I have been in a sad dream these past few days. Almost all of my students are Korean by birth, and each feels the need to speak about the terrible shooting at Virginia Tech. It hits very close to them, and each student’s shouders are bowed a little with the unbearable weight, that it was one of their own who committed such an atrocity.

At first glance, their feelings may be hard to understand. How could the shooter’s cultural background matter so much? It’s a cultural thing I’ve been mulling over the last few years, and I still don’t have it completely nailed, but here are some things that I have observed:

Koreans trust each other. Any Korean meeting another Korean for the first time has an entire culture of similarity behind them. As far as I can tell, the Korean definition of ‘friend’ translates roughly to ‘anyone I know who is around my age’. The definition is the same for every Korean I’ve ever met, child, parent, and grandparent. The trust is implicit in the culture. Parents allow academy employees to pick up their children from school and deliver them to the academies for extra learning. Kids in Korea walk or bus home late at night with no fear; Strangers are no threat. However strange this seems to our Western sensibilities, it is their way of life.

A victory for one Korean is a victory for all Koreans. Korea is a nation whose only real resource is its people. There’s some tungsten and stuff to be mined there, but, by and large, Korea’s 50 million brains are their best bet. They’re innovating in medicine and technology faster than I can even think about it. However, just as a victory for one is a victory for all, so too, a failure for one is a failure for all. Failure of one person reflects badly on the whole nation.

Koreans do not lose control. They work hard, they study hard, and they play hard. According to one of my students, businessmen stay out all night drinking whiskey and beer and singing their old school songs. But they do not lose their minds and go on shooting rampages. As well as a ghastly tragedy, the Virginia Tech massacre is considered to be embarassing. There is a feeling that Cho Seung-hui has shamed all Koreans.

I do not know my students as Koreans. I know them as people. And although it hurts me that I cannot say anything to take away their unhappiness, I respect their grief.

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