Korean-Americans burdened with guilt, shame and fear of backlash

Korean-American groups express sorrow, avoid guilt

For Korean-Americans, the realization of a shared ethnicity with Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho has left many trying to untangle a complex web of emotions. Shock that someone could commit such a horrific act of violence. Anguish for the victims.

And the unfounded fear – common among virtually any ethnic minority – that the actions of one might taint the whole, says Gie Kim, president of the Washington chapter of the Korean American Coalition.

“Everyone I talked to – black, Jewish, Korean, whatever – we were all hoping it wasn’t one of us,” she said. “I think that reaction is pretty universal across the board.”

Said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council: “It’s something you hear all the time, when something unspeakable happens. If it happens to have been a Jewish person, there’s always, ‘Oh, what kind of reaction to this will there be? Why did this person have to be Jewish?'”

The fear comes from past experiences of discrimination. “I don’t know if there is anyone of any ethnic group who would not have that feeling,” Abramson said. “It has to do with stereotypes and past history and a legacy of discrimination against certain ethnic groups.”

Last week’s disbelief grew into a collective expression of sorrow, when the Korean American Coalition – a national advocacy group – established a fund for Virginia Tech victims. Locally, the Korean Society of Maryland is taking part in the effort and plans to honor the victims in a memorial tomorrow at the Korean American Church of Philippi in Columbia. Similar vigils have been organized by community groups nationwide.

David Han, president of the Korean Society of Maryland, said the memorial is an expression of empathy and grief for the victims’ families. Nevertheless, some people have asked him whether the memorial serves to express a sense of collective responsibility. And if so, why?

“We are not taking ownership of this tragic event, but we wanted to show that we are good citizens of the community,” said Han. “But we could not pretend that it was none of our business. The whole nation is showing sorrow and pain.

“Everyone asks us, ‘Why?’ Well, if we didn’t do anything, people would be looking at the Korean community asking, ‘Well, why are they being so quiet? What’s wrong with the Korean community?'”

Kim has been asked similar questions and noted that the Korean American Coalition has organized victim funds in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

Even so, other observers acknowledged that the tragedy hits home for Korean-Americans, and some are coping not only with feelings of mourning, but collective shame.

First-generation Koreans tend to have a cultural sense of shared responsibility, said Adrian Hong, a board member of the Mirae Foundation, a national organization of Korean-American college students. “If something good happens to one, it happens to all Koreans, and if something bad happens to one, it happens to all of them,” he said.

Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles and member at the university’s Center for Korean Studies, said that because Korean culture tends to be homogeneous, new immigrants rely on one another emotionally.

“In Western culture there is an emphasis on guilt; in many Eastern cultures the emphasis is on shame,” she said. “I think Korean-Americans want to do something because they feel ashamed. Some of them feel truly responsible, even though it is ridiculous to think they are responsible for the action of this person.”

Park said some first-generation immigrants identified with the comments of South Korean Ambassador Lee Tae-sik, who said not only do Korean-Americans feel ashamed but called for them to “repent.” He suggested a 32-day fast – one day for each victim of Monday’s carnage.

But Hong, with the Mirae Foundation, said many second- and third-generation immigrants reject that sense of culpability. Hong, who said he attended the Fairfax vigil in which Lee made the comments, was outraged by the remarks.

“It’s not appropriate, and it’s not necessary,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of naturalized Korean-Americans would say, ‘You don’t speak for us.'”

Instead, in the way that Sept. 11 brought an outcry from Arab-Americans, some Korean-Americans are fearful of a backlash, he said. Hong said he has received anecdotal accounts of Korean-American students whose car tires have been slashed and car windows broken.

“When you look at the collective experience of minorities in this country, I think there have been many incidents where the actions of one or two individuals have been used as an excuse to attack or persecute the larger group,” he said. “That’s no secret.”

Park said the news media’s early identification of the shooter’s race, country of origin and immigration status – with few other characteristics – helped to solidify stereotypes, which some Korean-Americans took personally.

“Mainstream society really singled out the race and ethnicity of the shooter,” she said. “They kept calling him a ‘resident alien’ as though he were from the moon. I think that only reminded Korean-Americans that they are viewed as outsiders and that no matter how long you live here, you really are seen as a foreigner.”

Han said he hopes tomorrow’s vigils serve as an opportunity for people of all backgrounds to come together in the aftermath of an American tragedy:

“We want to do something that shows that we all share in the sorrow and the pain of what happened at Virginia Tech.”