Disquiet in the Land of the Morning Calm over Cho and the ‘1.5 generation’

STUDENTS are back in class as Blacksburg, Virginia struggles to come to terms with the horrific events of April 16.

Half a world away, Cho Seung-hui’s rampage has also hit home.

The reaction in South Korea as the news filtered through was of shock, then shame. Koreans spoke of praying the killer wasn’t one of their own as it was reported he was “Asian”.

The country’s president and US ambassador quickly made public statements of sorrow and regret, with the latter suggesting Koreans in the US might consider fasting as an act of contrition.

To outsiders, the extent to which Koreans identify themselves as part of a single national group can seem excessive. The gunman and his family left South Korea 25 years ago. They have had little contact with the country since. But this hasn’t lessened the feverish debate over what lessons should be learnt.

Once the initial shockwave had passed, a plethora of issues took its place.

There were fears of reprisals against Koreans in the US. These have proven unfounded, prompting soul-searching in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Seoul-based American journalist and author Donald Kirk speculated on the consequences had the roles been reversed.

“Hundreds of thousands of Koreans would take to the streets in protests ... Americans — and foreigners mistaken for Americans — would not be safe on the streets. American bases would be surrounded by dangerous demonstrators.”

While commentators agreed Cho was deranged, many pointed out he wasn’t helped by being part of the “1.5 generation”. The term refers to those born in Korea but brought to the US as children by their parents. The older generation work the long hours typical of new immigrants, leading to fractured relationships with sons and daughters whose command of their mother tongue soon falters.

This, combined with heavily-accented English that marks them out as different among their peers, leaves many feeling they have no identity.

More South Koreans hold study visas in the US than any other nationality. The obsessive education ethic that is the norm at home gives most an advantage over their fellow students.

Any expat in Seoul will admit that one of the major attractions there is safety.

Random acts of violence are extremely rare. Killing sprees like Cho’s are virtually nonexistent.

Korea is, however, highly sensitive about its image in the wider world.

While fears of a Cho-inspired backlash have subsided, the Korean “family” in the US and worldwide will remain affected.

If the events of April 16 prompt discussion and re-evaluation of the 1.5 generation, and the crushing burden of expectation on its youth, one community may salvage something positive from the tragedy.

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