor at University of California, Berkeley who studied in Korea for several years. She speculates that given their work schedule Cho's parents might not have had the time to adequately address their son's psychological issues. "I know this happens a lot, and can cause loneliness and depression to develop as well as anger issues."

The suicide of Korean student Ji Un Lee, 18, earlier this year in Tacoma, Washington, is a grim reminder of the emotional stress Korean students sometimes experience. Like Cho, Lee felt isolated from her college community, while her anxieties were compounded by pressure from parents and family to succeed.

Dong Woo Seo, a physician at Han Byul Mental Hospital in Seoul, says that although these kids can sometimes appear to be quite normal, the pressure they feel can turn into deep seated anger and frustration.

Though mental health issues remain a taboo for many parents in the Korean community, Seo says the tragedy at Virginia Tech may serve as a reminder that they need to be more aware of emotional and psychological pressures their children face.

As a token of their regret and sympathy, the Korean- American Coalition, which represents Korean organizations throughout the United States, has created a fund for the victims of the shootings. Sponsors say they hope the Virginia Tech Fund will help ease some of the suffering of those families affected, and help to begin the healing process.

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