Tuesday, April 24, 2007

what if VT happened here in Korea?

Foreigners cite nationalism, discrimination as barriers to life in Korea

In wake of Virginia Tech incident, Korean society called on to accept its own immigrants.

A 30-year-old foreign woman, who gained South Korean nationality last year after leaving her home in a central Asian country to marry a Korean, wept on April 20 as she talked to a Hankyoreh reporter. Her bloodshot eyes were mixed with anger and chagrin. Her anger centers on how her 10-year-old son is treated in school, where he is a third-grade elementary student. "Fourth and fifth grade students beat my son because he is different in appearance. Despite my appeals to the school, the matter hasn’t been resolved.” Because of the matter, she transferred her son to another school, but the situation did not change. "My son is scared of going to school," she sighed.


A 36-year-old Mongolian woman came to South Korea in 2003. Though she received Korean nationality last year, she has seen no difference in her poor treatment. While she received a Korean identification card instead of a foreigner’s one, and while her appearance is similar to that of Koreans, these do not help her. "When I go to a restaurant or a store, people use polite expressions to greet me. But when they hear my pronunciation, they begin to talk impolitely to me." She plans to change her name to a Korean one because her five-year-old son would otherwise be discriminated against at elementary school, which he begins next year. Even in kindergarten, students ask the teacher whether her son, Min-su (not his real name), is Korean or not.


Given this atmosphere, how would South Korean society react if an immigrant committed a crime similar to the Virginia Tech massacre?

In the wake of the tragedy caused by a South Korean immigrant, some critics pointed out that South Koreans should reflect upon their attitude toward foreign immigrants such as Southeast Asian workers and others. In particular, as some foreigners who have gained South Korean nationality still suffer from widespread discrimination and prejudice, racism in South Korean society is under close scrutiny.

The central Asian woman said, "While the U.S. is a multiracial society, discrimination and prejudice are much more rampant in South Korea because Koreans think of themselves as a homogeneous people." The Mongolian woman said, "When I talk with my Mongolian friend on the subway, I am surprised by the coldness seen in the reactions of Koreans around us." She said her Filippino friends were told by other Koreans they were being noisy when they talked in their mother language.

Lee Cheol-seung, head of a foreign labor consultancy in South Gyeongsang Province, said, "Typically, Koreans treat immigrants as expatriates because they aren’t ethnic Koreans. If one were to commit a crime similar to that of Seung-hui Cho, ethnic Koreans would consider him as a non-Korean, as still being a member of the society from which he initially came," Lee said.

Kim Yun-jae, a lawyer who emigrated to the U.S., said, "Most Koreans see the [Virginia Tech] tragedy as a cause for shame and guilt, instead of considering it an incident caused by structural problems in American society. In light of this attitude, most Koreans are likely to treat immigrants and naturalized Koreans in the same way [they treated the Cho incident]," he added.

Kang Seong-hye, head of an emergency call center for immigrant women, said, "To resolve the matter of Koreans’ nationalistic exclusivity, we should figure out ways to reshape the community, and teach this in schools in order to share it with society. Services are also needed to help immigrants adapt to being Korean," Kang said.

Seung-hui Cho and Hines Ward

Seung-hui Cho’s shooting spree left Americans and Koreans in shock. The biggest dilemma Koreans feel is the question of whether Cho was Korean or American. They think the answer will determine how much responsibility they have to feel for what happened. In fact, the only reason we distinguish this recent shooting from the occasional similar incidents like the Columbine High School shooting is that Cho, as a permanent resident of the United States who holds Korean citizenship, is a member of the "1.5 generation" immigrant generation, going over to the U.S. as a child.

The reason most of us Koreans felt shame or were so sure the event would lead to the spread of prejudice against Koreans when we heard the shooter was a Korean citizen is worrisome, because it stems from the kind of thinking of a society so occupied with nationality and bloodlines that they fail to take into account that he was in fact a member of the society in which he lived.

Cho may never have given up Korean citizenship, but if he grew up there since the third grade, he is, in terms of mindset and cultural association, at least over 50 percent a child of American society.

I am not trying to distort matters here in order to "free" South Korea and its citizens of "responsibility." Hines Ward had an admirable Korean mother, but I think it was American society that raised him to be an admirable citizen. If he had been in Korea, where there is racial prejudice and discrimination based on bloodlines, would the care of an admirable mother have been enough to make Ward the same man he is today? We need to stop going on about bloodlines and how great the "Korean race" is while getting so excited with joy or sorrow at the successes and failures of overseas Koreans. We need to begin working on eradicating our society from its racial prejudice and discrimination against foreigners. Today Korea has hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and their children living in its midst. International marriages account for roughly 12 percent of all marriages, and the number of so-called "mixed-blood Koreans" is rising rapidly.

We need to see that it is how we handle the cases of Seung-hui Cho and Hines Ward that will determine whether we raise someone of mixed racial background in our society into a Hines or into a Seung-hui. We need to raise a generation of these children with warm feelings toward Korea instead of hatred that can lead to violence.

I do not mean to say that overseas Koreans do not need our consideration. We should help them settle abroad, and we should support them in maintaining Korea’s language and culture and avoiding discrimination. This is something needed for Korea, overseas Koreans, and for everyone living in the countries in which those of Korean descent reside. Helping them maintain their cultural identity and respecting that identity is a very important condition for their ability to live with pride as global citizens. Cho reportedly had close to no interaction with the Korean community; had he had more interaction with people like the Korean students association and had more cultural pride, he may have been more mentally stable. Had that been the case, he might have contributed to both Korean and American societies.

Back when I lived in the United States, the cultural and linguistic differences and the new environment led to a massive amount of stress, and for a while I went to psychological counseling. It was through that experience that I learned quite painfully of how outsiders need our consideration. Helping immigrants settle in their new countries is something the countries they emigrate from and the countries they settle in both need to work toward. This would be one way to reduce tragedies like this recent event. The victims of the shooting and their families are surely in great agony, and the shock felt by Cho’s parents and siblings is surely no less severe. I can only hope there will never be another tragedy like this one.

A Question for Korean-Americans

Is what Kim Dae-joong claiming, that your childhood was ruined by coming to America, true?:

The children led their lives apart from their parents and roamed the streets. Living in blue-collar neighborhoods, the schools the children attended were often prone to crime and offered a poor educational environment. Not all of them, of course, but the children of many Korean emigrants, lived lives without pride or community consciousness, and eventually ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. In the end, many Koreans who went to America for the sake of their children’s education saw their children ruined by it instead.

I don’t think it is true that all these Korean-American kids are ruined by coming to America and Kim Dae-joong is just overreacting to one isolated incident of violence from one emotionally disturbed person. However, I am interested in hearing opinions from those who live in the community.


CPT KIM Apr 24th, 2007 at 7:26 am


Kim Dae Joong is idiot and he never experienced being a 1.5 Gen KA. Sure, in the beginning is never easy. I had to struggle to learn English and trying reach adolensce same time. I got into so much fight due to racism with White kids. I was enrolled in lower track classes due to my poor English skill. But we all over come it and assimilate into American life. Vast majority of us do succeed in life by graduating from college and have professional jobs. Just look at James Sun from the Apprentice. He is also 1.5 Gen.

Many non-Koreans keep on telling me that recent VT event has nothing to do with Cho being a Korean. But it was the same cultural background that we grew up which prevented him from getting treated for his mental illness. Korean parents do their best to hide their skeleton in the closet by not seeking professional help for any mental illness that their children might have. They all felt shame if local small Korean community found out about the illness. As long as Cho was not committing crime and he was studying hard in school, his parents have thought that the problem will just go away.

My 2 won-cents

BTW, I will be attending Mary Read’s Wake tonight in Annandale, VA. Her funeral is Tuesday.


VT massacre



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