Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What We Can Learn from Seung-Hui Cho

Since the Virginia Tech shooting, I've been limiting my doses of the media, of public opinion, of any discussion about Seung-Hui Cho. I've become irritated by some of the discussion and representations about Cho, particularly those that dismiss him as a "monster," a "lunatic," or "evil." For to dismiss him as such doesn't get to the underlying problems—to dismiss him suggests that he was an anomaly and that this kind of thing can't happen again, especially not by the hands of an Asian American because we're so well-adjusted and happy living the American Dream. Aren't we? I mean, haven't we made it to honorary whitehood status?

A young black woman came up to Catzie and me after we performed at Loyola College last week, a week-and-a-half after V-Tech, and said something to the effect of (even though I'm going to put this in quotes, I'm paraphrasing what she said): "Most black people think you guys [i.e. Asians] don't have it so bad. You guys seem to fit in and be accepted by white people." And I was tired and I really tried not to yell at her, but I think I did anyway, and it's that whole fucking Model Minority bullshit all over again—that racist-love ideology white people tag on us and other minority groups swallow unquestioningly. And even though this young woman clarified that listening to our poetry opened her eyes to the racism and discrimination Asian Americans do experience, I couldn't help but feel like she didn't take our anger seriously. That we were full of sound and fury—and so what?

Asian Americans have been angry for a long time. I am one of these angry Asian Americans, and I won't feel guilty about being angry because of what Seung-Hui Cho did. Seung-Hui Cho was not a "monster" or a "lunatic" or "evil"—he was a troubled young man who did not fit in, who felt like an outsider and like no one understood him. He was teased and probably bullied. His "foreignness" was underscored time and time again as he grew up, from his language to his physical characteristics, and the media repeatedly proclaimed his continued foreignness by identifying him as a South Korean national though he grew up in the United States since he was a child. They made sure they gave as much airtime as they could to his foreign body, showing as many profiles of him and emphasizing his non-American and -white identity through the ticker and other displayed text.

During his life, Seung-Hui Cho’s sense of alienation facilitated and compounded his development of severe emotional and mental health problems. He was angry—full of rage—and his rage was allowed to fester with no outlet, it seems, other than his music and his plays/writing. Perhaps if someone had taken an interest in his writing beyond seeing it as a warning sign—people write about murder and death all the time, from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King—he could have used that as a way to diffuse his rage. As an angry person who works out a lot of my issues in my poetry, I believe writing can be therapeutic as well as cathartic; perhaps if this young man had been encouraged to be creative and explore his interests in writing, no matter what the content, he may have been able to release a lot of his pent up frustrations. But at every turn, it seems, he was told what a "freak" he was. And he lashed out. He was a lost young man who needed help.

Now, I know some people are probably disgusted with me b/c I sound like I'm defending Seung-Hui Cho. Some people are impatient with "making murderers the victims" and feel that trying to understand why he did it, in some way, disrespects the innocent people killed. Clearly, insisting that we don't dehumanize Seung-Hui Cho by reducing him to labels such as "monster" and "lunatic" doesn't mean that I support what he did or that I've forgotten about the shooting victims. I'm sad for these victims and their families and friends. But I'm also sad for Seung-Hui Cho, for even in death he is a pariah, denounced by his family, America, and the global Korean community. And I can imagine that he knew it would be like this—that if he was to be a pariah, he might as well embrace it. And the intensity of his hate suggests that he felt he was not loved. Who loved this young man? That he obviously planned this as a murder spree-suicide suggests that he, too, didn't love himself. Only by understanding what could have caused him to take such desperate measures for attention can we prevent it from happening again. Because we cannot make this issue go away by asserting that he was an anomaly. There are plenty of angry young people out there who have not snapped yet. And many of them are APIA. APIA women, young and old, are committing suicide at alarming rates--see Kristina's Wong's show "Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" which explores this, asks why no one cares, and reveals how fucked up the system is for someone who is trying to get help. We've been committing violence against ourselves for a long time and no one's noticed. Now when our anger projects outward, shouldn't it mean that we and others should take heed?

In light of this, mental and behavioral health care prevention, assessment, and treatment have to become a topic of discussion and point of concern and action for the APIA community. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Asian American population is expected to double in the next 25 years, and the available data indicates that there is cause for concern about our mental health issues and that many of us are at-risk for serious mental, emotional and behavioral problems. The 1999 Surgeon General’s report on mental health notes that a high percentage of Asians demonstrate an immediate need for mental health intervention and treatment services; as an example, the report cites that 70% of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees receiving mental health treatment were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to war and relocation traumas. Furthermore, the report attributes linguistic isolation, debilitating poverty, and cultural stigmas as being significant hindrances and the reasons why most Asians do not seek or obtain mental health education and care. Exacerbating these problems are a lack of trained bilingual/bicultural health service professionals (both at the medical and mental health care levels) and a lack of diverse and culturally appropriate intervention strategies. Truthfully, however, the data on mental health issues in the APIA community is lacking, and this can be attributed to neglect by the mental health care profession as well as our own aversions to mental health matters.

To begin the healing process, APIAs have to acknowledge that we avoid the issue of mental illness and challenge ourselves to change the way we view it. Due to cultural perceptions, many Asians associate shame and embarrassment with mental illness and will avoid seeking care for fear of disgracing themselves and their families. Furthermore, talking about emotions and feelings is regarded as a sign of weakness, especially when publicly revealed or expressed to strangers, so most will keep these to themselves. This stigma has also been heightened by the negative experiences some Asians have had in their native countries with mental illness: people stigmatized with emotional or mental problems might be prohibited from marrying and having a family, imprisoned for being alleged political dissenters, or institutionalized in a long-term care facility and permanently labeled as “crazy.” Compounding these issues even further is the lack of knowledge of the high prevalence of mental and emotional disorders within the Asian community and of the availability of effective treatments, particularly in prevention and intervention care. For while mental health care is not always sought by Asians, mental illness is nevertheless an alarming problem among Asian immigrants, refugees, and families as indicated by the high incidents of trauma and depression related to war, emigration, and assimilation; of social anxiety disorders from being in an unfamiliar and hostile culture; and of the high suicide rates among both youth and adults.

We have to start here—by talking about it. Then we can find out more about it and determine a plan for changing the cultural and systemic hindrances in place which produce a Seung-Hui Cho. Because Asian American anger is real. I could have been Seung-Hui Cho. Your brother could have been Seung-Hui Cho. Anyone of us could have been Seung-Hui Cho—I reiterate that there are plenty of us who are angry enough, who need just that “final straw” to go careening over-the-edge. As a community, we should want, most of all, to not only prevent another mass murder-suicide but also to help fellow APIAs who are hurting and don’t know how to talk about it or get help. We should discard the embarrassment and shame and demand that culturally appropriate and linguistically accessible services be provided so that we can handle our anger and rage more productively and direct it to initiating positive change for ourselves and others. We should do this because we can't expect the racist and xenophobic society that caused torment to Seung-Hui Cho to change--as evidenced by the incidents of violence being directed towards Koreans and other APIAs around the country since the shootings. We have to take care of ourselves because we care about our community and we know what racism, discrimination, and hardship we deal with everyday. We need to listen to each other when no one else will. And we have to exert our power to change the systems that prevent us from accessing services that could stop us from hurting ourselves and others.

Breaking the Silence: Recognizing V-Tech Shootings is an issue of Unequal Mental Health Care Services

The disparities APIAs face regarding access to mental health care prevention, assessment and treatment are issues that I've come to care about and have tried to raise awareness about since I've been working at SEAMAAC. I will put my own post up about this soon, but I wanted to share an article that a friend of mine wrote on this topic especially in light of the Virginia Tech incident. Our community needs to urgently address mental health.


Breaking the Silence: Recognizing V-Tech Shootings is an issue of Unequal Mental Health Care Services

By Jason Jaewan Lee

The Virginia Tech shootings highlight the disparities in mental care for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AA/PIs). As the media coverage surrounding the Virginia Tech Shootings continues, the hope of these unmet needs being addressed by society diminishes as news continues to leave out this vital discussion. Instead the media chooses to focus on gun control, school security, and the individual psychology of the shooter as the causes of the violence. South Koreans abroad are propped up to display their guilt and condolences for the victims; Cho Seung-Hui’s own family shamefully denounces and disowns him—all of which further distract from the heart of the matter—how did Cho fall through the cracks?

Six Million American men will be diagnosed with depression this year alone, but like Cho, millions more will suffer silently in the shadows-undiagnosed or unwilling to come forward for treatment; few studies examine the response of minorities to mental health treatment. And in particular, there is a scarcity of knowledge on the mental health needs of AA/PIs. What little we do know is that older Asian American women have the highest suicide rate of women over age of 65 in the US. In addition, national epidemiological studies have included few AA/PIs and yet to include the broad cross section of AA/PIs which is comprised of 43 different ethnic subgroups.

The scientific neglect of the AA/PA community only compounds the fact that AA/PIs have low utilization of mental health services. One study reveals only 17 percent of those experiencing problems sought care mostly after disturbances became severe. This is because treatment goes undetected, ignored or delayed until symptoms reach crisis proportion-due to shame, stigma or misdiagnosis. For Korean Americans, mental disorders are associated with craziness, biological defect, and social acceptability, as a result psychiatric services are avoided altogether and problems internalized.

This strikes close to home. My brother was recently diagnosed with a form of social anxiety disorder. This came to light after a court-mandated physiological review. If he did not get regular counseling he could have been looking at harder times up state. Only when the realization of continuing to ignore my brother’s mental health would lead to his demise did my parents recognize they needed to openly discuss the issue of mental health within the family and encourage my brother to seek counseling.

Even if AA/PIs do seek counseling there are structural challenges to accessing services: 21 percent of AA/PIs lack health insurance compared to 16 percent of all Americans. Korean Americans have the highest uninsured rate at 52% among all ethnicities. And according to the Surgeon General: Nearly 1 out of 2 AA/PIs will have difficulty accessing mental health treatment because they are limited English proficient or cannot find services that accommodate their language. And approximately 70 AAPI providers are available for every 100,000 AA/PIs in the U.S., compared to 173 per 100,000 whites.

Finally America’s legacy of racism prevents America from accepting depression’s destructive impact on AA/PIs. As was reported, Cho Seung-Hui was told to go back to China and put down because of his accent through out his life by his peers.

For Koreans, hwa-byung or “suppressed anger syndrome” characterized by constriction in the chest, palpitations, headaches, anxiety, et. al are experienced by those who have a hard times expressing their feelings much of their lives which can lead to violent episodes of rage. Perhaps Cho suffered from this. In addition, Asian Americans are seen as the “model minority” which posits Asians are doing better than other minorities. This racist ideology leads to the false assumptions that AA/PIs do not suffer from mental illnesses. The reality is 14 percent of the AA/PIs population lives in poverty; 62 percent is foreign born. For Koreans the number is greater—75 percent immigrant. Therefore language barriers, financial resources, and knowledge of accessing treatment are all barriers for Asian Americans to receiving culturally competent mental health care services.

The tragedy of V-Tech could have been prevented not by gun control or beefing school security. None of that stops a kid from “letting go.” Cho gave up when he brandished two hang guns on the Hokie campus. No, if we are to learn anything from this, as a society we must be prepared to place a premium on mental heath services that is tailored to the specific needs of each culture and community. This can be achieved by investing into research into under resourced communities, training mental health professionals in cultural sensitivity, redesigning the structure of service delivery for outpatient clinics, educating immigrants about mental illness, broadening the practices and vocabulary in psychiatry to incorporate the belief systems of other cultures, and increasing the representation of mental health professionals from diverse cultures. If these systems and practices were in place, perhaps Cho Seung-Hui, a victim of an inadequate U.S. health care system, and the countless others who suffer from debilitating mental illnesses, can be given a fighting chance.

About the author:

Jason Jaewan Lee, a 2nd generation Korean American is a writer, mixologist, intellectual worker, and activist. He can be reached at jasonssi@gmail.com.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Dear Virginia Tech

This time last year, Catzie and I performed at Virginia Tech at their annual R.I.C.E Concert for Asian American Heritage month. Bobby Lee from Mad TV also performed. We never did write a post about it, but we met some wonderful students down there. Bobby Lee even treated everyone who had come to the show to dinner (It must have been about 100 people). We loved talking to everyone after the show; they all left an indelible mark on us.

Our hearts go out to the students and community at Virginia Tech. We hope Hosannah, Susie, Aaron, the members of AASU, and the other students we met are well. We are sorry for your loss and are thinking of you at this difficult time.

Much love,
Michelle and Catzie

Friday, April 13, 2007

Celebration time...

To all of our Laotian, Thai, Cambodian and fish-sauce lovin friends and fam,


Eat some sticky rice and papaya salad, street barbeque and be with everyone you love.