Like virtually everyone in the nation, I find myself falling onto the cliche of “shock and horror” at the events at Virginia Tech this week. It’s a mix of disbelief; sympathy for the survivors, the vicitims and their families; and a serious set of questions about what it means to be a professor—particularly an English professor—at this moment in time. As more and more information comes out about Cho Seung-Hui, his writing, his behavior, and the faculty members that he worked with, it’s almost impossible not to ask: what would I have done? What should I be doing as a professor who sees student writing every day? How do we know when to be on our guard and when a student is “blowing off steam”? Moreover, what does it mean to be a Korean American professor right now?
I’ve been mulling that last question in particular since I’m in the middle of teaching Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, a novel that details the complex inner life of a first-generation Korean American man. Henry Park, the protagonist, asks himself the important question about when, and under what circumstances, an immigrant is allowed to become an American. This seems the question that the media is struggling with now as well, as it considers how to approach understanding the incomprehensible: a young man massacring his fellow students and teachers. Much has been made of Cho’s Korean-ness; he was, after all, a resident of the U.S. under the auspices of a green card. As this short piece by NPR’s Robert Seigel points out, however, Cho spent more of his life in America than he did in South Korea. Despite this, many Asian American groups are bracing for backlash, and the entire country of South Korea has issued an apology for his actions. [The truly excellent, and in other circumstances riotously funny Angry Asian Man, has continuing, thoughtful commentary on media coverage of this event.]
Is Cho Korean? Is he American? Is he both? What does it mean to be both? What are the particular privileges that come with being both, and what kind of toll does it take on you? What is expected of you, and how do you begin to imagine your place in society? These are the questions that readers of Native Speaker struggle with, and the convergence of reading that novel and the tragedy at VT begins to indicate to me the ways in which literature really can help us to see the world in ways that we wouldn’t from our own perspectives. It’s not every day that I can argue that the study of literature is relevant, as much as I’d like to. Henry Park works as a spy—one who is constantly called upon to infiltrate groups, to learn and to observe and to fit in. It’s a powerful metaphor for societal assimilation, but Lee takes it one step further: Henry can’t separate his behaviors at work from those at home. He treats his wife like his other subjects. He discerns her desires, he provides for them, and he observes her and gathers information. It’s a troubling psychological model: one in which Henry is never un-self-conscious, never authentically himself, always waiting for someone to say he doesn’t really belong, to blow his cover.
Recently, the National Instititute of Mental Health conducted the first national study of the rates of mental illness and treatment for Asian Americans. The study, conducted in 2002-2003, is still in the preliminary stages of analyzing the data. One of the first conclusions, however, is that ” NLAAS data shows that, as a group, Asian Amerians have lower rates of mental illness than whites but seek treatment less often.” The article linked above goes on to cite economic status, generation, culture, racial prejudice, and social status of some of the significant factors that affect mental health. Are these all factors that play into understanding the character of Henry Park? Absolutely. Are they, by extension, factors that can help us understand the actions of Seung-Hui Cho?
Here, I’m brought up short. I can’t bring myself to try to understand the psyche of a violent and disturbed young man, about whose premeditation of violence we hear more and more with each passing hour. As someone who studies literature, I want to believe that they give us insight into the world around us. But is Henry Park really a useful model for “understanding” Cho? As a professor, I want to believe that access to information can make us better citizens. Could wider knowledge of Asian American resistance to mental health treatment have shifted the course of events? As a Korean American, I want to believe that the unreedemable actions of Seung-Hui Cho will not have a negative impact on the ways that the rest of the nation perceives of an ethnic group to which he belonged. Will his individual actions have ramifications for a larger population?
As someone who occupies all of these positions, I’m left with little but questions.