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09 April, 2009

Cultural misfits and the language of the gun

New America Media

Editor's Note: It's hard to find a cultural explanation as to why Cho Sung-hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, or Jiverly Linh Phat Wong, the Binghamton killer, did what they did. But both immigrants chose to empower themselves, if only for a brief while, with the language of guns, writes NAM editor Andrew Lam. He's the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora

Whenever a minority commits a heinous crime, it seems to beckon us in the media to search beyond an individual motive for a cultural one. We saw it in the case of Cho Sung-hui of Virginia tech, and now, in the latest case involving Jiverly Linh Phat Wong -- (or Voong). He blocked the back exit of a civic community center in Binghamton, N.Y., where immigrants had gathered to learn English and shot 13 people to death before killing himself.

It is a habit of “finding the ethnic angle” that is endemic in the work of American journalists in an age of cultural diversity, and in order to sound credible, we often ask so-called experts to give their insights.

Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University and an expert on mass murderers, offered his take. "He was going to take his life, but first he was going to get even," Levin said the day after the Binghamton incident. "He was going to get sweet revenge against the other immigrants who had looked down upon him, among whom he had lost face. To him, that was an extremely important thing."

The keywords here are “revenge” and “lose face.” Those are the popular terms we in the media like to throw around when we think of the inscrutable Asians. To use them well is to impress the Early Show, whose anchors were easily impressed.

But revenge sounds a bit like a “martial arts movie” motive that hasn’t panned out. Shame is part of the equation, surely, but it doesn’t explain enough. Every day around the world, millions of Asians “lose face,” as it were. But they don’t turn into lunatics and kill innocent people. Besides, the extreme outcome of shame in East Asia, most pronounced in Japan and increasingly in South Korea, is suicide, not genocide. Shame is not always a bad thing. In Confucian-bound societies, shame motivates students and workers to improve their lot, and to keep society bound to a fixed moral standard.

Yet, how do we explain the actions of Cho, the 23-year-old English major, who killed 33 people, and Wong (or Voong) who killed 14, before taking their own lives? How to get inside the head of someone whose rambling letter mailed to a local TV station before his blazing murder-suicide bid is now giving psychologists a field day? The media now brand him as “depressed,” a “loner” and “delusional.”

Perhaps there’s another way to understand him, one that is somewhere between culture and psychology.

The opposite of a cosmopolitan has always seemed to me a kind of aphonic drifter. While he may move from one civilization to the next, he is disconnected to both. The successful border crosser is blessed with the power of metamorphosis and the gift of articulation. His counterpart, alas, finds himself tongue-tied and trapped in a defective chrysalis, unable to, but deeply desiring, change.

What keeps him from that covetous transformation is language, the loose tongue, that cunning go-between ability to slide between worlds. Cho spoke with a speech impediment that made him a pariah while in school. Wong, though having renamed himself and passed the U.S. citizenship test, was nevertheless defeated by the English language. He was reportedly “frustrated” by his inability to speak English despite two decades in America, and became, as his ex-co-workers described him, “quiet.”

A day after the Binghamton incident, a Vietnamese American blogged in his native tongue on the language issue, while sympathizing with the shooter. “America is a country full of foreigners, but what [distinguishes] 'natives' from 'immigrants' is an ability to speak English well. English for the Vietnamese overseas can be an issue of survival, and sometimes it’s an issue of life and death, as in the tragedy we just witnessed. I am not trying to defend Wong’s crimes... But I think I understand how humiliating it is to not be able to speak English in America.”

Shame, indeed, binds the tongue. Thus, while the successful border crosser uses language to overcome shame by refusing silence, while he finds ways to articulate his shame until he rearranges it and redefines himself, his counterpart remains retiring, finding no articulate way to transform himself in the new world.

If the Asian shame-based culture is still prominent, keeping its citizens in line and well behaved, it is the gun culture in America that is most conspicuous. It is there on TV and video games and the Internet and the silver screen, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied. For them the gun –- be it in video games or at the practicing range -- speaks volumes.

Cho posted a video before his killing spree and his speech was largely incomprehensible, but what screamed out were the guns he displayed. They were his language.

Wong went to the firing range every Saturday, newspapers reported. It is there that he was most articulate.

So many famous immigrants have entered America’s public space through their power of language -- be it men or women of letters, like Ha Jin or Salman Rushdie, or musicians like Yo Yo Ma and Lang Lang. But there is another way to enter America’s consciousness –- through acts of violence -- and become infamous.

For some who feel powerlessness and marginalized but desiring change, the gun can be seductive. It provides power. It speaks in a language everybody understands. It speaks across color lines. It opens doors for the invisible into the public space.

Unfortunately, it is the language of annihilation and not creation. It speaks up once or twice, but often the user succumbs to his curse: that of silence.

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