Some Thoughts on the Asian American Shooter

April 17, 2007

Writer Andrew Lam finished this piece as soon as the news hit that the shooter was Asian American:

Let It Be Some Other 'Asian'
New America Media, News Analysis

Editor’s Note: As the country waited to learn the identity of the killer at Virginia Tech, Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Lam says all ethnic Americans held their breath, waiting to see if they would shoulder the spillover of blame for the acts of an individual. Lam is a writer and editor with New America Media and author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora".

SAN FRANCISCO – All across America, no doubt, non-Korean Asian-Americans are now heaving a sigh of relief. “Asian,” after all, was the four-alarm-fire word we saw throughout the day after the shootings that took the lives of 33 people at Virginia Tech. The shooter was “Asian,” the news reports said. But who was this “Asian” exactly?

Before the news identified the killer as Cho Seung-hui, a 23-year-old English major from South Korea, all ethnic backgrounds were up for grabs. A friend from a small college town on the East Coast, who is Chinese, called to say: “Please, please let it be some other Asian. We’ll be in deep if it’s Chinese.”

In a popular Vietnamese chatroom, Vietnamese college students were writing to each other to speculate. One said, “I have a bad feeling. It might be Mi’t (Vietnamese slang for Vietnamese).” Others wrote in advising each other on what to do.

The blogosphere buzzed with speculation on the identity of the killer. The waiting game was as tense as waiting to find out who the next American Idol might be. On another blog,, Schlussel speculated that the shooter could be a Muslim Pakistani. “Why am I speculating that the ‘Asian’ gunman is a Pakistani Muslim? Because law enforcement and the media strangely won’t tell us more specifically who the gunman is.”

A Muslim Pakistani friend, an engineer who refused to have his name mentioned, emailed me to say, “If he’s a Paki and Muslim, we might all just pack up and go home. I’m praying that he is some other Asian.”

Let it be some other Asian! This was the prayer among so many Asian-American communities. And not just Asians.

“Every time there’s an incident like this, every ethnic group is on pins and needles,” said Khalil Abdullah, an African-American colleague. An Anglo shooter may be an individual, a loner, but God forbid if a person of color goes on a shooting rampage. His whole tribe would be implicated. “I still recall my aunts when President Kennedy was assassinated. They were praying that it wasn’t a Negro.” Many ethnic communities do not feel that they belong to the core of the American fabric, Abdullah added. “The action of an individual can cancel out the good image of an entire group.”

Case in point: A Virginia Tech student and Chinese-American blogger was initially thought by many bloggers to be the culprit. He was reputed to have a penchant for guns and many photos of himself posing with his rifles. More than 200,000 people have visited his sites since the shooting and many left angry, racist epithets against Chinese. He told ABC, "Right now, pretty much the Internet thinks it is me… I am just interested in trying to clear my name.”

As a Vietnamese-American, I have always found the word “Asian” to be too generic to be a useful identifier. Asia is the largest continent with the largest and most diverse population in the world. In Asia, people identify themselves by their national or ethnic origin, not as “Asian.”

Yet, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, many of us – including myself – used the word to refer to any other “Asian” besides us.

In the end it wouldn’t have worked for very long. To be a minority in America, even in the 21st century, is to be always on trial. An evil act by one indicts the entire community. Whoever doubts this need only look at the spike in hate crimes against Muslims and South Asian communities after 9/11.

After the shootings, my best friend, a Korean-American lawyer in Washington, D.C., felt in his bones that somehow a Korean was responsible. He didn’t know why. But, “one thing’s for sure now,” he said, “we can safely lay the model minority theme to rest.”


I am currently working with a young Korean American woman to produce a commentary on how she feels about the shooting. She's 16 and when I asked her if she remembered Columbine, she said: "Not really. Wasn't there a movie about it?" She had no idea that the shooter was Korean American until I told her this afternoon. She said she just assumed he was a white guy. Who did you assume it was?


Did anyone else see Dark Matter, the SFIAAFF closing night film, which was loosely based on the 1991 University of Iowa incident when frustrated PhD student Gang Lu shot six people? I thought the movie was pretty unsuccessful, but suddenly it's all I can think about.


One of Cho's roommates was South Asian: 21-year-old Karan Grewal. Were any of the victims Asian American?


Anyway, this does put the lonely, alienated, nerdy Asian American boy on the map in a major way. Are they going to be feared and alienated even more now? Any lonely, alienated Asian American boys want to chime in here on this issue?




i think if u feel lonely and aliened in America , why u do not return to your homeland ?? maybe in nationality , u get american citizenship , but in culture , it is very hard for asian american to be assimilate by american society . after all , u are guest , to this country . when u feel lonely and aliened , try to adapt to it , or try to endure it , if u can not endure it any more , why do not return to your homeland ?? anyway , do not try to hurt others . it is absolutely wrong !
Lam's column is a good read. One thing that has begun to bug me is the characterization of Cho as "a 23-year-old English major from South Korea". He was born in South Korea but he moved to the US with his parents when he was 8. He was not planning on going back to South Korea as best we know and he probably spent term breaks and summers in Centreville, VA in HIS MOM AND DAD'S HOUSE. Let's knock off this 'he was a South Korean student'. He is South Korean like "da' Ahnold" is Austrian - yes, once, but no more. In keeping with the AAJA's theme, his Korean-hood' appears to have had nothing to do with this situation - nor did the ethnicities of his victims as they span the spectrum (unlike Columbine to a great extent).ON another note, the NYT article quotes people at the scene as saying 'thorough' so it is not an NYT 'spin' it is reporting what some people said. And MAYBE just MAYBE they said that because Cho was thorough. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.Lastly, while there certainly is no 'good point' or 'joy' to be taken from this event, I offer this to Asians concerned about a 'backlash' based on ethnicity - Welcome to being Black in America. Maybe the discomfort that this event gives you will be remembered when it is not your ox that might be gored in the future.
Welcome to being Black in America? How about welcome to being Asian in America.
I tried to read you post several times...only to grasp the theme..."let it not be my racial brother".As a large Euro-Roots opinionated white man...when I heard "Asian"...that term meant "friend" in my mind. When I saw that it was a young depressed, socially-troubled Korean heart went out, of course to his victims, but also to his family...and even him. I hate so see people that are so unreachable. While not excusing his actions, if we see people isolating themselves...we need to find out how to reach them.But in conclusion, I have never ever heard a derogatory remark or anyone saying an "Asian" did this. People saw the shooter for what he was...a depressed, troubled, metally-ill human being. There we go but by the Grace of God. And may God have mercy on us all.
hey guys, can you please be diligent about deleting racist comments like the one above? this is not a forum for racists.
As an American first and foremost, I wanted to express my deepest thoughts and condolences to the victims of this horrific tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to you. You are not alone.Now to my main response: HEY oberservation, get this straight, as an Asian American I don’t need a wake up call from you about what it is like to suffer racism or ethnic backlash in this country! I face it every day, in every form imaginable and I have faced it all my life in this country!My ancestors who came to this country over 150 years ago and helped build this nation with their sweat blood and tears and who were exploited, violated and murdered do not need a lesson from you! My Japanese American brothers and sisters who were imprisoned and robbed by the US government and placed behind barbed wire and gun towers do not need a lesson from you! Vincent Chin does not need a lesson from you! Our South/Southeast Asian American brothers and sisters who were cursed and killed after 911 and who were denied rights as US citizens do not need a wake up call from you!THAT is the reality of being Asian American in America. So oberservation, Welcome to being Asian American in America.For you to think that this is the first and only time Asian Americans have feared or suffered racial backlash is ignorant and incorrect. We too have suffered; do not think for one moment that Blacks are the only group to face adversity in this country. Our ethnic groups have much more in common than you think. I am sick and tired of hearing minorities argue amongst themselves back and forth about who had or has it worse. Can't we all agree that we have been victims of the same disease and move on to more constructive dialogues? We should be working together to overcome racism and problems in our country. Do not promote ideas that further divide us, you are just adding to the problem.
*a note from hyphen: racist comments were deleted.*
I think the shooter was not 100% psycho. He was not a loner. Perhaps, socially not harmony or acceptance him into the circle, therefore, he is being called loner.He may be anti-social, as minority, we can relay, and in his eyes, there were many unjustice or had difficulty adjusting to this society. Difficulty in school, bullied by classmates and popular boys and girls.Perhaps, made him angry he had to take back in an angry way. Yes, I feel very sorry for those fallen ones, including Asian-Pacific Americans and most ethnic groups. But, the news media talked bad about him as loser. Hey, he wasn't the only one, others had done it before weren't called loser or etc.I think we have to be very watchful of the media's mouth not to insult or put certain people in fault. He was out of line, in which we need to learn more. But, at the same time, we can't just blame him.Talk about the gun manufacturers, policy maker, government tax dept. lobby groups, gun merchants, society's attitude to Asian-Americans or immigrants, bias, etc.So, we got to fairly disect the whole issure and exam why and not just talk about his fault. I think something goes wrong has its cause.
to 'oberservation': i grant that a cigar could just be a cigar in the NYT article. afterall, i did say that it required research, and i phrased it as a question. but reporting is not necessarily a neutral activity--reporters ask the questions and chose their quotes.regardless, it wasn't an exclusive comment on the reporting, but a conjecture on the adjectives used to describe murderers, or even criminals as a whole.
After looking at those tapes he sent to NBC raise some questions. "What did he mean by your hands is filled with blood and Im doing this for my brothers and sisters you screwed"
That broad statement could have meant anything. He may have been alluding to people with the same personailty traits as him (loner, timid, bullied, nerdy, etc) or it could have been culturally or racially based. Who knows? It's hard to understand a madman. It sounded more symbolic than literal, but then again I don't know how many brothers and sisters he actually had.
for asian americans, watching the virginia tech massacre unfold is like sitting in your fifth grade history class and dreading the cold stares that fly your way when the teacher starts talking about how the japs bombed pearl harbor. the “let it be the other asian” response from so many of us is a little like putting on a button in the 1940s that says “i am not Japanese.” these are some of our un-quantifiable, un-measurable traumas. welcome to being asian in america, indeed.
For all those who want to engage in the my-minority-is-more-oppressed-than-yours bickering, here's a related racial profiling article for you.
To steal a line from Chris Rock, I'm not going to say what Cho did was okay... but I understand.Speaking from my own experience as an alienated, lonely, nerdy boy (who happens to be Asian American, though that didn't really enter into my identity during the period when the other adjectives were more prominent), when I saw the "video manifestos", I found myself identifying much more with Cho than his victims. Just as when I saw photos of kids being evacuated from Columbine High School, my reaction was as much "yeah, I hate those kids, too" as it was "that's tragic". Given all the number of people who have enjoyed a film like Heathers repeatedly (myself included), I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in these thoughts.As long as our only reactions are to dehumanize the perpetrators and lionize the victims (who, at this point in the investigation into this case, seem to be random) without ever once recognizing the the motivations which occur to many of us, we will not learn from these tragedies. We need to address not just the logistics of the events (ie access to weapons, email/text alert procedures, doctor/patient/instutitional communication, etc.), but the process by which we as individuals deal with these destructive urges.On a side note, most coverage seems to mention that Cho was on some prescription anti-depressants yet no one has mentioned that studies have show that many such drugs many increase the chance of suicide and violent behavior. Interestingly and unlikely serendipitously, ABC’s World News Now immediately followed their coverage of the shootings Wednesday morning with a piece on recent opinions drawn from research that the benefits of antidepressants outweigh the risks (of suicide and violent behavior) in children. Of course, that’s in children- whether the risk analysis applies to adults is not mentioned.
Just wanted to say it was a very tragic event. In terms of race let me be the first to say to all white people (U.S. or foreign) that I am not apologizing for being Asian.
I hear Koreans complaining that if he were white, nobody would pay attention to race. I think is false. White men are in fact stereotyped as more likely to be serial killers. In fact, I was surprised, I hate to say, that it was a non-white serial killer. Racism pervades society, and all people are affected, not just minorities.
What happened at Virginia Tech might be considered mass murder (though on a personal, not political scale), but it was not serial killing. There is a distinctly different psychology between the two and there is no evidence to indicate the the gunman was a serial killer. Most serial killers in the USA have been white. However, while a serial killer in this country is more likely to be a white male than other ethnicity or gender, the converse is not necessarily true.
I really appreciate seng's comments above, very insightful at the risk of being politically incorrect. I, too watched Heathers repeatedly, I also could identify somewhat with Cho and his feelings of hating what he thought represented some of that "mainstream America" alienation. However, this is the difference between the sane and the "insane". Sane people have some modicom of impulse control. There is also the stigma of "mentally ill" in Korean culture that just isn't addressed and therefore isn't discussed.
As an Asian American who was part of the first wave of children immigrants beginning in the late 1960's, I can understand why MR Cho SH did what he did , but at the same time it was very wrong. Also note that he killed 2 obviously Asian AMerican students too. MR. Cho is one of many people who have immigrated to the USA but was not capable of taking the extreme stress of losing one's homeland and natural racial identity. He seemed to have been born wtih a personality that made him less able to overcome social discrimination. It takes only a series of negative events in life to turn a young person into a sociopath, especially in a society that does not easily recognize Asians and especially Asian males as "real Americans". During my 30 plus years living as a citizen in the USA, I have had countless insults, social slights, outright threats of assault and even lost employment or not offered employment due to my face and skin tone. Most of us marginalized minorities have no choice but to swallow the bitterness and to advance ourselves economically through harder work and our wits . Some cannot do this or refuse to accept social discrmination and just explode into rage or fall into depression. Mr Cho is a product of American culture, for better or worse; he probably would not have done this had he stayed in Korea. My parents emphasized education and enterrpise in order to defeat economic discrimination; yet despite all the success or money you can achieve in N America, you will still be seen as second class person in public while a penniless illegal immigrant from Ireland or Poland will be treated better by the white society at large. This racial exchange rate cannot be adjusted much by any SAT score, bank account or even if an Asian man marries a caucasian female or vice versa. It is tragic that MR Cho had this psychic break but was inevitable given the widespread social oppression of Asian American immigrants. THe Federal government allows Asians to immigrate to the USA in order to improve the economy but it cannot control the social and psychological forces at play; this is why you dont' see any new Japanese immigration as they are wealthy now and do not need to leave their home and get abused.Casting MR Cho as insane is not right as it deflects the true problems that exist ; he seemed very logical in his actions and they were not accidental. His actions were his alone; no one else needs to apologize for him.
Han,"Casting MR Cho as insane is not right as it deflects the true problems that exist ; he seemed very logical in his actions and they were not accidental."That's crazy. Massacring 23 random people because your lonely is not logical. What in the hell is "logical" about exterminating innocent strangers because *you* are unhappy and want to die????I think you are projecting your own resentment. Since Cho's killing had no clear motive, people project their own fantasies on top of it. In this case, you seem to project your racist hatreds on to Cho, even though Cho himself mentioned no racial issues, and instead railed against "rich kids" and child abusers.Even worse, you only seem to lament that he killed other Asians. I think you miss two important points:- Cho wasn't fighting a race war.- You are a racist.
Being insane is not EXCLUSIVE of the other issues that were involved. Easy access to guns and the fact that he felt isolated which I'M sure was further perpetuated by stigmas and stereotypes this country and it's self absorbed indignant youth thrive on. Add to that, the fact that having mental issues is seen as somehow being "defective" in the Korean culture and you have a recipe for disaster. The only thing that I agree with Han on is the fact that no one should apologize on behalf of Cho. The Korean community was not responsible for this - American society and popular culture was.
Response to JR: I don;t know what your ethnic extraction is but I wish you had been beside me a couple years ago when I went to a nice gym to lift weights and had a visiting football player who was 6'4", just 4 inches taller than me and he just said " I'm going to kill you!" and walked off. He was an AllAmerican type of guy and had never seen me but felt compelled to reinforce his identity by a felonious verbal assault. AS for the worthless killer MR Cho, his acts show quite a bit pre-meditation and calculation. I also said what he did is wrong. Some of my best friends are backwood redneck whiteboys. WE enjoy hunting and have shot many Elk, Deer and Geese; I would defend them and they would defend me. Mr Cho was an amateur and could have been easily killed had he confronted a group of men who were hunters or veterans. A mere 9mm pistol can hardly penetrate a thick wood chair or panel; if several people had thrown chairs or other thick objects at him it would have given them a chance to tackle the killer and stop the bloodshed. The coroners have confirmed that most victims took 3 bullets which confirms my experience with 9mm parabellum in actual use on wild pigs. To answer your claim of racism, I would have felt no hesitation nor regret if I had to stop MR Cho with any type of weapon and I have met many an Asian that I truly did not like as a human. AS the S Africans have done, Truth and REconciliation is better than pretending that racism does not exist; or we Asian AMericans can just talk like Condeleeza Rice and say "I have never felt discrimination" while every black person I know uterrly hates her in ways that cannot be written.
"Being insane is not EXCLUSIVE of the other issues that were involved."Here's the quote I was responding to:"Casting MR Cho as insane is not right as it deflects the true problems that exist"We are not "casting" Cho as insane. He was insane. Clearly insane. He had imaginary girlfriends.Now your point seems to be that he may have had a point about discrimination. I think you are projecting. Why did the white kids at Columbine do the same thing? Is it always a "reaction" against "society". It seems like it's more like another aggressive a**hole hurting innocent people. I hate this effort to make killers into martyrs and victims.The real victims were the 32 people massacred by a lunatic with a gun.People talking about racism here basically are hijacking the issue -- sans any evidence -- and forcing this into their prefered pet issue. He never mentions racism once, and rails against Bin Laden, John Mark Karr, Kim Jong Il, rich kids and Jesus. His relatives in Korea said he was weird and isolated as a child in Korea. To claim that coming to the US exacerbated anything is pure conjecture. To my knowledge, diseases like schizophrenia would occur regardless, since many are genetic.I do agree that this discussion has nothing whatsoever to do with Korean culture or the Korean community.The big story here is the lack of mental health care, and someone who fell through the cracks.As for bullying and bad experiences, they happen anywhere. Jsut about EVERY youth has been bullied, called names, made fun of and rejected by girls. It's called life. Most of us can handle it and grow up. A few fragile unstable people snap. And I repeat: Cho never complained about bullying. And why should he -- that holocaust survivor teacher certainly never bullied Cho.Thus my central thesis: he was crazy and his actions make no sense.
There's a lot of Filipinos in the town where I live. They stick to themselves like the blacks do, kind of like tribal I guess you could call it.I can understand Cho feeling disconnected, but it if was that bad why didn't he just return to S Korea and stay with relatives there? Usually if a person is friendly, he will have friends. He just couldn't grow up and get rid of the chip on his shoulder.