God's Politics

God's Politics

Hyepin Im: VA Tech and the Model Minority Myth

Virginia Tech … although most of the nation has moved on to other headlines, Virginia Tech has not faded from my memory. As each day passes, I can’t help but feel the same mixed emotions I had during the 1992 L.A. Riots: anger, bafflement, and sadness. In both cases, the media played with the lives, fortunes, and futures of Korean Americans, portraying them as foreigners who did not belong in the U.S.

Like Seung-Hui, I came to the U.S. at an early age and consider the U.S. my home. I doubt that I would survive if I was dropped off in South Korea. Consequently, I was quite disturbed – and even angry at times – to see the media distort Seung-Hui Cho’s name and identify him as a foreign alien. I am even more baffled by the fact that even after over 150 years of history and contribution to this country, Asian Americans can still be mistreated as foreigners by today’s media. As I braced myself with other Korean and Asian Americans for the potential backlash from the Virginia Tech massacre, the whole ordeal saddened me deeply. Because of our country’s racism and ignorance, minority communities are forced to deal with the tragic action of one person.

There is no denying Seung-Hui Cho was one sick individual whose wild rampage was senseless and tragic. At the same time, I can’t help but mourn and wonder whether or not this tragedy could have been averted if Seung-Hui had early intervention. For too long, Asian American communities have been ignored or left out of policy, program, and funding decisions under the justification of being “model minorities.” Only recently, studies are acknowledging that monolingual Asians and their families are underserved in this country. Such short-sighted decisions are costing many innocent lives, and taking a huge toll on the community and the country. For example, juvenile delinquency for Asian Americans has increased while it has decreased for other groups in the last 20 years. Asian Americans suffer from high suicide, depression, and domestic violence rates.

Last year, the Korean American community and its family challenges received some attention by mainstream media, including the LA Times and The Washington Post, when three Korean American men committed family murder suicides, killing their spouses, their children, and themselves, all during a one-week period. In all three cases, there were serious business, financial, and marriage problems, even though they had projected the appearance of wealth, good education, and the typical model minority image. Although these stories are just the tip of the iceberg, the tragedies and problems that exist in the Asian American community are often ignored or simply not covered. Just two weeks ago, a Korean woman killed her husband and then herself. This week, a Korean American man confessed to killing both his wife and mother in law.

The need for accessible, comprehensive, and culturally and linguistically sensitive services is great – yet adequate resources are still not allocated for the Asian American community. How many Seung-Hui Chos does this country need to see before policy makers, government officials, and others starting paying some serious attention to the Asian American community? How many more innocent lives will be lost before there is serious action?

Virginia Tech is a wake up call to the nation. Asian Americans are no different than any other American in that we all want to be part of the American dream. When any segment of society is left out and left without hope, the rest of our society bears the consequences.

Hyepin Im is the the Founder and President of Korean Churches for Community Development (KCCD).

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kevin s.

posted May 10, 2007 at 6:54 pm

What are policymakers supposed to do for the Asian-American community? As I see it, Asian-Americans had suffered the most from the racial prioritization structures we create in this country. When I was in college, Asian-Americans were viewed as pests. College admissions standards were tilted to weigh against Asians even more heavily that whites. When Prop 209 passed, acceptance rates for Asian-Americans increased at the UC schools, leading students to bemoan the fact that there were Asians everywhere you looked. The underlying assumption is that Asians didn’t earn it, and therefore don’t deserve what they have. What a way to think about people. I think our policies should be come more colorblind, not less.

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posted May 11, 2007 at 1:31 am

I am disturbed that the most homogenous diaspora in the entire world is now angry that we treat them as a closed-off diaspora. There is of course blame on both sides, but the Korean community everywhere must come to the understanding that part of the blame lies with you: you insist on being viewed as different from all other races. You insist on your own culture, schools, churches and groups; you are bent on proving that you are the best; you stop at nothing to be “successful.” I lived in South Korea. I have never, ever in my life experienced such shocking and widely accepted racist, xenophobic thought. This was not the country-bumpkins like the American South. This was respected college professors to government figures to business leaders, the prevelent attitude was that Koreans are the uber-race and we will stop at nothing to prove it. Now I certainly make a distinction between Korean Americans and native Koreans. However, even then, there were many Korean Americans that I knew of who simply felt they were better than anyone else. It just was not the same with other asian groups. Somehow Koreans have this issue where they have all convinced themselves that they are in fact the greatest race in the whole world… and it does bleed over into some of Korean American community. So my question is this: is it now the non-Korean community’s fault that your people are closed off and in many cases very digustingly elitist? On the other hand, Ms Im raises good points about progress we all need to make. I agree that we need to de-compartmentalize all asians. As a matter of fact, I would love it if we would do that. But the fact of the matter is that asian communities are generally very tightly closed to non-asians — even one asian ethnicity to the other. When non-asians make efforts to get to know them and move toward some sort of reconciliation, they are rebuffed with suspicious accusations of “neo-colonialism” and “asian fever” or just plain greed. So when non-asians experience this, how should we respond? You tell me because I do not feel an invitation into your community. What I feel is a mixture of mistrust, suspicion, and anger — and I lack of respect for the individual that I am. Again, Cho Sung-hui made a choice to commit the worst gun massacre in the history of our country. All ethnic races have had the same access to guns he did for 200 years, and yet just recently it was a Korean who went into the record books. But the ironic thing was this: even as Ms Im derides the American media for stating that he was Korean, the entire Korean community was feeling an odd, disturbing “collective shame” so common to asian culture. The irony here is this: Ms Im derides me for noticing the koreanness of Cho, while her whole entire community feels deep shame *because* of that Koreanness. It is my hypothesis that part of what she sees in the media is not a non-asian determination to focus on Koreans at all. It is her roots, her culture, that demands that she focus on her Koreanness above all, at any cost. The fact is that the media was simply reporting the facts. If he had been a russian immigrant who moved here when he was young, they would have reported that and focused on it. It does remind me of the Korean tendency to shift blame and never be accountable for their issues. In this case, it is not at all that Koreans are responsible for Cho’s actions — although that was the first rresponse of many Koreans and Korean Americans (IE: everyone’s kneejerk apologies while non-asians were asking, “Why in the world are they apologizing?”). The issue here is an entire ethnic group that glorifies itself to an unhealthy level, living for the day that their xenophobia is exonerated and justified. And that day will not come until they are dominating the west. And that will not come until every Korean sacrifices all that they are (as individuals) for all that the image of Korea in the eyes of the world can be.

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Unsympathetic reader

posted May 11, 2007 at 6:02 am

As I braced myself with other Korean and Asian Americans for the potential backlash from the Virginia Tech massacre, the whole ordeal saddened me deeply.” I personally experienced no backlash and did not expect any. I don’t know why other Asian Americans would anticipate a need to brace themselves. Beyond the usual number of fruitcakes I don’t think there where many noteworthy incidents. After 9/11, I was pleasantly surprised at the relatively little backlash against people of Arab descent. There was nothing compared to the hysterical internment of Japanese in the US and Canada after Pearl Harbor. I think the US has actually come a long way in 60 years. Seung-Hui was clearly a nut, not a ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ Korean. Non-asians understand this.

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Just a thought

posted May 11, 2007 at 7:25 am

I don’t know how much good culturally and linguistically sensitive services are going to do when the people who need them are made too ashamed to make use of them. I’m an immigrant from northern Europe, but that’s one thing I have in common with my friends from Asian immigrant families when we get talking about our parents– our parents all think that mental illness is a character flaw, not an illness, and definitely something to hide. And God forbid that anyone should get bad enough to have to seek treatment– medication or therapy– because that would be admitting to a doctor or therapist that you have this shameful thing wrong with you. Since the author is involved with a group that works with churches, I can’t help but think that would be a great place to start in altering this mindset, which is pervasive in so many cultures and which prevents people who need it from seeking help.

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kevin s.

posted May 11, 2007 at 7:29 am

Unsympathetic reader, Good points. I assume, then, that you are of Asian decent. Would you agree that America actually does a good (if imperfect) job of not categorizing minorities based on the action of those who are of similar ethnicity? Jon, Wow. Thanks for the visceral honesty. Quite a bit to chew on. You ahve addressed a number of the ways in which ethnicity may or may not have played into this issue. May I ask inquire about your heritage? Are you Korean, or did you spend a semester there for school? Are you of Asian decent?

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posted May 11, 2007 at 2:11 pm

Well to be fair this post speaks a great deal about the model minority myth and the pressures that are plaguing my asian brothers and sisters. I think what we need to look at are some of the cultural issues that focus on perpetuating the myth of the invisible asian. I think once we disect those as a culture deal w/ the self hatred and nihilism for some in the community and deal w/ the lingering perceptions in the larger culture things will get better. p

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posted May 11, 2007 at 2:54 pm

Fascinating, I am a white guy, and yet, I just saw Cho as a young person corrupted by America’s immoral culture of “anything goes.” He went crazy. A trip to any Juvenile Hall or Mental Health facility, and you will see massive numbers of developing Cho’s. But unless you “are” a racist, you will notice that they come in every ethnic and cultural makeup there is. White, Brown, Red, Yellow and the combination of all of them. In San Jose California, the criminal justiice system has information written in many, many, many different languages. Only a racist would see Cho as anything other than a messed up young person. And in America, they come in every color in numbers too big to count. Our melting pot has seared the minds of our future.

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posted May 11, 2007 at 7:15 pm

“Our melting pot has seared the minds of our future.” Donny Geez Donny, I was with you 100% until that last line!

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posted May 12, 2007 at 12:29 am

Neuro_nurse, Me too who knew? p

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posted May 12, 2007 at 1:11 am

Payshun, LOL

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Unsympathetic reader

posted May 12, 2007 at 2:12 am

kevin s: “Would you agree that America actually does a good (if imperfect) job of not categorizing minorities based on the action of those who are of similar ethnicity?” I think most people know that this is not a good practice but I can’t say how deeply embedded that feeling goes. It takes time for cultures to change and I see that responses vary depending on the ethnic group. Certainly asians are more likely to be given the benefit of a doubt (the ‘model’ minority stereotype at work). Try this: Imagine walking alone on a dimly lit street through a large and tight crowd of a particular ethnicity. With which group would you check your wallet afterwards? Which people would you feel comfortable looking in the eye? With which groups would you feel safe or uncomfortable confronting? But relatively speaking, yes, the US and Canada are pretty good (I have no feel for South Africa, New Zealand or Australia), and have certainly improved, particularly in the last couple of generations. For those of African descent, I think there are other western nations that do better with acceptance. Tolerance and acceptance varies but the fact that North America is a mixing pot helps. How to ‘stir that pot’ more smoothly?… Ah, now that’s a good question that Ms. Ims is seeking to address.

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posted May 12, 2007 at 4:52 am

Jon, “Wow. Thanks for the visceral honesty. Quite a bit to chew on. You ahve addressed a number of the ways in which ethnicity may or may not have played into this issue. May I ask inquire about your heritage? Are you Korean, or did you spend a semester there for school? Are you of Asian decent? kevin s. Kevin, circle this date on your calendar and, yea, verily, declare it a statutory holiday in MN, for on this day, I agreed with you. :)

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posted May 15, 2007 at 7:21 pm

At the same time, I can t help but mourn and wonder whether or not this tragedy could have been averted if Seung-Hui had early intervention. For too long, Asian American communities have been ignored or left out of policy, program, and funding decisions under the justification of being “model minorities.” As a member of that “model minority”, I beg to differ. One, I look around my city and see plenty of programs and services catering to the monolingual Asian community. Two, I’m not convinced that creating more gov’t policies/programs benefiting Asians would’ve kept hellbent-on-death Cho from doing what he did (non-Asians tried to reach out to him, but he shut them all down). Three, as others have mentioned, many Asians tend to view seeking help for mental illness with shame and denial, something non-Asians cannot be blamed for…it’s hard in the long run to justify money for programs few use. And it certainly sidesteps the question how Korean churches (typically quite strong) may have failed Cho as well. Four, I think many Asians subconsciously wear the “model minority” label with pride and false humility. More than a majority of Asian families pour their all into making their children (and hence themselves) “models of society”. If the myth of the “model minority” is to be shattered, it has to be relinquished by our shame-based, image-conscious, status-obssessed culture, too….not just dispeled by the non-Asian majority that surrounds us.

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