Killer reflection

Cho and other Asian shooters were portrayed as "smart but quiet" and "fundamentally foreign." What do these stereotypes reveal, and what do they obscure?

Published April 19, 2007 4:55PM (EDT)

Like everyone else, I first reacted to the news of the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech with shock -- visceral and blinding. Sick with horror, but hungry for information, I went through what has become a ritual exercise whenever tragedy or catastrophe strikes -- 9/11, the tsunami, Katrina. I turned on the television, sorted through the cascade of conflicting details on competing news sites, and began exchanging rapid-fire e-mail and instant messages with friends of every background, from regions around the world. With each new revelation, we shared our common emotions: grief for the victims and their families; rage at the murderer; bitterness at the ready availability of weapons capable of exacting such a devastating toll.

Then came the word that the killer, this faceless stranger responsible for a crime of historic lethality, was Korean American, and the tenor of the messages changed dramatically. Suddenly, most of it was from Asian American friends and colleagues, with a fresh and unique range of concerns. Some expressed guilt, inexplicable and unwarranted, that a child of our community might be responsible for such mayhem: "As a Korean, I do feel partly guilty and responsible," said CeFaan Kim, an associate producer at NY1 News. "Every person I've spoken to who's Korean, and that's a large number, feels the same way. It's a cultural difference, but the fact that our community shares this feeling is simply fact."

Some expressed reluctant empathy: "Ours is not always a forgiving culture," said Jenny Song. "There's a lot of pressure to make it in the top 5 percent -- be it schools, jobs, society, etc.; we tend to have an overall closed culture in which you're either 'in' or 'out,' with very little room for those who are a little different or don't fit in with standard norms. I can't help but wonder if there are certain aspects of our culture that may have compounded his feelings. I can't help feel as though this incident is also a wake-up call for Korean society in many ways."

And others wrote words of fear and alarm, decrying the constant representation of the Asian-born but American-raised perpetrator Seung-Hui Cho as a foreigner, pointing to blog postings attacking Asians as an inscrutable, unassimilable threat from within, and noting unconfirmed reports of backlash -- a South Korean flag being burned in Fort Lee, N.J.; a Korean American student in Manhattan threatened by white classmates.

"Most of the perpetrators of mass school killings have been white," said Paul Niwa, a journalism professor at Emerson College. "After those shootings, do you think white people felt guilty that the shooter was white? Do you think white people felt that since the shooter was white, that the shooter would give society a bad impression of whites? A shooter can be white and nobody thinks that race played a part in the crime. But when someone nonwhite commits a crime, this society makes the person's race partially at fault."

Reading these comments, I found myself caught in a dilemma. I want to think that race is not a factor in the toxic mix of rage and psychological disturbance that has occasionally discharged as this kind of violence. And, certainly, in most cases it isn't: Teenage angst is colorblind, and the triggers for crimes like these have included parental abuse, schoolyard persecution, romantic obsession -- phenomena that exist beyond culture or ethnicity.

But professor Niwa is right: When race enters the equation -- when the perpetrator of a crime of this type is black, like "Beltway Snipers" John Allen Muhammad and his ward Lee Boyd Malvo, or Asian, like Cho -- it rises to the surface and stays there, prompting inevitable discussions about whether "black rage" or "immigrant alienation" were somehow to blame; whether in some fundamental fashion, color of skin, shape of eye, or nation of origin lie at the seething, secret heart of such tragedies.

There have been two other widely reported school shooting sprees by Asian perpetrators. One of them, the case of University of Iowa exchange student Gang Lu, even served as the inspiration for Chen Shi-zheng's new film, "Dark Matter," which won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. On Nov. 1, 1991, Lu, a promising, Beijing-born physics student, brought a pair of pistols into a department meeting and opened fire, killing five people and paralyzing a sixth, before shooting himself fatally in the head. A New York Times article on the film quotes Vanderbilt University physics professor James Dickerson as saying that Asian students are often the victims of "unstated racism" and the preconception that they are smart, hardworking and unlikely to complain. "As a result they wind up as cogs in the research machine and remain isolated from the rest of the community and the culture," says Dickerson. "It's something not widely discussed in the physics community." It then goes on to quote Harvard math professor Shing-Tung Yau on the "high expectation" placed on children by Chinese families. "When they realize that they cannot achieve it, they get very upset," he says. "They also compete among themselves severely."

The other case is that of Wayne Lo, a Taiwanese-born student who moved to Billings, Mont., with his family at the age of 13, then attended Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass. Accounts of his case -- which took place a little over a year after Gang Lu's rampage, on Dec. 14, 1992 -- carefully use his intelligence (he was accepted at Simon's Rock on the W.E.B. DuBois Minority Scholarship!), his exquisite talent in classical music (he excelled on violin!), and his previous history as a quiet, unassuming individual to counterpoint his bloody rifle attack, which killed two and wounded four others. Here's a typically lyrical quote, from a feature by the New York Times' Anthony DePalma: "Only Mr. Lo knows what led him to turn away from the classical music he once loved and instead embrace the violent, discordant music known as hardcore, and a surly group of students who were equally entranced by it. Only he knows how the same fingers that danced with such agility and emotion over the strings of a violin could, as the police say, have pressed the trigger of a semiautomatic assault rifle, shattering the campus silence and ripping through several lives." As with Lu, news reports also emphasized Lo's foreign birth -- sometimes implying, sometimes outright stating that Lo's cultural difference may have led to his sense of isolation, of being disrespected, of social exclusion, and ultimately, to his deadly eruption.

The degree to which these paired memes -- "smart but quiet" and "fundamentally foreign" -- are repeated in the coverage of these two crimes is striking. In Lo's case, it was enough to prompt attorney Rhoda J. Yen to write a paper titled "Racial Stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans and Its Effect on Criminal Justice: A Reflection on the Wayne Lo Case" for Boalt School of Law's Asian Law Journal, in which she raises the theory that this racial imagery may have tainted Lo's ability to receive a fair trial.

The reporting around Seung-Hui Cho seems to have followed the same through-line: Right here on Salon, Joe Eaton reported one of Cho's high school classmates calling him "a quiet guy, a really, really quiet guy," but also a "'supersmart' student known for his math skills." Most news reports have also referred to him as a "resident alien," a legally proper but semiotically complex term that seems to emphasize difference -- while a "legal permanent resident" sounds like someone who belongs in this nation, an "alien" doesn't even sound like he belongs on this planet. It's a word that seems designed to be followed by "invader" -- a phrase whose appropriateness is underscored by the pictures of Cho, scowling and fisting guns at the camera, that now stare out from every news site.

There's no excusing Cho's crimes, or those of Lu and Lo before him. All three were guilty of heinous acts, of ruining and ending lives, and merit no apology for what they did. The point of bringing up all three is not to defend them, but to ask whether media and society have too easily conflated them, bundling their individual cases in a convenient packaging that subtly evokes those hoary, oddly contradictory typecasts of the "model minority" whiz kid and invading "yellow peril."

One contributor to the legal group blog De Novo, who actually attended college with Wayne Lo and was close friends with one of his victims, has gone so far as to draw a direct comparison between Cho and Lo. While acknowledging Rhoda Yen's journal article and disavowing any intent to suggest that race was a primary reason for those two slides into murderous violence, "Dave" nevertheless notes that "across the board, college shooters seem to be males under some pressure for success, academic and/or sexual, which would seem to include many Asian males." Dave then admits that this suggestion itself rests on a "model minority" stereotype. And that's a quandary we often find ourselves in when invoking race here -- or really, anywhere: It's challenging to talk about it in a complex and constructive fashion, so it's often tossed out, or put into play via crude and simplistic clichés.

Excluding race from the equation entirely eliminates some very real criteria we might use to better understand why acts like this occur, and how to perhaps prevent them in the future. Parental expectations among Asian Americans, particularly within immigrant families, are indeed great; racism and casual discrimination does exist; social isolation may be more likely if you're in a situation where the people around you mostly don't look like you or share your background.

Perhaps most important, there are wide differences between cultures in how mental illness is perceived, with Asian cultures largely rejecting the concept of psychological disorder as a disease -- to the point of refusing treatment, ostracizing sufferers, and even suppressing discussion of the topic. Could this attitude, combined with a lack of culturally sensitive counseling, have resulted in the inner turmoil of Lu, Lo and Cho being overlooked or underplayed? "Asian immigrants are not as liberally educated about mental illness as others in the U.S.; they feel it is something strange, something you shouldn't deal with or discuss," says psychiatrist Dr. Damian Kim, who has practiced clinically for 35 years, and who has written a book on mental health for immigrants that is available in both Korean and English. "For them, seeking treatment is an indication that there's something wrong with you."

But focusing on race, particularly using the lens of stereotype, flattens individuality, and obscures other factors that are more meaningful and important. "Pressure for success, academic and/or sexual" isn't in and of itself a reason for someone to go out and commit mass murder. I know hundreds of young Asian males who experienced that kind of pressure as adolescents, who grew up silent, studious and socially awkward; who were perceived as different, to the point of being excluded or taunted; who had unusual hobbies and obsessions -- and who've never shot off anything except their mouths.

I'm one myself. While attending St. Ann's School in Brooklyn, N.Y., back in the mid-'80s, I worked on a student film with my equally weird friends called "Burnout," a horror-comedy that recast our high school as "Sat-An's School," an institution run by a group of diabolical cultists who manipulate a young, misanthropic student to murder his peers and teachers in various silly and bloody ways. We launched the production with the cooperation of faculty and administration, some of whom played themselves. The film was never finished -- SATs and parental expectations got in the way.

But I wonder, if I proposed that script as a high schooler today, a quiet Asian American male with few friends and odd interests, would I be automatically dropped into a box marked "potential spree killer"? And if I were tagged with that combination of model minority and yellow peril as a result, if I found myself surrounded by people appalled that a "good, quiet Asian boy" might write a gory slasher flick about a student maniac ... would that help or hurt?

By Jeff Yang

Jeff Yang writes the San Francisco Chronicle column "Asian Pop," and has authored three books. His fourth, the Asian-American superhero anthology "Secret Identities," will be published in spring 2009 by the New Press. Facebook:, Twitter:


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