What's "Korean" got to do with it?

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What's "Korean" got to do with it?

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<a href="http://www.printculture.com/index.php?memberid=101">by J Lee</a> | April 19, 2007

When I was growing up in the 80s, it often seemed that the world was holding its breath, keeping its fingers crossed to prevent some sort of nuclear disaster. The apocalypse that I imagined then had to do with the world going up in a mushroom cloud, because of polarization along national and political lines. But this next generation&#39;s experiences (as E Wesp pointed out in <a href="http://printculture.com/index.php?itemid=1363#1551">his comment</a>) have been punctuated by violence of a different type, enacted by one or a few individuals and relatively low technology.

I want to pick up a few threads of conversation, starting with the <a href="http://printculture.com/index.php?itemid=1363#1551">comment by ms</a> which addresses the idea of narrative and also points out that we have started this conversation with race. In our discussion and in many of the blog comments I have been reading on this side of the world, the use of the label "Korean" has been hotly debated, some arguing that the shooter&#39;s ethnicity may offer clues to his motivations, others charging that to invoke the term is racist. I am curious about how this label "Korean" gets deployed and what meaning it has. In other words, does it matter that he was Korean? What are the conditions under which someone&#39;s ethnicity becomes "visible" and how it gets worked into the stories we tell about why something happened, about who is responsible, and about our emotional relationships to the subject?

In a basic way, the label "Korean" subverts the popular stereotype of the angry white middle class male shooter. It provides a potentially different kind of explanatory factor, complicating questions about Cho&#39;s mental health, his upbringing, ideas about the expression of masculine anger, etc.

What I find interesting from our own discussion as well as <a href="http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-me-minorities19apr19,0,2127441.story?coll=la-home-headlines">other articles</a> is how minorities have reacted. Personally, I heard "Korean," "parents own a dry-cleaning business," "sister at Princeton," and "Centreville, VA" and unconsciously began constructing my own narrative of Cho&#39;s life, filling in the blanks with my own experiences growing up not far from Centreville (in a similar kind of suburb) and the experiences of friends. Parents sacrifice themselves for their children&#39;s education, teaching their kids to value educational success above all other types and in doing so lower their own status in their children&#39;s eyes. Cultural divides open between the generations. The children don&#39;t quite fit into mainstream American life but have lost touch with and respect for their parents&#39; culture. The alienation I imagine him to have felt confirms and strengthens my sense of my own alienation and my distance from what I see as the cultural center (however imaginary that notion of a cultural center may be). And on and on... In trying to understand his actions I construct for him an entirely fictitious reality which makes me feel (as he has become an extension of myself, my brothers, my sons, etc.) empathetic, invested, responsible, and guilty about the whole thing.

I think there&#39;s a certain extent to which these incidents become cautionary tales to support our individual and cultural fears: video games inducing violence, fears about repressed male emotion, xenophobia, education without moral center, etc. We all explain the world in the terms we understand, I suppose.

But, for the more difficult task... how does the label of "Korean" function on a cultural level, particularly here in Korea? This is a hard question to address, and I am a little hesitant to try to answer it, to (by virtue of having my little soapbox and being in Korea) seem like I have the answers. But, as E Hayot says (sorry to quote you here, E) "pontificating wildly about stuff you barely understand is what the internet is all about!" So here goes, my attempt to create context for you all out there. Kids, don&#39;t try this at home.

Why the ownership of this man as Korean by those here in Korea? Why not the urge to dismiss him as Americanized, or as a deranged individual, why the urge to place him within the boundaries of the label "Korean"? I&#39;ll throw out three contexts here.

Context 1: Koreans abroad (read: anyone with Korean blood), on the international stage, function in the popular imagination here in Korea in a way that Americans may find surprising. The average American probably doesn&#39;t know who Park Chan-ho, <a href="http://theyangpa.wordpress.com/2006/04/03/half-of-hines-ward-receives-prestigious-award/">Hines Ward</a>, Hwang Woo Suk, or Ban Ki-moon are, but they are important figures in the public imagination here, evidence of Korea&#39;s place in the global order, for better or for worse. I was in the bookstore a few months ago, shortly after Ban Ki-moon was named the new UN Secretary General, and there was already a biography of him written for children, using his life as an inspirational example of what kids could achieve. Where does this mentality come from? From a genre of history writing in which Korea is the passive victim of stronger foreign powers (China, Japan, the U.S.)? From some Park Chung-hee era idea of self-reliance? From some notion of the purity and homogeneity of Korean culture and language? From media which constantly rate Korea&#39;s performance in any number of arenas to other world powers? From the strength of the notion of blood? From a sense of social responsibility?

Context 2: The educational system here is under a lot of fire for various reasons which I won&#39;t go into. Many parents feel they have no option but to send their kids abroad, often alone or with only one parent. There has been a lot of discussion recently on the various pressures these families and kids have to face at a young age. Cho came to the U.S. in elementary school, with both his parents. Any speculation about the pressures on him as a foreigner, on difficulties adapting to life in the U.S., and about the potential reasons for his mental breakdown and feelings of alienation are going to flow towards the grooves already cut by the larger social worry about educational pressures and the education diaspora.

Context 3: I think the fear of reprisals against Koreans and Korean-Americans in the U.S. has to be read against the incidents of U.S. military personnel violence against Koreans in Korea. Every time a U.S. soldier is involved in an act of violence (rape, murder) there are protests and reprisals here (not widespread, from my experience, but I don&#39;t live near the army base). When an English teacher is caught using drugs or sexually assaulting a student, it is big news here, followed by calls for more regulation of foreign teachers. I think there&#39;s a kind of logic that is created by the way these cases have been treated here that would shape the expectation of what will happen to Koreans in the U.S. Thus Koreans may imagine, consciously or subconsciously, that Americans will similarly judge/ demand/protest against Koreans as Koreans do against Americans, if not in action then in belief and idea.

When it comes down to it, we have to accept that something about Cho was an aberration, an anomaly; we have to talk about his mental health. Mental health itself is, I think, inseparable from environment and personal history, but the fact is that very few people ever do something this horrendous. But an act like this, like the boogeyman in the closet, has a way of heightening and illuminating our fears and discomforts. And, to go back to the question ms asked: What kind of story will we make him a part of? And how does the label "Korean" play into that story?

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Original Source: <a href="http://www.printculture.com/index.php?itemid=1365">http://www.printculture.com/index.php?itemid=1365</a>

Licensed under <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0</a>.

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J Lee

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2007-05-26

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Brent Jesiek

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eng

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J Lee, "What's "Korean" got to do with it?," in The April 16 Archive, Item #264, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/264 (accessed July 22, 2014).