[Letters] Behind Asian-American violence

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[Letters] Behind Asian-American violence

“Jiverly Voong, an unusual name,” commented an MSNBC newsreader recently. “Let me spell it for you: “J-I-V-E-R-L-Y V-O-O-N-G - Jiverly Voong,” the newsreader repeated. “It is a name as incomprehensible as his act of killing 13 immigrants who were studying for a citizenship test at the American Civic Center, a local civic center that helps immigrants transition into the American culture.”

At 10 a.m. on a Friday morning [early this month], Voong, also known as Wong, backed up a borrowed car to block the back door of the civic center in Binghamton, New York to prevent escape. Clad in a bulletproof vest and armed with two pistols, Wong went on a shooting spree that left 14 persons dead, including himself.

The following week, a 69-year-old Korean man shot four people in a Korean Catholic retreat camp in California. Both of these acts echo the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech by Seung-Hee Cho, a Korean-American student who killed 32 people on the campus in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Such violent acts drive us to find an answer to the question: Why? What drives them to commit such homicidal violence? As a Korean-American committed to Asian-American issues, I was compelled by Wong’s story to search the Internet endlessly in search of answers.

What I found was disheartening. As with the media coverage of the Virginia Tech Massacre, the discussion of the recent shootings has been limited to only two themes: mental health and gun-control. Undoubtedly, these are important social issues. But to look for the reason behind the Binghamton tragedy within one of these categories is to miss out, yet again, on an opportunity to address the deeper issue beneath the surface: the link between violence and the failure of Asian immigrants to assimilate into American society.

Our inability to imagine any alternative motive is perhaps because American culture is only trained to see Asians through the lens of the “perfect minority.” Wong and Cho’s fundamental refusal or inability to live up to that stereotype has left us with an interpretive paralysis.

Assimilation of Asian immigrants into American culture happens between two stereotypes: that of the “model minority” and the “perpetual foreigner.” The model minority stereotype, a seemingly harmless compliment, is simultaneously a racial refusal - one that creates a false sense of acceptance and rejection at the same time. Thus, the term “perpetual foreigner.” These stereotypes prevent society from accepting Asians on their own terms. Instead, they can only be understood through America’s distorted cultural representations.

This false translation renders Asians politically silent and socially invisible. The deep wound of silent invisibility now finds articulation in the only way some know how to be heard: violence. It is a loud existential shout, a final attempt at becoming visible, being heard. These violent words are now being echoed on the nightly news, in major newspapers and in the endless feedback loop of Internet-based media.

Our search for the shooters’ motives should lead us to revisit our habits of cultural assimilation. It is time for us [the U.S.] as a nation to explore the consequences of categorizing Asian-Americans as the “perfect minority” and see the social, political, racial and religious architecture of Asian-American subjectivity as a clue to the recent violence. Or else, the violent finale of Wong’s massacre will again be as incomprehensible and foreign as his name.

Sang-woo Arnold Oh, doctoral student, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
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