An Overlooked School Shooting And The Korean-American Community

Read Jay Kang's New York Times piece "That Other School Shooting"

On Apr. 2, 2012, six people were killed and three wounded at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif. The shooter was a Korean-American former student, One L. Goh. Writer Jay Kang, who visited Goh in prison, explains how this tragedy has been discussed in the Korean-American community.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

One year ago today, a gunman walked through the hallways at Oikos University in Oakland and shot nine people with a .45, six of them died. But Oikos does not get mentioned with Newtown, Aurora and the Sikh temple, and seems almost forgotten, except maybe among Korean-Americans. The shooter was a former student at Oikos, a Korean-American named, and the killings reminded many of another Korean-American who killed 32 people at his former school, Virginia Tech, in 2007. We want to hear from Korean-Americans today. How did you, your family and your friends react to the shooting at Oikos? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jay Kang joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California, where he's a writer and editor for Grantland. His article, the "That Other School Shooting," ran on The New York Times Magazine this weekend. He's also the author of the recent novel "The Dead Do Not Improve." Good to have you with us today.

JAY KANG: Thank you.

CONAN: And you wrote that you heard about Oikos in a one line email.

KANG: Yeah. It was a friend of mine who I had gone to graduate school with. And we had both been living in New York when Virginia Tech happened and I just remember very vividly this conversation we had in a bar around campus about the identity of the shooter and sort of like whether or not we could find any sort of scrap of identification with him which, yeah, I think that in retrospect, it was a strange conversation to have because I think the conversation to have because I think the conversation that we would be expected to have would be one about how, you know, we're a little bit fearful for like possibly bigoted reaction from people and how, you know, like distance shouldn't reflect anything about us. But, you know, instead there this sort of moment of introspection.

And when Oikos happened, I was at work and I just received an email from him that read: we did it again. And immediately, even though it had been five years like I knew - and I do correspond with this guy pretty frequently, so it wasn't like, you know, this is the only time I've heard from him since then. But I immediately knew that a Korean person in the United States had walked in somewhere and shot a bunch of people. And that sort of is what animated my inquiry into the piece.

CONAN: And I don't think that's that unusual when something terrible happens, that somebody would say, God, I hope it wasn't somebody Irish or somebody African-American or somebody Hispanic or whatever group you happen to be in. But you say there's something special in this case among Korean-Americans.

KANG: Well, I think that, you know, this is a concept that I discussed a little bit in the article which is something called han and hwabyung which are both Korean words which I don't think have a very good English counterpart. But, you know, in some cultures and like sort of the former Soviet bloc, like if you read a lot of Milan Kundera books or something like that this sort of condition is discussed. And it's just sort of - this sort of sense or this sort of hopelessness that you feel about the pressures of the world and sort of the unfairness of the world and this trapped feeling. And that there is a physical manifestation of it that has become sort of a clinical disease in Korea.

And I didn't want to go as far as to say that these sorts of things are what animated these killers or even had anything to do with these two shootings. But that when you come from a culture that has these sorts of feelings of a very embedded part of everyday life that your tendency is to sort of go back and search through your cultural past and to think about those things and whether or not they had any influence, and whether or not you can really find it in yourself.

CONAN: And you had the chance to, in fact, meet with the shooter in prison, sort of by happenstance, I guess. But did you see manifestations of those conditions in him?

KANG: We talked for about 15 to 20 minutes, and this is just about four or five - I think it was five days after he had committed this horrible act, and I went down to the jailhouse after having made an interview request and sending him a letter. And he just showed up because I think that he thought that I was his father having come to visit him and he didn't look at the - at any of the names on the visitation or anything like that.

I don't know. I think it's an impossible thing to say, whether or not you could see a cultural manifestation in a person. Like, he seemed very sedated and, you know, he didn't really look me in the eye ever except for one instance where he sort of gave the explanation for why he had done this or sort of the feelings that he had felt before that. And, you know, for the most part, he was just very, very monotone and very, very stoic throughout the entire talk which, you know, again, lasted about 15 minutes, 20 minutes.

CONAN: Yet you did meet with a psychologist who thought that maybe both these shooters suffered from this condition.

KANG: Yeah. Winston Chung, he's a child psychiatrist in the Bay Area who blogs on the San Francisco Chronicle's website. He - I talked to him a lot about it and, you know, honestly, since the article has come out, I've received a lot of emails from Korean-Americans, some of which are, you know, upset because they thought that, you know, they see this as an argument as to there is something just, you know, there is something that's actually wrong with all Korean-Americans and that people should start looking out for the Korean American super predator.

CONAN: And you're playing into a stereotype.

KANG: And that I'm playing into a stereotype. But the majority of people, I think, have, sort of, expressed belief that this sort of information is out there now and that it'll generate some sort of conversation. And I think that, you know, mostly I've gotten emails from Korean-American men who, like myself, sort of identified this sort of dark, anxious anger within themselves that they don't quite understand, and that they trace back to some sort of relationship with their father and that they can sort of see their father having also learned it from their own fathers, sort of, going back generations to the Korean War and the Japanese occupation.

CONAN: And there is a phrase that's used both by your psychiatrist friend and by the shooter you meet with. They said: My dad was a typical Korean dad. And it's a form of shorthand that they expected you to understand, and you did.

KANG: I did understand that, yeah. And my own father was not quite like that, really in any sort of way. He's sort of a hippie but - who came to the United States to escape that sort of culture. But you know, like, having been around a lot of Korean families growing up and seeing it within my own extended family, I think it's - what it means is that there is sort of a real sort of dark stoicism about Korean men and the way that they interact with their children and, sort of, a suppression of all positive emotions and that, a lot of times, the only emotion that you will see growing up is anger or like a sense of disappointment.

I don't think that this is true of all Korean fathers. They certainly don't even know if it's the majority or not, but I think that if you talk to somebody who did grow up in a in a Korean-American household or even a Korean household, and you ask them what typical Korean father means, that they'll list those attributes.

CONAN: And we should also say that if this condition does exist amongst Koreans, there is a long way to go before they catch up with white American males who conduct most of these shootings. So let's put that in context. But in the meantime, there is the other question about why this particular incident has gone, sort of, under the radar.

KANG: Well, that was a question that I was asked a lot when I went to - I mean, I spent about a month in the Bay Area talking to people who had been affected by this tragedy and, you know, I went to a lot of funerals and wakes. And that seemed to be a running questions amongst the people there, just like, why is this not a bigger deal? I just specifically remember going to a funeral in the outer Sunset section of San Francisco and talking to some people who lived at a single-resident occupancy hotel with one of the victims, and one of the guys was just furious.

He was just like, you know, this is what happens in America. You come, you work hard, you're an immigrant and then someone puts a bullet in your head and nobody cares, you know? And I think that the fact that both that the shooter was an immigrant and that the - all of the victims were also immigrants, I think that it was just something that nobody could really relate to. I think that - in the article I wrote, I mentioned that these aren't even the immigrant populations that you're familiar with.

Like, these are really sort of small, localized immigrant populations that are very quite and are not used by the media to be politicized in any sort of way. And so for the most part, they're just almost invisible, and so it makes sense that their tragedies would also be invisible.

CONAN: So these are people from the Philippines, from Tibet, from Guyana, I think.

KANG: Guyana, yup, Nigeria and then few victims of Korean origin, and then two of Tibetan origin.

CONAN: And this was a, well, not too far down the road from Berkeley but a little less glamorous.

KANG: The school, I think, was, you know, you have moments in your reporting where this sort of weight of what has happened weighs on you. And I think that when that happened to me, it was just on my fourth or fifth visit to the school. And I just looked at the building and just saw how unremarkable it was and just how forgettable it was. I mean, it was - the closest thing to that building in that industrial stretch of Oakland is a Wal-Mart. Actually, some of the employers from Wal-Mart came down and put up a sign of support.

But there is nothing there. And, you know, the insides of the school are in bad conditions, and the idea that this was a university, like, you never ever would have suspected that this was a place of learning. And, you know, across the Bay Area and also across Southern California, there are a lot of these, sort of, for-profit, small, I guess, learning institutions that cater towards immigrants who need a cheaper form of education.

CONAN: A degree

KANG: A degree, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. We're talking Jay Kang about his article that ran in The New York Times magazine this past weekend, "That Other School Shooting." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I wanted to ask you about another Korean-American you ran into. An Eagle Scout who, in fact, wanted to build a memorial garden.

KANG: Yeah, Kinsa Durst. He was - I think he is 19 now. You know, he's the type of the kid that I think every parent wants to, you know, at some way, their kid to grow up to be. He had sort of the same reaction that I had. And it was interesting to me that, you know, somebody so young who's father was not Korean but his father was Caucasian but living in Korea, I think, for a while, would be so honest about this idea that this reflects violent Koreans because Virginia Tech also happened, which I think is a quote he gave me verbatim.

And instead, you know, instead of sort of - I guess, sort of, wallowing in the shame of it or trying to suppress the connection or even sort of bearing it with post-modern, sort of, academic speak about how we, you know, no one person should represent anybody else. And he went on built a peace garden in front of the school with commemorative stones for the dead. And on - during one of the memorial services that I attended, he gave this talk about how he wanted to help Korean and American relations.

I guess, to me that was striking, because, you know, the Korean people or also Americans and, you know, One Goh I think was an American citizen, but this kid has sort of distilled it down to a word I think it actually is, which is that you can call a Korean population within America, Americans as well, until something like this happens and your very, very forcefully reminded that there is still a divide between, like, your actual sort of stated citizenship and how you actually feel when these sorts of things happen.

CONAN: And most of the Korean community centers that you went to in - around Oakland to get response to what happened, you were shown the door.

KANG: Yeah. I was shown the door once I started asking, I think, about Virginia Tech and I started asking about whether or not the people there feared a reaction from the public because I think that one of the lasting memories that I have of Virginia Tech and a lot of Korean-Americans have of Virginia Tech, was the fact that the Korean president apologized for the Virginia Tech, and that a lot of people here in the Korean community in Los Angeles also apologized.

You know, that's a very strange thing. It showed that there is real fear of a reaction. And that now that they are two, whether or not people would start drawing a pattern - that was one of the questions that I sort of asked all the Korean leaders up in the Bay area. And once that question was asked, I think that they sort of saw an angle that I might go towards they didn't like and for the most part they either talked about in a very - and again, in a sort of like academic way about how, you know, like we should focus on class instead of race, or we should talk about people without using any sort of, like, cultural terms, or they were just sort of kick me out.

CONAN: And what has happened to One Goh?

KANG: He is now in Napa State Mental Hospital, he - until he is - can be fit to stand trial. He's been declared unfit to stand trial because of his, you know, he's psychiatrically unable to stand trial at this point. And so he's undergoing compulsory medication to try and get him ready.

CONAN: And Oikos University, what's happened there, there was something of a decertification.

KANG: Yeah. This is a couple months ago, I think, and the school went above - went in front of the regulatory board because the nursing students were passing the statewide nursing exam, like the graduates were passing it at such a low rate. And I think they were put under probation for a while. And I think all of that has been cleared since, though.

CONAN: And you went back to visit the school a couple of times, and I wonder, you know, the peace park is there, you went to that memorial service and reported five other people were there.

KANG: That was - again, that was one of the haunting things. I do remember, like, the first time I went there, and this is the day after the shooting. The only people at the school are myself and a photographer from one of the local newspapers. And, you know, I think I must've gone back to the school at least 20 times or so over the months. And the lack of a response, I think, from - and the lack of, sort of, physical mass of people who came out to support the school itself, not even if you want to support the school to sort of show a sign that there was a community that had been lived apart by this, was really striking to me.

And I don't know whether or not it was the location of the school or if it was, you know, a lack of, you know, sort of, this idea that there is this huge cultural shame that need - that's going to be brought out because of this. But, yeah, there has - it was always a ghost town when I went there.

CONAN: Jay Kang, thanks very much for your time today. Nice piece.

KANG: Thank you.

CONAN: Jay Kang is the author of "The Dead Do Not Improve." That's his novel. His article "That Other School Shooting" appeared in The New York Times magazine over the weekend. You can find a link to it at our website. And he joined us today from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Tomorrow, the different ways loneliness and social isolation factor into life expectancy. Join us for that conversation. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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