The discomfort of strangers

KA Dilday
23 April 2007

By now most people know that yet another American community was victim of a gun rampage. I cannot try to explain that tragedy beyond the tragic confluence of two truths: guns are too readily available in the United States and some people are severely mentally ill.

But there is an aspect of the response to the murders of thirty-two people in Virginia Tech on 16 April 2007 that is in my purview. Seung-Hui Cho, the 23-year old killer was an immigrant to the United States. He was a young man in a sort of stateless limbo: his family immigrated to America from South Korea in September 1992 when their son was 8, but retained their South Korean nationality, although they would have been eligible to apply for US citizenship after five years of permanent residency.

Whether they applied and were turned down or chose not to apply has not been revealed. In any case, a close reading of the coverage and the thousands of comments to the website of the New York Times and other weblogs suggest that the question of Cho's "status" in his adopted country may be a significant ramification of this tragedy. A prominent theme of the readers' debate was Cho's identity, the reaction of the Korean and Korean-American communities in the United States, and the uneasy place of immigrants.

Also in openDemocracy in the aftermath of Virginia tech:

Jim Gabour, "This is personal"
(23 April 2007)

A Korean in America

A Korean passport was the only one he held yet Cho had spent most of his short life outside of Korea. After fifteen years in the United States, most of those the formative ones, he had likely shed his Korean accent. At the same time, his family lived in a predominantly Korean community in Maryland, just outside Washington DC. Consequently, Cho's degree of "Americanness" perplexes the world almost as much as the mental disorder that compelled him to kill himself and so many others.

Some argued that he was as American as anyone having attended grade school, high school and college in the United States. Several immigrants to America of Asian origin wrote in to protest his portrayal as Korean.

Here is a representative selection of comments from the New York Times debate:

  • "Like Mr. Cho I immigrated to the US from South Korea at about the same age. Like Mr. Cho I have lived way more in the US than in South Korea, though I am about 40 years of age. In fact, as a naturalized US citizen, I consider myself more American than Korean. Enough about Cho being a Korean national. He lived most of his life in the US and could have become a citizen if he wanted to. Yet, the media (including NYT) is treating him like he's some ‘FOB.' Does not having a blue passport mean you cannot be considered as American?" (Charles Park)
  • "Why does the Korean embassy keep apologizing for him? He had been in America for many years, and was in no way an ‘international student', though many of his victims were" (a man who identified himself as a white American whose ancestors had been in the country for hundreds of years)
  • "One of the things I have noticed in various blogs is the apologetic tone of many self-identified South Korean posters. Has the US become such a xenophobic nation that people from an ethnic minority feel obligated to assure the populace that not everyone from their nation of origin are threats to the American way of life? Will Korean-Americans now fear retaliation for the actions of a complete stranger? (a woman calling herself Sabrina).

The New York Times has an unusually liberal readership, but it seems significant that even the more conservative political websites have not used this incident to fulminate about the need to close US borders to immigrants. In any case, Cho's family had been model immigrants: they had diligently followed immigration rules, and waited eight years for their initial visa to enter the United States as potential residents.

Amid the reeling confusion and shock of this devastating carnage, the search for an answer will likely involve more questions about who Seung-Hui Cho was. By all indications Cho had shown evidence of mental illness since youth. But these bare facts of his biography have led other immigrants to reveal the confusion they feel by being in a country but not of it, and the effect that the dislocating "people movement" can have on individual, vulnerable human beings. 

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice"
(December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

"The labour of others" (April 2006)

"A question of class, race, and France itself: reply to Richard Wolin" (May 2006)

"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (June 2006)

"Zidane and France: the rules of the game"
(19 July 2006)

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"
(5 February 2007)

"Iraqis adrift"
(19 February 2007)

"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel"
(6 March 2007)

"The Darfur conundrum"
(3 April 2007)

Living in limbo

The Virginia Tech events were followed six days later by the first round of France's presidential election, where the leading candidate of the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, qualified for the second round of voting where he will face the Socialist Party candidate, Ségolène Royal. The child of an immigrant Hungarian father and a mother of Greek ancestry, Sarkozy believes that France is not a race or an ethnicity but a collection of values. If elected, he has said that he will appoint a minister of integration and national identity to ensure that these values are spread to new immigrants.

An initiative of Sarkozy's when he was interior minister has already become law: all foreign nationals who want to live in France legally for more than a year must demonstrate proficiency in language and culture before receiving their permit. If they are judged insufficiently prepared in either they are sent on study courses, which can entail as much as 400 hours of instruction. Yet as an article in the leftwing paper Libération (a paper that is usually quite negative about Sarkozy's proposals) reported about one such class: "No one seemed surprised by the requirements." The class included an American, a Mauritian, a Moroccan, an Algerian and a native of Lebanon; all were accustomed to the affirmation of nationalism through common symbols in their own countries, and sanguine about its application in their new French domicile.

What then is the problem with Sarkozy's initiative, and how does it connect to the trajectory of immigrants like the family of Seung-Hui Cho? A preliminary way to express it is that acceptance of symbols does not always lead to a feeling of "belonging" to a new country: it is not a straight route to Americanness or Frenchness or Dutchness or Britishness.

But at a deeper level, the problem of setting rules for immigrants to hurdle can evade the reality of other psychological and cultural barriers that are all the more intractable for operating routinely and "informally". In a disturbing post on the New York Times response site, a young man wrote that he understood the feelings Cho came to acquire in America:

"I understand why the student turned into a gunman. I knew that something like this was going to happen, and this may be the beginning, unless Americans become more respectful to non-white people (both verbal and nonverbal). Racism is constant, mostly nonverbal. I came from a similar background, although not exactly the same. During the junior high school, I was one of the few Asians at the school. Many students are racists and people called me many names. I also spoke constantly about killing people. I started lifting weights, and at the end of that year, I was the strongest in my school. I played with lots of bb guns and paintball guns. I started playing various sports (fball, wrestling, etc). My parents were also poor. Many immigrants either join gangs or some people play sports to release their anger. Fortunately, I was able to overcome the environmental factors, became very popular in high school, and overcame the adversity. It is a special challenge for immigrants and non-Caucasians in America."

The writer offered some advice to all Americans: "Understand that many people from other countries that have poor English accents are better educated than many Americans here, with masters and PhDs. Be respectful to people in all places, but most Americans will never know what it feels like to be non-white, because white people are nice to white people."

The responsibility of the new immigrant to adopt the values and identity of her new country has become the overriding theme of hardline politicians and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain, Germany and the Netherlands are among the countries that have introduced new "citizenship tests" designed to teach immigrants "western values" and (in the process) weed out the intolerances they are assumed to carry with them. This is both the first requirement of integration and the one most easily addressed. If immigrants do not adhere to these values, remake themselves from the inside, then something something very significant: citizenship, which often means an escape from poverty, can be denied them.  

But it is too easy to forget that immigration and integration involve a relationship, not a mere dispensation. It is harder to convince citizens with longtime ancestral roots in a country (and even, in many cases, fellow new or recent arrivals) of their new compatriots' equal status.

Although discrimination is not legal in most western countries, prejudice persists. It often takes subtle forms like employers hiring someone from a similar background because they feel comfortable with that person. Moreover, when it comes to friendship and social circles, no government can or should compel people to attempt to make diverse choices.

It's a strange limbo that immigrants and their children are in: proud (or wishing to be) of their Americanness or Frenchness or Britishness, and hurt and lost when their new compatriots refuse to see them as they see themselves.

Cho Seung-Hui was mentally disturbed from birth, according to most reports. He murdered thirty-two people because he was sick and cruel, not because of his uneasy status in the United States.

In the United States, newspapers are probing Cho's background in a quest to figure out why thirty-two people, most of them just on the verge of adult life, are dead. His Korean-American community is in shock: it was accustomed to producing success stories of which Cho's sister was one. She attended one of the United State's most prestigious universities and worked for the American state department. But the focus on immigrants and one psychologically stateless young man has opened a new stream of discussion that extends far beyond Cho: western society's ability to accept and integrate its new residents or citizens lags far behind the law.  


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