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.

6 Comments to “Tragedy.”

  1. By Arwen, April 19, 2007 @ 2:03 am

    That’s beautiful, and so hard.

    I don’t know about being Korean, but I do know about being Canadian: and when I was Canadian in that hyper-foreign country, the United States, I was so glad to see another Canadian (older dude from Surrey or Abbotsford or some such place) that I damn near licked him. He puppy dogged me, too. We were all: “Hey! I’m from your area!” Stupid smile. “Well, we sure are polite!” Stupid smile.

    I would have followed that man into battle, even if I’d ignore him when we were actually in Canada, I don’t believe in battle, and we were trying to be polite.

    And, I’m technically not supposed to believe in nationalism.

    I imagine if I were outnumbered by people who, in the main, spoke a different language, never heard of Bob and Doug, and were of a different race than me, I’d suddenly be writing to Tim Hortons for coffee service and getting fetishistic about beer and hockey and saying ‘eh. I’d trust Canadians away more than I’d trust them here. And I’d be mightily ashamed or proud of a single representative of my country: because outside of my country, my country is of me. It is knowing that malt vinegar can go on fries, your entire life, and that just being a fact and not a custom. Away, your facts become customs and you realize they’re both arbitrary and also you, so the identification gets stronger. (Hey. That’s me too! But no one else is like that here!)

    I also get that with other hippie kids. TVP! Good times, good times. It’s all silly and lame, but it’s knowing the smell of Inka and that being a childhood thing.

    Could that be happening with your Koreans?

  2. By Liz, April 19, 2007 @ 2:18 am

    I’d venture that that is very much what is happening with the Koreans I know.

    However, there’s a deeper aspect. Imagine that, even at home in Canada, you would have followed that man into battle, even though you technically do not believe in battle, simply because you know he came from your hippie culture. Imagine your cultural ties were so strong that, even in Canada, you felt that any maligning of hippie practice was a personal affront.

    It’s as though the shooter was a cousin to all of them. It almost feels familial, in how they are dealing with it.

  3. By Beth, April 19, 2007 @ 8:46 pm

    I understand what you’re saying, Liz, but I had the same thoughts as Arwen. Would all Koreans in Korea be ashamed of a fellow Korean in Korea who behaved badly? Surely, they have criminals in Korea and they can’t always feel a national guilt about anyone who does wrong.
    I’ve lived with someone for the last 9 years who is a foreigner in this country, and he feels sheepish admitting he’s American and apologizes for the current president.
    Your students are a minority here. They represent their culture and their countrymen here. One of the biggest markers about that shooter in Virginia was his race. I can imagine them feeling that everyone is looking at them, waiting for them to go off and start shooting. If the media didn’t mention that he was Korean and instead emphasized the pertinent data – he was a paranoid schizophrenic – that might make it easier for your students.
    Racial stereotyping is a fact of life for minority peoples.

  4. By Liz, April 19, 2007 @ 11:27 pm


    I can’t say what all Koreans in Korea feel, since I’ve never been there.

    However, I’ve wondered if Korean children’s and adults’ (in Canada) feelings towards a law-breaker would be the same if they (my students) were in Korea. Almost all of them said ‘yes’. (Of course, it’s hypothetical at this point, because they aren’t there, so who really knows).

    When a crime is committed by a Korean or Korean national that reaches worldwide news, almost unequivocally, there is a sense among my students that the transgressor has not just let the nation, and its people, down, but also shamed them somehow. There is a definite sense of chagrin. I don’t know if it’s the same for Koreans in Korea, if they feel the guilt. My students give me the sense that it does impact all Koreans, that they feel a sense of guilt. However, I don’t know how true that is for Koreans in Korea. I also do not know if that would happen the same way with Canadians, with a Canadian criminal on international news.

    I don’t understand it, but I keep trying. I’m not sure if Cho Seung-hui was an American citizen or a Korean citizen. But in the past three days, I do know that most of the Koreans I’ve talked to about this have referred to him as Korean. To them, he has transgressed badly, and he is theirs, wheter American by citizenship or not.

    I want to understand more. However, the language barrier (and in some cases a culture barrier) has me still confused.

  5. By stephanie, April 24, 2007 @ 10:14 am

    Backlack against Koreans is just ignorance. It’s the same thing that happened 9/11. Stupid people commiting hate crimes against other people who “look” Middle Eastern. Two days after 9/11 someone walked into a Circle K in Phoenix and shot the man working behind the counter. The man was Indian. It was really sick.

    People want to blame something or someone and people who don’t know any better are going to blame a culture.

  6. By Liz, April 24, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

    Too unfortunately true, Stephanie.

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