Many graduates of America’s universities share his sentiment; for these idyllic campuses are what is best about America. So when Cho Seung-hui went on his killing spree, he stuck a dagger into the heart of this idyllic life.
Korean immigrants know that education is the great leveler, the ticket to success in America, which is one reason why they feel shame and guilt about Cho Seung-hui. This guy Cho killed the goose that laid the golden egg for Koreans, if you will. He disgraced and humiliated them in American academia, where they have excelled and distinguished themselves.
Tomorrow, if you gave most American students a list of famous Korean names and added Cho’s, they probably wouldn’t know Admiral Lee Sun-shin, King Sejong the Great or other luminaries, but they would certainly know Cho Seung-hui. That‘s one Korean name that is indelibly seared into America’s memory.
Cho Seung-hui is going to haunt Koreans on America’s campuses because of this name recognition. Let’s say that a Korean guy arrives on a campus in 1997 and strikes up a casual conversation with an American guy. When the American learns the Korean’s ethnicity, he says, “Hey, I saw Chun-ho Park (Americans use the surname last) pitch for the Dodgers. Boy, he’s got a sizzling fastball”! The Korean swells with pride, proceeding to tell the American all about baseball in Korea. The two are full of bonhomie and have a couple of beers together at the campus rathskeller.
This won’t be today’s scenario. Cho Seung-hui is now the Korean name on the tip of American tongues, and the face of evil. Koreans on today’s campuses will have to tolerate uncomfortable conversations about psycho Cho, like it or not. Deflecting the conversation away from Cho’s ethnicity and towards America’s dubious gun laws would be a legitimate gambit. Nonetheless, psycho Cho will be the proverbial bad penny that keeps returning. Koreans will just have to grin and bear it.
I’m sure that sick humor is already being pointed at Koreans on American campuses. In fact, one of my students told me that his friend’s American friends tease him about his resemblance to Cho, and even though they’re joking and he himself laughs, it still hurts inside. He just has to grin and bear it.
Perhaps Koreans could borrow a phrase from the Irish when facing yet another vexing conversation about Cho and the Virginia Tech carnage. When asked about “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Irish often say that “It’s a terrible thing” and are done with it, implying that the topic is not their cup of tea.
For the first 24 hours after the massacre, there was one looming question: Who did it? The police said that the killer was “Asian,” but said no more. Then while I was watching CNN the bottom of my TV screen informed me that it was “Cho Seung-hui, a South Korean.” My jaw dropped, and I said, “He’s Korean”! I was stunned.
Once a name and a face were attached to the mass murderer, we learned something about him through CNN interviews with his roommates and professors. Those who “knew” Cho spoke of a sullen loner, a ticking time bomb that fell on deaf ears. Except, that is, for one of his English professors, Nikki Giovanni, who described him as “mean.” Her insight into Cho’s twisted and tormented psyche, gleaned from the English major’s poetry and plays, scared her enough to have him banned from her poetry class. How prescient of her.
Nikki Giovanni is, for me, inextricably linked to the social upheaval of the late sixties and early seventies, when she was a young poet championing black consciousness ? “Say it loud, I’m black and proud!” ? a movement that was riveting African-Americans. Her militant poetry didn’t resonate with me, but I was smitten by her sweet name, Nikki Giovanni. During a university convocation honoring the 32 dead students and teachers, she ended her address dedicated to the fallen by speaking to living: We are Virginia Tech./ We will prevail./ We will prevail./ We will prevail./ We are the Hokies.
Those who had never heard of Virginia Tech before the mass murder soon learned that the school’s mascot was the Hokie, a.k.a. the Fighting Gobbler, a male turkey.
When Cho’s identity was announced, Koreans were stunned. They anguished over how one of their own could have committed this monstrous cruelty. Then they took it upon themselves to accept the blame, with profuse apologies coming from a cross section of Korean society including President Rho, the ambassador in Washington, D.C., and religious leaders.
While Buddhist monks prayed for the souls of the 32 to pass peacefully into the next life, Cardinal Chong said a memorial mass at Myeong-dong Cathedral. Some truly contrite Koreans left flowers and lit candles at city hall, creating a short-lived memorial to the dead -- lest we forget, there also were 23 wounded. About two hundred people attended a candle-light vigil, though not nearly so many as have gathered in self-righteous indignation to condemn American soldiers involved in a traffic accident. Where were all of these self-righteous thousands?
Koreans’ contrite apology became itself a matter of debate, though. Was it really necessary for them to apologize for something that was beyond their control? After all, it was America’s lax gun laws that let the homicidal maniac get his hands on a Glock 9mm.
Rather than debating whether Koreans should have apologized or shouldn’t have, let’s just say that their public mea culpa was the smart thing to do. For in doing so, they unwittingly executed their own damage control.
Damage control is public-relations strategy. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound and polluted these waters terribly, we started seeing a slick TV commercial telling us of how this humongous oil company is committed to protecting the environment. This is damage control. Hugh Grant, Paris Hilton and other celebrities have used damage control successfully after scandals tarnished their images. And damage control is something that Hanwha Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn sorely needs, if it isn’t already too late for him.
By responding the way they did, Koreans, if anything, impressed Americans by their compassion. Theirs was not slick damage control but, rather, a most sincere and admirable effort to say, “No one feels worse about this than we do.” Nor did Americans equate Cho’s ethnicity with the massacre. It’s clear to everyone that Cho was what the Brits call a “one-off.”
Cho’s was not the first face of evil to traumatize America. There have been a number of macabre serial killers and mass murderers before him, the latter inspiring Cho. And there have been three shooting sprees committed by crazed Americans since Virginia Tech, as well. But this is the first time the face of evil was Korean. Lucinda Roy, an English professor who tutored Cho, said that talking to him was like talking into a “deep, dark hole.” Indeed, evil incarnate.
By Sherbo Profesor, Dept. of English Lang.&Lit
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