U.S. Koreans React to Shootings
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
Unidentified Man: The Korean consulate general in Los Angeles is shocked and dismayed by the violent crime that took place yesterday at the Virginia Tech University.
BRAND: That was a Korean official reading a statement in reaction to the shooting at Virginia Tech.
CHADWICK: The gunman, Seung Hui Cho, was born in South Korea. That's been widely reported, and it has some Koreans in this country worried, as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates discovered.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Koreans have a reputation for being many things -entrepreneurial, proud, hard bargainers. Shy is not normally on that list, but it was yesterday when I approached people on the streets of LA's Korea town to see what they thought about the fact that Seung Hui Cho - the gunman who wrought such havoc on Virginia Tech's campus - was of Korean decent. Almost nobody wanted to talk about that. Some people pleaded they were too busy to talk, and I got a lot of polite refusals like this one.
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, no, no, no. No, thank you.
BATES: Are you sure?
This young woman claim not to know anything at all about the shootings before she literally ran away from me.
Unidentified Woman #2: I don't know. I didn't hear about that.
BATES: Realtor Chris Kim(ph) did stop to talk for a moment.
Mr. CHRIS KIM (Realtor): Oh, it's very shameful. I mean...
BATES: Why? You had nothing to do with it.
Mr. C. KIM: Yeah, but it's the same - you know, fellow Koreans. But I just hope that, you know, don't criticize all the Koreans because of this, and he's only one individual.
BATES: Are you worried about backlash? Are you worried about people...
Mr. C. KIM: Well, people talking about that - I don't worry about that, really.
BATES: From his home in Virginia, Joe Ko(ph), a graduate of Virginia Tech, said he immediately began to wonder when he heard the news.
Mr. JOE KO (Graduate, Virginia Tech): Initially, I was thinking that if this guy was Korean, you know, oh, my goodness, what's going to happen? You know, if the Korean-American community - especially I might know this person or I might somehow know somebody who might know this person.
BATES: Bong Hwang Kim(ph) is a longtime Korean community activist. He came to national prominence as a spokesperson for Korean businesspeople here during the 1992 riots. When news of the shooter's ethnicity began to surface, so did his anxiety.
Mr. BONG HWANG KIM (Korean Community Activist): You know, immediately after the shock that I felt after the numbers of people that were killed, immediately afterward was the ethnicity of the shooter. And I thought, oh, no. Here we go again.
BATES: Kim worries that once the initial shock of the shootings wears off, people in places that have few of any Asians, let alone Koreans, could act out unfortunate impulses.
Mr. B. KIM: People are going to be angry. People are going to be very emotional. And I think, people are going to look for a scapegoat. And, unfortunately, this time around, it happens to be a yellow face.
BATES: Oliver Wang is a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach, and he says media reports stressing Seung Hui Cho's immigrant status - he's lived here for 15 years, and he's a permanent resident - are reflective of the national tendency to regard all Asians as immigrants.
Professor OLIVER WANG (Sociology, California State University, Long Beach): Even for people born in the United States, people oftentimes assume that we're immigrants or that we're foreign-born. You know, I get that question all the time. I was born...
BATES: Do people tell you you speak English really well?
Prof. WANG: Yeah, sure. Things like that, or where are you from? When I tell them I was born in Ann Arbor, they ask, well, where are you really from? So it's as if that, you know, even a birthplace in the U.S. isn't necessarily good enough.
BATES: Seung Hui Cho is a first-generation Korean-American. But whether one is first or fifth generation, Oliver Wang says, the non-Asian population often sees color before it sees culture.
Prof. WANG: No matter how many generations or families have been in the United States, we're still seen as being foreigners or assumed to be aliens.
BATES: And sometimes assumed to be other things as well. The prevailing stereotypes of Asian men often seen in popular culture are crafty - a la Charlie Chan - or this math myth about John Cho's Korean-American investment banker, Harold Lee, in the hit comedy "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."
(Soundbite of movie, "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle")
Unidentified Man: That was amazing. I cannot believe how easy that was, dude. How do you think he gets all that (censored) done? I'm telling you, those Asian guys love crunching numbers. You probably just made his weekend.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BATES: But as annoying a straight jacket as those stereotypes are, Joe Ko says he'd keep every one if it meant avoiding the cliche-shattering alternative he saw in Virginia earlier this week.
Mr. KO: No matter what the stereotype is of Asian-Americans, something like this cannot be beneficial in breaking those stereotypes.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.