Weighing Cho's Heritage and Identity

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How American was Seung-hui Cho? Despite being a South Korean national living in America, his upbringing, and his problems, were distinctly American.


Yesterday, I checked some foreign newspaper Web sites to see how they were covering events at Virginia Tech. A headline in the British daily, The Times said: Korean Student Named as Massacre Gunman. Today's Guardian says: Gunman was South Korean Student.

A headline in Liberation, the French daily, also identified the gunman as Korean, as did headlines in the Bangkok Post and the Middle East Times. Usage struck me as evidence of yet another way in which people who don't know this country don't get this country.

True, Seung-hui Cho was a South Korean national living here on a green card. But in fact, the 23-year-old English major came here at the age of 8. He went to public schools in northern Virginia - just like my kids - and then he went to a state university, where being of Asian extraction is hardly a distinction.

There is an Asian-American student union there with six associations, two sororities and two fraternities. Cho was obviously unbalanced, homicidal, and that makes him typical of no group of significant size. But reading his disturbingly violent script for a play online, I didn't get the impression that his preoccupations were especially exotic, or in any way Korean. Pedophilia, Michael Jackson, Catholic priests - this is the stuff of our news pages in culture - not some foreign country's.

His ability to buy a gun reflects an American interpretation of liberty - an idea, which if not unique to us is certainly no Asian import. It was refreshing to catch a Washington Post headline that hit their Web site yesterday. They described Cho as a local, a Centerville, Virginia student. Like the kids who murdered at Columbine, Seung-hui Cho killed and died as one of us.

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