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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 22, 2007

Killer's Korean ancestry has no real relevance

By Jerry Burris
Public Affairs Editor

Public and political reaction in Hawai'i to the horrifying killings on the campus of Virginia Tech has followed the national model in most ways.

There have been vigils on local campuses and expressions of sorrow and condolence from top officials. That's the pattern everywhere.

But Hawai'i may have a little extra to teach the rest of the nation in dealing with this tragedy; a lesson it can teach because of our unique cultural and ethic heritage.

News reports on the incident never fail to mention that the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was a "Korean immigrant." That's an interesting factoid, perhaps, but it is difficult to see how it is particularly germane. It may develop over time that Cho's mental state was affected by the fact that he was a child of immigrant parents, and for various cultural reasons felt isolated from his fellow students.

But it is equally as likely that Cho was affected by American gun culture, the particular circumstances of his growing up, the mind-bending impact of violent video games or, who knows? The point is that his ethnic heritage is not necessarily any more important than any of the other factors that affected him as a young person growing up in Middle America.

In most ways, he was as much an American as he was Korean.

That's the lesson Hawai'i must continue to teach. Go into any high school today and you will see kids of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Caucasian, Polynesian and other ancestries. In many cases, they are proudly a mixture of some or all of the above.

But soon enough, these youngsters are less about their individual ethnic identity (even if they retain pride in their family's ancestral and cultural traditions) and more about simply being "local" someone from here.

There are news reports about the anguish in Korea over this incident, as if Korea or Koreans in general will be blamed for the shootings. They should not be, but in a culture where group identity is important (same thing is true in Japan), there is a cultural assumption that the individual somehow speaks for the group.

A news story reported that just as all of Korea was thrilled when part-Korean wide receiver Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers was named most valuable player in the Super Bowl last year, residents there are equally and as universally ashamed when someone of Korean ancestry commits such a horrible crime.

So that's where Hawai'i comes in. We know, as well as any culture anywhere, that individuals speak for themselves and not as representatives of any larger cultural group. Yes, we have an ability to stereotype and generalize (the basis for much of Frank DeLima's humor and the clever conceit behind the Beamer Brothers' "Mr. Sun Cho Lee.")

But we also recognize that people are more complex than their superficial stereotypes,

Hawai'i is far from perfect. But we have learned as well as anyone to judge people and their successes and failures not on their ethnic background, but on their qualities as a human being and unique individual.

To put it bluntly: That Cho was of Korean ancestry tells us, in and of itself, less than nothing.

Reach Jerry Burris at jburris@honoluluadvertiser.com.