Tag Archives: Seung-Hui Cho

Breaking The Silence

By Jason Jaewan Lee

CNN reported that Cho was committed to a mental health facility where he was declared an imminent danger to himself. At the time, however, Cho was not considered a threat to others.

As the media coverage surrounding the Virginia Tech shootings continues, one vital factor seems to have been left out of the discussion: mental health care for Asian Americans. While the media chooses to focus on gun control, school security and the individual psychology of the shooter as causes of the violence, Koreans and Korean Americans express guilt, and certain members of Seung-Hui Cho’s own family appeared to distance themselves from him. All of this further distracts from the heart of the matter: How did Cho fall through the cracks?

The issue of mental health strikes home for me. My brother was recently diagnosed with a form of social anxiety disorder, signs of which he’s exhibited since childhood. This came to light after a court-mandated physiological review. If he did not get regular counseling, he could have been placed in a state correctional facility. For a long time, my parents did not react to his mental health issues in the western sense until they realized that their inaction would lead to his demise. It was then that they began to discuss the issue and encourage my brother to seek counseling.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6 million American men suffer from depression, but like Cho, millions more will suffer silently in the shadows — undiagnosed or unwilling to come forward for treatment. Little research has been done on the response of people of color to mental health treatment; national studies on public health and illness have included few APIs, let alone their ethnic subgroups.

It doesn’t help that many Korean Americans associate mental disorders with biological defect and social unacceptability. As a result, psychiatric services are often avoided altogether and problems are internalized.

If APIs do seek counseling, there are structural challenges to access services, such as lack of health insurance. At 52 percent, Korean Americans have the highest uninsured rate among all ethnicities. And according to the Surgeon General, nearly one out of two APIs will have difficulty accessing mental health treatment because they are limited-English-proficient or cannot find services that accommodate their language.

In addition, the “model minority” myth posits Asians as being able to excel in the mainstream more than other people of color, leading to the false assumption that APIs do not suffer from mental illnesses.

If we are to learn anything from the tragedy at Virginia Tech, it is that mental illness occurs within all communities and that the stigma surrounding the subject needs to be lifted. There also needs to be a premium placed on mental health services that are tailored to the specific needs of each culture and community.

First steps that can be taken are investing research into under-resourced communities, training mental health professionals in cultural sensitivity, educating immigrants about mental illness, broadening the practices in psychiatry to incorporate the belief systems of other cultures, and increasing the representation of mental health professionals from diverse cultures.

Perhaps Cho and his family would have benefited from some of these resources. Moving forward, it is essential that we create an infrastructure where those with mental illness know they are not alone and can get support.

Jason Lee is the former director of immigrant rights for the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium.

“Cho Seung-Hui” or “Seung-Hui Cho?”

By Michelle Woo

Some might say this is simply an issue of semantics. But early news reports of the Virginia Tech gunman’s name had an impact on how the public perceived him.

Several major news outlets, including the Associated Press, The Washington Post and Reuters, initially reported that the 23-year-old student’s name was Cho Seung-Hui, with the surname written first as is the practice in Korea. It was the name given to the media by police and school officials. But as documents surfaced, including class assignments, a speeding ticket and a mental health form, it became clear that it would be more accurate to use Seung-Hui Cho or just Seung Cho.

Still, perhaps to avoid confusion, journalists continued to write and pronounce the name the original way. This decision came with consequences. Tack on the Korean-formatted name to the flurry of headlines crammed with racial identifiers such as “South Korean national” and “resident alien,” and suddenly, in the nation’s view, the person who had just committed the deadliest shooting in U.S. history was a foreigner.

Lee Ann Kim, an anchor and reporter at KGTV in San Diego, an ABC affiliate, said that when she tried getting her station to switch to the American format, she met resistance from producers. “I guess they all assumed he was like a foreign exchange student or more ‘Korean,’ if that makes sense,” Kim said.

One wonders if Cho had followed the practice of many other immigrants and used an Anglo name like “Steve” or “Sam,” if there would have been any confusion as to which name to put first. Four days after the massacre, Cho’s sister issued a statement regarding the tragedy and referred to her brother as Seung-Hui Cho. Eventually, some media outlets switched to the American format.

It was something the nation had to come to terms with: Cho was an American killer.

April 16, 2007

By Corina Knoll

Photos courtesy of the Korea Times

When reports of gunshots heard on the Virginia Tech campus made their way to news desks, it felt as if America was at a standstill. We hung onto every new detail that online and TV news sources could feed us. Unfathomably, 33 people ended up dead, and many wounded, in an environment that had always symbolized bright futures and gifted minds. April 16, 2007 would go down as a heartbreaking example of the fragility of life.

At first the person responsible for the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history was an unknown entity, having died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Witnesses of the massacre identified the shooter only as an Asian male. By Tuesday, April 17, the word was out: the gunman was Korean and a student at the school.

That fact was twisted in multiple ways by most mainstream news organizations, who initially referred to Seung-Hui Cho as “Cho Seung-Hui,” a detail that made many Korean Americans believe he was an international student as native Koreans traditionally write their last names first. CNN, and other major news outlets, insisted on reiterating that Cho was a “Korean national” and a citizen of South Korea — both technically accurate, but perhaps misleading to an American public largely unschooled in the fluid status of immigrants.

As pieces of the puzzle began to assemble, it was stunning to learn that Cho’s true background was actually not that different from many of our own immigrant stories. He had arrived in the States at age 8 and was raised in Centreville, Va. His parents worked at a dry cleaner, and his sister had attended Princeton. His education, sensibilities and culture, were, by all accounts, American.

The information resonated with the Korean American community and resulted in an onslaught of apologies to Cho’s victims, worries about backlash, conversations about the stigma of mental illness and statements of empathy for a young man we came to learn was very disturbed. And, as the burden of race has always taught us, one person’s actions alone are enough to reflect badly on the entire group. In a way, we didn’t have the privilege to not care about Cho’s ethnicity.

As staff members of a Korean American publication, we came face to face with this reality, as mainstream reporters called seeking comment from representatives of the community. It was a strange position to be in: mourning the loss of life from a national tragedy and at the same time advocating for Korean Americans.

In spite of the danger of having someone misconstrue our coverage as tying Cho’s behavior to his Korean background, we felt a responsibility to tell this story.

After all, it was clear from the outpouring of our community’s grief over the tragedy — for the fallen victims and for Cho himself — and the outrage over examples of irresponsible journalism, that April 16, much like the Los Angeles riots, will go down in history as a day Korean Americans will not soon forget.

Tragedy At Virginia Tech

PHOTO: CS-VT-Incident 1.tif

By Michelle Woo

On a Tuesday morning, a day after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, we woke to a startling image of the gunman, the man who witnesses had said was donning a khaki ammunition vest when he killed 32 people before taking his own life. There he was, plastered on TV channels and online news sites. In a plain, yearbook-like photograph, his eyes stared blankly through thin-rimmed glasses. His lips showed neither a smile nor a frown. And he was Korean.

In the days following the massacre, blurred bits of information about this young man surfaced, though not without difficulty. First came the basics. His name was Seung-Hui Cho. He was 23 and a senior majoring in English at the university. He and his family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1992. They lived in a townhouse in Centreville, Va., a suburb near Washington.

Through a smattering of details, updated by news sources with increasing momentum, Cho’s family life was beginning to look uncomfortably familiar to many in the Korean community. His parents worked at a dry cleaner, a business that attracts many Korean immigrants. His older sister made good grades and went to Princeton. For some time, the family attended church.

But soon, as those who crossed his path began to describe him, the simple portrait of Cho became distorted, leaving experts scrambling to trace the intricacies of his past for clues to his behavior. Elder relatives in Korea told national reporters that even as a young boy, Cho never spoke. They thought he might be autistic.

Former high school classmates said Cho was sometimes teased for his garbled way of speaking. Virginia Tech senior Chris Davids told the Associated Press that once, when Cho was forced to read aloud, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, “Go back to China.”

In college, Cho seemed to express his internal anguish through writing. After the shooting, two plays he wrote laced with themes of rape and revenge circulated on the Internet. An English professor said she had informed campus police more than a year earlier that she was concerned about the anger Cho expressed in his work.

His college roommates recalled their rare conversations with him. According to The New York Times, Cho would mention an imaginary girlfriend named Jelly. She was a supermodel who lived in outer space. They also said Cho slept with the light on. And he never looked people in the eye.

His behavior went from bizarre to threatening. In class, Cho reportedly took pictures of women from underneath his desk. Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum said that in 2005, two women contacted campus police to say Cho had made inappropriate contact with them. Cho was asked to speak to a counselor from a local mental health facility and was later issued a temporary detention order committing him to a psychiatric hospital.

Mental health examination documents show that Cho was labeled as a threat to himself, but not to others. That’s how little people knew.

On the morning of April 16, Cho, carrying guns, chains and knives, entered a dormitory hall and killed two people. Then, hours after police began following a wrong lead, Cho stepped inside an engineering building and killed 30 more, before turning the gun on himself.

Two days after the massacre, officials opened a package that Cho had sent to NBC studios in New York. It contained video clips of himself, 43 photographs and an 1,800-word statement expressing his rage. In his videos, he’s wearing the same khaki ammunition vest police would later discover on his blood-drenched body.

In a low, mumbled voice, Cho ranted against rich “brats” with Mercedes and trust funds. He described himself as a figure persecuted like Jesus Christ. He mentions “martyrs like Eric and Dylan,” a reference to the 1999 Columbine high school gunmen.

“You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience,” he said.

The videos provided a glimpse into Cho’s troubled mind that no one — not even family members — had ever seen.

Still, as loved ones of the 32 slain victims struggle to move on from what’s been called the worst slaughter of its kind in our nation’s history, Cho’s actions seem just as inexplicable as they were when he fired his first shot on that fateful Monday morning.