Clear up the mixed signals Asian boys receive here
Anger suffered in silence triggered the Virginia Tech tragedy
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
It surprised many that South Korea, long known and admired for its disciplined, law-abiding, honest labor force, with one of the world’s lowest murder rates, would produce an an immigrant who became a mass murderer in the United States.
How did Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho come to commit his murderous atrocities and what can we do about it?
I believe the answer lies in better understanding the effects of Confucian-derived ideology on many young Asian male immigrants to this country, along with those of the Columbine tragedy and teenagers’ taunting.
Like the Korean shooter, I immigrated to America at age 8, and attended a grade school and high schools where I was usually the only Asian (or one of only two Asians) in a class. I attended a technical college, and eventually studied as a liberal arts major, as did Cho.
Society has changed since I went to college in the late 70s, but many immigration adjustment issues remain the same. Perhaps I can shed some light on how Seung-Hui Cho may have felt. Though he’s Korean and I’m Chinese, we’re both from the same Confucian-East-Asian culture.
What is it like to immigrate from Asia to America at age 8? Many of his teen acquaintances said Seung Cho was continually teased and taunted. Language was undoubtedly an issue. The English language is difficult and can carry many meanings; an Asian immigrant typically doesn’t have the verbal skills to defend himself. Cho likely swallowed his anger in silence as he was verbally being cut to pieces.
There have been studies that show Asian men are regarded as the least attractive by American women. If Cho was holding suppressed anger, he would scare girls even more. Perhaps that’s why he imagined a girlfriend from outer space.
Adjusting to America for an Asian is perhaps more difficult than for many other cultural groups because there are fewer Asians from which newcomers can develop their own social norms.
Black Americans are abused more than Asians, but there are more social traditions and institutions that restrain, rechannel or suppress blacks’ anger. Hispanic immigrants come in larger numbers and have established cultures that help restrain their anger.
For an 8-year-old Asian immigrant, life can be painfully distressing. Almost certainly, Cho initially followed his parents’ Korean (Confucian-derived) ethics. Unfortunately, however, these ethics don’t always work as well in the United States, and U.S. culture no doubt influenced him differently as well. This friction can mean problems at home as well as at school.
On the plus side, his parents’ Confucian-derived ethics would teach Cho the value of hard work, honesty, respect for elders, lots of self-discipline, as well as encouraging him to lean toward academics.
But these ethics can be problematic for an immigrant youngster in a school and social environment where verbal attacks, abuse and social rejection continually occur.
Because they arrived here as adults, Cho’s parents came here with their sense of ethics, self and family already established. People in their circumstances would most likely always be “foreigners” anyway, preferring their foreign customs and tastes and their political ideology to that of their new home.
On the other hand, their children would almost certainly be faced with conflicting cultural norms, expectations, differing social institutions and different reward systems. This is not just the case for Cho; it is the experience of tens of thousands more like him. That is why many East Asian immigrants’ sons carry a burden of suppressed anger and sadness.
How is it, then, that Cho’s sister, also an immigrant child, did not become a social deviant? East Asian societies are patriarchal, and the son’s discipline is almost always much tougher than the daughter’s. Asian parents love their children — but their sons must be taught to be both good and successful while their daughters generally are regarded as being inherently good.
This means that the daughter can do less wrong; she’s given lots of love, but whether she succeeds or not, she is subject to far less criticism by her parents. If a daughter raised this way becomes success-oriented she can do well, because she has had less parental criticism (which would turn into self-criticism) than a son. Typically, she has received continual parental love with the same Confucian emphasis on academics that a son would receive.
When it comes to raising boys, however, Asian parents will typically be very critical of their son’s development. Why? For centuries, this is how Asian parents have raised their sons.
The problem for an Asian immigrant boy in America is that he is also trying to adapt to American school and other Western cultural norms that tell him much of the “constructive” criticism voiced by his parents is invalid.
Thus, an Asian immigrant son can feel unjustly criticized on all sides — at home, at school, by the larger society and by the popular culture. It is easy to see how he might become lonely and angry.
Confucian ethics is simply ethics — and the real world isn’t always ethical; so Confucian disappointments are always present. The Eastern religions, notably Buddhism and Taoism, have psychological comfort measures to deal with these disappointments. These include meditation, spiritual practices and religion-derived maxims.
In the Cho situation we see:
• An immigrant’s son who might have felt unjustly criticized at home by his parents’ Asian ideologies on how to raise a son.
• An immigrant’s son who was evidently criticized and taunted at school.
• A young man who grew angry and had trouble making friends and girlfriends due to his anger.
• A Western society without the religious means to soothe the young man’s anger.
• A Western society with fewer social means to soothe his anger.
There were almost certainly other possible issues: Cho’s older sister was more successful, which would cause more difficulties for the typical Asian male. Possibly, he had mental illness. Like so many young East Asian immigrants, he carried his anger in silence until it erupted into tragedy.
Why did Cho’s anger translate into cold-blooded murder? Why didn’t he become a wife beater or commit suicide, or drink alcoholically and abuse drugs?
I believe part of the answer is that the tragedy at Columbine offered a new and deadly, destructive outlet for Cho’s anger. It seems likely Cho would have seen some kind of twisted retribution for himself in copying the actions of the Columbine shooters, who were also taunted by their peers.
East Asian immigrants’ sons aren’t the only ones who experience such deadly frustrations in our Western society. Muslim immigrant sons also frequently feel society treats them unjustly The London subway bombers were Pakistani immigrants’ sons.
So there is the matter of justifiable anger. I understand how that feels. But it by no means confers legitimacy on either Cho’s crimes or those of the bombers in Britain.
The solution is not simply tighter gun control, better psychiatric evaluation controls, or faster emergency response. And, it would be very expensive to stop teasing and taunting in the pre-college years.
One idea would be to offer courses that teach immigrant youths how to deal with the types of cultural adjustments so many face. Such courses would help these youths see past the cultural issues and unjust parental and peer criticisms, teach them how to handle the teasing and taunting, and more.
Considering the deadly alternatives, they seem worth trying.
Sun, a Houstonian, is owner of WebAndNet.com, a Web design company. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.