Thursday, April 04, 2013

Thoughts on NYT Article about the Oikos Shooting

Dear Korean,

Am I the only Korean American that thinks some of this article is patently ridiculous? Yes, 'han' is uniquely a Korean word, and even we Koreans like to pretend that it's a uniquely Korean thing. And I see that the writer is trying to be somewhat balanced in his treatment of the issue. Still, I can't help but think that whenever 'han' or 'jeong' is brought up to explain how Koreans act, it's a gesture of "othering" us. We, like people of any culture, are not so strange from the rest of humanity that our actions have to be explained in terms of unique emotions that westerners can't possibly understand.

David H.

David H. is speaking of this article by Jay Kang, a Korean American writer who wrote a lengthy feature regarding the Oikos College mass shooting for the New York Times. Regardless of precisely one may feel about it, it is a good read. The Korean would recommend reading it.

The Oikos Shooting occurred on April 2, 2012. The shooter was One L. Goh, a Korean immigrant. In the article discussing the shooting, Kang advances two major points. First is that, for a mass shooting that left behind seven dead people, the shooting at Oikos did not receive much attention, and was quickly forgotten--likely because the college was an obscure, technical school, and those who died were immigrants and racial minorities. After examining the lives of the victims who died in the shooting, Kang presents this points in a powerful manner:
It rakes at your guts, to watch your tragedies turn invisible. You know why it’s happening, but admitting it to yourself — that it has to do in some indivisible way with the value of immigrants’ lives — is something you’d rather not confront. The victims of the Oikos massacre came from Korean, Indian, Tibetan, Nigerian, Filipino and Guyanese backgrounds. They attended a low-cost, for-profit, poorly rated Korean-community nursing school in a completely featureless building set along the edge of a completely unremarkable part of Oakland. They were not held up as beacons for the possibilities of immigration, nor were they the faces of urban decay and the need for government assistance and intervention. They did not exist within any politicized realm. One Goh came from the same forgotten stock. And because the Oikos shooting occurred in a community that bore almost no resemblance to the rest of the country, the magnitude of the tragedy was contained almost entirely within the same small immigrant circles, many of whom fear that any talk about such terrible things will bring shame directly on them.
The Korean cannot help but admire Kang's writing prowess on display in this paragraph. "To watch your tragedies turn invisible." That is a fantastic phrase that very succinctly captures the lot of racial minorities in America.

The second point that Kang advances may be more controversial--and this is the point to which the questioner David objects. Kang notes that the Oikos shooting was the second mass-shooting involving a Korean American perpetrator since the Virginia Tech shooting with Cho Seung-hui. Kang attempts to find a Korean cultural trait that might connect the two shooters, and in the process speaks with Winston Chung, a child psychiatrist in the Bay Area:
Chung’s interest in One Goh and Seung-Hui Cho comes from a lifelong, personal investigation into han and hwabyung, two Korean cultural concepts that have no equivalent in the English language. By Western standards, the two words are remarkably similar. Both describe a state of hopeless, crippling sadness combined with anger at an unjust world. And both suggest entrapment by suppressed emotions. Both words have been a part of the Korean lexicon for as long as anyone can remember, their roots in the country’s history of occupation, war and poverty.
To the degree equal to which the Korean admired the earlier quoted paragraph, he cringes at this paragraph. One should be automatically suspicious when there is a claim that certain words or concepts are "untranslatable" or "have no equivalent." Also, in a previous post, I wrote that it makes little sense to talk about certain types of super special Korean emotion such as jeong

To be sure, Kang does not go so far as to blame some type of Korean essence as the culprit for a proliferation of Korean American mass shooters. (In fact, there is no such proliferation.) In this sense, the Korean would disagree with David H.'s assessment, even as I understand where he is coming from. Yes, I would agree that maybe the concepts like han and hwabyung were better left unintroduced, or at least not characterized something unique to Koreans that Anglophones cannot understand. But Kang is not exactly latching onto this concept to make a broad indictment about Koreans. (Kang's interview with the NPR on this point makes his intentions clearer.)

On that point, this paragraph was both revealing and puzzling to the Korean:
Two Korean-American men, five years apart, walked into their former places of education and executed innocent students. This, by definition, is a coincidence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Korean-American who feels that way. I have no idea whether these killings came out of han or hwabyung or some other shared heritage, but it’s clear that the search for an explanation is far more threatening to the Korean-American community than whatever the actual answer might be.
This paragraph is revealing because it makes clear that Kang is not exactly blaming han or whatever cultural characteristic that is supposed to be unique to Koreans. Kang just wants to find some logic, any logic that might connect the two shooters, because as a Korean American man, he feels that connection may explain something about himself as well. Kang knows that it is a tenuous logic to latch onto han or hwabyung, so he refrains from completely buying into those concepts. But a tenuous logic might have to do when there is no other real logic.

But on a personal level, the paragraph was at the same time hugely puzzling. The Korean furrowed his brow at this sentence in particular:  "This, by definition, is a coincidence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Korean-American who feels that way." Hard-pressed? I am a Korean American, and it never occurred to me that the connection between Virginia Tech shooting and Oikos shooting was anything other than coincidental. I know I am not alone in this. I am inclined to think that David H. might feel the same way. I certainly did not have the same kind of conversation that Kang and his Korean American friend had with my own Korean American friends. 

So this was the puzzling part. Kang does not actually think that the connection between the two shootings is not coincidental. (Please excuse the double negative.) Then why does Kang, and a lot of Korean Americans that he knows, feel that it was not coincidental? And why does the Korean, and a lot of Korean Americans that he knows, do not feel the same? What sets these two camps of Korean Americans apart? 

This is even more puzzling because, even as Kang talks about how he instantly understood the term "typical Korean father," he says his own father does not fit into that concept. I, on the other hand, would describe the Korean Father as a "typical Korean father"--yet I do not feel the compulsion to somehow connect the two shootings through some nebulous Korean essence. One might expect that Kang and I would have the opposite attitudes: Kang with nonchalance recognition of coincidence, and the Korean with brooding search for some kind of Korea-related explanation. Yet somewhere there is a twist along the way, and we stand on the opposite shores of where we are expected to be. So what, exactly, is it that separates Jay Kang and the Korean? 

Ever since the flare-up with Wesley Yang, I am sensing that there is an important fault line within the Korean American community that is only instinctively recognized. I feel that this is another manifestation of that fault line. How deep and how far that line runs is the question that requires more thought.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I've gotten the sense that we are in two camps as well and I'm also curious as to where this line divides or if it's a spectrum of differences, and what the significance of those differences in thinking, both about the community at large, as well as how we view our own Koreanness, means for those of us in America.

    This is definitely an issue worth exploring, so I hope some brilliant Korean American out there can handle the research and write a book on it. I'd buy it.

  2. I enjoyed the article. It seemed to me like Kang was talking about historical trauma, and bringing hwabyung and han into it was a bit confusing. Historical trauma is certainly not culturally specific, though people's responses to that trauma are conditioned by the society in which they live. And historical trauma also doesn't affect everyone the same way, so it would make sense that it would be passed down to some Korean-Americans and not others (Kang particularly dwells on the transmission from father to son). Han and hwabyung are not uniquely Korean (and not "untranslatable"), but they are relevant in so far as they give people categories, criteria, a way to name and delimit what they are experiencing. So, the cultural psychologists at least would say they are worth exploring.

    I'm interested in the fault line in Korean America you notice, too. Korean Americans I know from all around the US tend to set Orange county/LA Korean Americans apart from themselves, but it can't be that simple, can it?

  3. I thought of this: "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". I thought of the 2nd Amendment/Guns debate in Congress. I'm wondering if guns were not so readily available if these incidents would have occurred. But, I like the "coincidence" argument, too. The first one turns the debate into another debate that goes on endlessly; the second one kills the discussion.

    1. I thought of this: "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"

      I thought something similar. Perhaps the dividing line is how comfortable we are with our Korean selves--which relates to the degree of desperation with which we search for the essence of our Korean identity.

    2. It goes to show how far America has yet to travel to live up to its rhetoric about individualism and merit. I'm not as concerned about culture, whether in terms of David Hackett Fisher's sociological analysis of America's first immigrants or in terms of post New Deal politics. I don't want to be reduced to my Appalachian roots. That makes me wonder just how miserable it is to be Asian in America if hiding in Asian-Americanness is pleasant, because when my family instructed me to be proud of being white, I was insulted by the limitation.

  4. Jay Kang emphasized so many times how "nobody" in the Korean community wanted to talk about the shooting. He writes, "Overwhelmingly, the sentiment among the older Korean people I talked to was this: The shooting was a shameful act that would bring trouble on the community if publicized and discussed." By publishing a whole article about the shooting, Kang is implying that they are wrong and that talking about the shooting and whether certain aspects of Korean culture contributed to it would be helpful. The thing is, I wonder whether the "older Koreans" Kang cites are onto something. Racialized thinking is still alive in America: there are still towns in Georgia where police will escort a black teen out of the white prom ( More relevantly, the Rodney King riots were not that long ago. Perhaps it is a reasonable fear that discussing how two major school shooters were Korean would create the stereotype that Korean men are crazy, angry, and dangerous. By not even discussing the possibility that the fears of these "older Koreans" have a basis in reality, he makes them sound repressed, irrational, and overly concerned with their own image.

  5. Korean society is largely based on codependence, and it is able to allow large array of corruption if someobody is in the right rank of society, although that is changing slowly surely as Korea becomes more and more developed.

    Having said that it appears Mr. Koh suffered from a severe case of codependence and other array of mental illness which I think is not at all uncommon for Korean Americans.

    I'm so glad there's a Korean American author who is able to express an array of emotions in Korean and it's rather the naiveness of Koreans brought upon 1000 year old Chinese shamanism. When I describe some of the shit my mother or grandma believes in, my Chinese friends would quip, sounds like people from thousands of years ago that no longe exist even in China. This made me think, could it be that certain aspects of Korean's perspective of reality is largely a codependent reality painted by a corrupt paternal figure? We also see evidence of this, it can be healthy that Korean leaders historically have failed hard in protecting their citizens, and the people were too dumb to uprise against it.

  6. There are two camps of people: those that will recognize individual actions as unique to each individual and those that will try to draw broader conclusions and generalizations from a mosaic of individual actions. While this is a spectrum along which people will fall, not a black and white division, I think it's fair to say this division does exist.

    After the VTech and Oikos shootings, some people will view these as individual, unconnected tragedies. Others will perceive them to be symptomatic of a bigger societal problem in the Korean community. Still others will miss the Korean connection but will lump these two tragedies with other school shootings and will draw sweeping generalizations about violent American culture or the lack of support for the mentally ill in our country.

    Even if Kang believes these shootings to be individual acts by individual people, he may be around people who want to connect the dots and make sense of what they see. If they view these incidents as having roots in Korean societal issues, Kang will feel as though these shootings are not coincidental, even if he doesn't logically believe that.

    For example, if you believe Seoul has the best Korean food in the world, but you are talking to someone who believes LA is actually the winner of that title, they might make you feel like you're wrong, even if you believe yourself to be right.

    After tragedies like Sandy Hook, Tucson, Aurora, Columbine, Oikos, and VTech, people ask "why?" and look for answers and try to make sense of the evils in this world. People want solutions, and sometimes, in the aftermath of tragedy, we are driven to searching our souls and we will sometimes try to answer questions that society is asking us, even if we don't think they apply, just in case they do. Perhaps that's what happened here with Kang and his article.

    For what it's worth, my grandmother in Korea spent more time after the shootings wondering what was wrong with Korean society than I, as a Korean-American (born and raised in the USA), ever did. Perhaps the fault line runs through every community, not just the Korean American one.

  7. I did not know Han(恨) and Jeong(情) were uniquely Korean words.

    1. I read it as a word that has no one word synonym in English, like schadenfreude. Though the way he says it makes it seem like a purely Korean sensation that others cannot feel, which is obviously wrong.

  8. I wonder what kind of correlations we might find if we took individual variation in the intensity of this sort of "collective guilt" sentiment, and compared it with subjects' rankings on various scales associated with "racism" or "xenophobia", such as attitude toward having a son or daughter marry outside of the race.

    My hypothesis would be along the lines of Peter Singer's "Expanding Circle" idea: this kind of racial collective guilt is basically a universal human emotion (the same kind I'd feel if, say, my cousin murdered people) interacting with certain variable settings for who counts as an in-group member. Isn't the same phenomenon going on when a police chief in Newtown mentions Columbine and Aurora but not Norway -- the key difference being that most ethnically unaffiliated Americans are trained to have the circle set to "American citizen"? And here I am noticing the omission of the Norway killings only because my own implicit moral circle is usually set to something like "residents of advanced, industrialized nations"... though not yet to all of humanity.

  9. I think the fault line is how much one identifies oneself ethnically. The more Americanized you are (and perhaps the more educated you are), you see people as individuals because you are less likely to stereotype or see patterns from a mere coincidence. And American emphasis on individuality promotes this line of thinking vs. Asian collectivism. For example, in Korea, many people think white English teachers are child molestors or have AIDS. Here, even if people have stereotypes, many people (especially the well educated liberals) try not to stereotype or at least be quiet about them.

    I got the same sense in reading the Wesley Yang article. I identified with it because as an immigrant growing up in the white suburbs of NY in the 80s - 90s, who had to deal with being called racist names in school and even dealing with the unfamiliarity people had in dealing with Asians (a law partner from one of biggest law firms calling me Oriental without any malice), you under just how far we need to go in this society to feel like we've really made it. But i don't expect Asians from California, especially the younger generation, to understand the Asian angst Yang was referring to. In California, Asians are the norm. Not so for the rest of the country.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...