What We Can Learn from Seung-Hui Cho
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.