New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam, Posted: Apr 03, 2012
Editor’s Note: NAM editor Andrew Lam wrote a slightly different version of this piece in 2009 after Jiverly Wong shot and killed 13 people in a community center in Binghamton, N.Y., where immigrants had gathered to learn English, before killing himself. We felt the piece bears repeating in light of Monday’s shootings in Oakland, Calif., by a Korean immigrant that left seven dead.
One L. Goh, 43, an immigrant from Korea who allegedly shot and killed seven people at a school in Oakland, is the latest in a string of inarticulate men who became mass murderers in America.
A few of his infamous predecessors are Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Jiverly Linh Phat Wong, the Binghamton killer. Wong in April of 2009 locked the back exit of a civic community center in Binghamton, N.Y., where immigrants had gathered to learn English and shot 13 people before killing himself. Cho, a 23-year-old English major, shot and killed 33 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 before killing himself. Cho since then entered modern history as one of the worst mass murderers in the United States.
What ticked them off? They have no tongue.
The opposite of a cosmopolitan is a kind of aphonic drifter, someone who fails at articulation. While the former can easily move from one culture to the next, the latter feels disconnected and marginalized by both. The successful border crosser is blessed with the power of metamorphosis and the gift of eloquence. His counterpart, alas, finds himself tongue-tied and trapped in a defective chrysalis, unable to, but deeply desiring, change.
What keeps him from that coveted transformation is language, the loose tongue, that shamelessness and a cunning ability to slide between worlds. Cho spoke with a speech impediment that made him a pariah at school. He was an English major who was lousy at expressing himself.
Though he’d passed the U.S. citizenship test, Wong was nevertheless defeated by the English language. He was reportedly frustrated by his inability to speak English despite two decades in America. He was, as his former co-workers described him, “quiet.”
And now there’s Goh. News reports mentioned that Goh felt ridiculed because of his lack of English-speaking skills. Goh was upset at being disrespected. Administrators and several students, according to Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, “laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students." And ashamed, which further binds the tongue.
And an inarticulate tongue often leads to rage. And rage has its own language. In America, that language often finds expression through using the gun.
Cho’s video before his killing spree in Virginia was a jumble of words, but what screamed out were the guns he displayed. They were his language. And they spoke volumes.
Wong went to the firing range every Saturday, newspapers reported. It is there where he was most articulate. There are pictures of him posing with his Beretta guns.
The successful border crosser uses language to overcome shame by refusing silence, finding ways to articulate his shame until he rearranges it and redefines himself. His counterpart, however, remains defeated, finding no articulate way to transform himself in the new world. They remain cultural misfits, unable to move forward.
So many famous Asian 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 to become infamous --through acts of violence.
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 shooting range -- speaks volumes.
For those who feel powerlessness to transform themselves, 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.
New America Media editor Andrew Lam is the author of “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.” His next book, “Birds of Paradise,” is due out in 2013.