17.4.07

Your huddled masses (pt1)

It may prove no accident that the same week Don Imus was fired for his “racist comments” Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people—before killing himself—at Virginia Tech yesterday. Cho, a resident alien from Korean, apparently has been in the US for some time (his family continues to reside elsewhere in Virginia). Even as officials attempt to discern motive for the seemingly random violence, the case may yet prove the effects of social isolation on an ethnic scale, as well reveal the oft-ignored, negative impacts of globalization.

Unbeknownst to many, second-generation Korean-Americans (sgKA) are often one of the most dislocated segments of society. Talking to these young men and women, there is utter confusion on identity. Korean elders, often first-generation American residents or citizens, speak of the homeland as heaven: a glorious place to be replicated in every facet wherever one lives.—there is an unrelenting, and unquestioning, embrace of perceived Korean culture, especially in its respect for family hierarchy. Children of first-generation Korean-Americans are raised to speak English to some degree, to use the culture, to benefit from it, but never to fully embrace it at the risk of losing all that makes them truly Korean.

And yet, these second-generation members are not Korean: they have never seen the homeland beyond media representations. They have been raised with cultural expectations of fitting in at school, on the playground, in the workforce. Such integration requires an understanding, appreciation, and embrace of many non-Korean expectations. But they are no more fully American than they are Korean. At home, matriarchs and patriarchs often grow deeply critical and suspicious of American culture. In school and in the workforce, non-Koreans can become deeply resentful of cultural Korean expressions.

First-generation Korean-Americans carry with them the bond of home and tend to create subcultures of their respective locations. On the seminary campus where I work, it is not uncommon for the Korean students to do everything together, together and apart from other students. In situations where these people become long-term residents of the US, this sense of solidarity doesn’t often translate into the lives of their children, who live between two worlds: a country they’ve never known and a country they cannot own. This psychosis of identity is stamped on the lives of many sgKA.

John from Atlanta, an sgKA, tells of the abuse, mocking, and name-calling. Jeff’s teachers knew what to do with the “n****r” word launched at blacks. But these same teachers failed to grasp the implications of terms like gook and hangook, or chink (completely misapplied by students utterly ignorant of those they slandered) and the sometimes innocent / sometimes slanderous oriental. Another sgKA from St. Louis, Jeff, tells of having to battle his parents at home to respect his white friends, while at the same time having to defend his parents to his friends’ critical remarks about their clothes, food, and décor.

Was Cho Seung-Hui the butt of illiteracy jokes as a Korean non-tech major at a major technical college—and that’s why he shot up the Engineering building? Was it mental illness brought on by the intense pressure to perform? Was it something totally unsuspected by anyone at this point? Whatever is eventually concluded and divulged on the motive behind Cho’s actions yesterday, one can’t ignore the identity crises that sgKAs—and other second-generation individuals—are going through. The safeguards of earlier generations that allowed for a transitional period for immigrants simply doesn’t exist in our globalized world. Where, in generations past, immigrants of every ethnicity—Irish, French, German, Chinese, Hispanic, Latino, even Korean (and in more recent years, refugees from war-torn parts of the world)—sought and found identity in tight-knit communities of their own ethnicity; today, the expectation for assimilation doesn’t allow for the necessary transitions to offer security. This conclusion is evident from the 2005 riots in France to last year’s foiled plot in London to bomb US airlines.

Nor is this an issue likely to be addressed in the ongoing debates on tighter borders (as an aside, no borders are tight enough in a world where economic-market and informational borders are so open). Assimilation is eventually a community venture—and I don’t mean a global community. As author David Wells put it, “Modernization is progressively erasing geographical distinctions as a means of defining community. The modern individual is almost wholly rootless, bereft of any psychological connections to place. To be sure, the new freedom from various parochialism is in some sense exhilarating, but it does not come without a price. Those who belong everywhere can also be said to belong nowhere. They have been emancipated from the small town only to become anonymous, unconnected in our large world. Where the self wanders the earth is a vagrant, belonging nowhere. Something that is profoundly intrinsic to being human has been lost.”

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