A Clockwork Blue: What’s It Going To Be Then, Eh?
Singing in the rain — songs about Asia, America, and everything in between…

Seung-Hui Cho, Yellow Peril, and Yellow Journalism

 First of all, let me preface this post by saying that its intent is to critique the American media’s handling of the Virginia Tech killer’s identity. And as you will see, I am highly critical of the job the media has done and continues to do. However, my expression of this discontent is not to be mistaken as an attempt to formulate some kind of apology for the killer’s heinous crimes. These are two separate issues. Seung-hui Cho is the one,  regardless as to whether he may have been mentally ill or cruelly ostracized by his peers, responsible for his unforgivable crimes. And by the way, yes, the murderer’s name is Seung-Hui Cho, and not Cho Seung-hui as most of the American media has referred to him. And you will see as you read on that there is a compelling reason as to why I make this seemingly trivial distinction.

In the immediate hours following the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the killer was identified as a Chinese national in the US on a student visa. This was mostly due to a report by a certain Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun-Times. Sneed actually provided a fairly detailed profile of this non-existent Chinaman–he was a 25-year-old Chinese national who arrived in the U.S. in San Francisco last year on a student visa issued in Shanghai.  Detailed, indeed. Unfortunately, all the details read like some early 20th-century dime novel describing some evil yellow Chinaman from Shanghai who enters the U.S. via San Francisco and wreaks havoc upon middle America. It is as if this “journalist” conjured up the most easily attributable stereotypes in her (Sneed is female) zeal to flesh out this Missing Chink. And this so-called information was relayed to the American public by Bill O’Reilly, along with Fox News at large and various other network affiliates.  James Fallows, the esteemed American journalist based in China, chronicles this journalistic atrocity and the near-panic it caused in China.  And I watched with horror as Bill O’Reilly reported this on his show, smugly insinuating that it was an inevitable result of letting those evil immigrants into our fine pristine country. Sigh.

 An Asian-American, even after having committed what may be the most infamous individual crime in the history of this country, cannot escape the confines of the two-dimensional, cardboard, stereotypical  portrayals assigned to Asian-Americans with a knee-jerk reaction by middle America.  We Asian-Americans are alternately the “model minority” and the “evil minority.” Devious  and calculating. Effete, yet capable of wreaking more evil than say the big Negro or the pesky wetback. We are certainly, without any doubt, the “two-dimensional minority.” It is apparently too much for us to ask that we be portrayed as the multi-dimensional human beings that we are. But, just like any other ethnic group, Asian-Americans are capable of doing out-of-the-ordinary things–whether they be academic, athletic, or criminal.  The New York Press, when it coined the term “yellow journalism” more than a century ago to describe the shoddy practices borne of the feud between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, could never have imagined that the term would have so much poignant relevance in the year 2007.

This Asian-American kid who ended up turning into a cold-blooded inhuman killer must have gotten the old, “Ching chong, go back to China” taunt countless times in his youth.  Most of us Asian-Americans at one time or another have had to endure similar taunts, having been mistaken for another Asian nationality, sitting there silently, dumbfounded and alienated, not knowing how to respond. How do you respond in such Kafkaesque situations? When someone from the group in power lashes out at you, however mistaken they may be in their charges.  How do you respond when someone is filled with so much racial hatred that they do not even bother with such “minor” details as to what your actual ethnicity might be? Do you respond that you are such and such nationality, and that your particular nationality is different from the one for which the assailant has so much hatred?  As if such “nuanced” explanations will make any difference? I am an ethnic Korean, and I have had the double pleasure of being mistaken for at least two other nationalities–Chinese and Japanese. At various times, I’ve been told by schoolmates to go back to China,  and by WW II veterans to remember Pearl Harbor and what it feels like to surrender. What I am saying is that even after death,  Cho could not escape the old Chinaman slur. Is this just a mere journalistic slip on the part of one irresponsible individual? Or is it something ingrained into the collective American psyche?

 When Michael Richards goes on a verbal rampage filled with racial slurs against his hecklers, he is effectively banned from public life.  Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington had to go into rehab after using the “f” slur. Mel Gibson got several lifetimes of negative publicity after his anti-Semitic remarks. And most recently, Don Imus got fired for his “nappy-headed ho’s” comment. Should these public figures have been held accountable for their hate statements? Absolutely. But what bothers me so much is…where is the outrage when the target of the hate speech happens to be Asian-American? Shaquille O’neal did his endearing parody of the Chinese language a few years ago. He was not fined or disciplined by the NBA. In the big scheme of things, it’s really not that big of a deal, right? Considering that Shaq is just playing the role of the big dumb lovable jock, and not a professional pundit. But when just recently, Rosie O’Donnell, who has fashioned herself to be some sort of mainstream mouthpiece for the enlightened progressive left, did her lovely “ching chong” bit, comparing Danny DeVito’s drunken ramblings to the Chinese language, she too, faced no official discipline from her employers.   And finally, let me remind you of what happened when Alfonse D’Amato, at the time the U.S. Senator from New York, went on the Don Imus radio show and proceeded to mock Lance Ito, the judge presiding over the O.J.Simpson trial, by launching into a racist impersonation complete with a faux-Japanese accent. Lance Ito is an American born in this country who speaks with what could only be described as a perfect American accent.  Was there some outrage? Yes, a minor one. Was the senator or Imus publicly censured in any fashion? No. The double standards are glaring. Yellow peril, yellow journalism.

 And after they had gathered all the facts, the American media, by and large, chose to report the killer’s name as Cho Seung-hui, not as Seung-Hui Cho or Seung Cho as the man had always gone by in his daily life in the some 15 years he had been in the States since the age of 8.  What is the difference? Cho is the man’s family name. In Asia, the family name precedes a person’s “first” name.   However, virtually all Asians, upon entering the United States, use the Americanized name order. An example of this would be Kim Jong-il–the current leader of North Korea and Kim Dae-jung–the former president of South Korea and Nobel laureate, as opposed to the Korean-American actress Yunjin Kim and the Korean-American baseball player Byung-Hun Kim.  They all share the family name Kim–a prevalent family name in Korea–but the order in which the names are presented is an indication of whether someone is considered “American” or not. It boggles my mind as to why the media chose the exotic and foreign styling of his name. This may seem quite obscure to the average American, but it should not be to the average member of the American media.  According to this article in Slate.com, members of the American media found itself lost as to how to present the killer’s name. Well…that’s the price one pays for being so ethnocentric. Because anyone with a high school education–actually with a middle school education–in most other parts of the world would see names like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt and immediately understand that “Tom” and “Brad” are the given names, and that “Cruise” and “Pitt” are the family names.  Yet, American journalists, with their advanced degrees and all, have not even educated themselves properly on naming patterns prevalent in a sizable part of the world. Of course, what is really pathetic is that even if American journalists do not have knowledge on such “international” matters, at the very least, they should have knowledge of domestic issues. Korean names should hardly be foreign to most members of the American media, as there are over a million legal ethnic Korean immigrants living in the United States. And millions of other ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Asians in America also follow the exact same conventions when it comes to the presentation of names. There are even several Korean-Americans who anchor the national news at the major networks. What in the world is their excuse? Is this ignorance or racism? I contend that it is both. Racism is often borne of ignorance–it is an unwillingness to take the time to learn about “others.”

 I write this with the full understanding that it will not be well-received in this time of national mourning.  Let me reiterate once again that I abhor what the killer has done. But after our period of collective grieving for the innocent and wronged lives of this tragedy, we must hold the American media accountable for the “yellow journalism” it has engaged in. Not just for this particular Cho incident, but for the collective portrayal it has painted of Asian-America.  Will Michael Sneed be fired? What about Bill O’Reilly? And as I am wrapping up this post, Fox News has just aired a promo of how it is going to ask the Korean-American community for insights into Cho’s mind.  I guess I missed it when they asked the African-American community for insights into the minds of the DC snipers John Malvo and John Muhammad. Yellow peril. Yellow journalism.

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One Response to “Seung-Hui Cho, Yellow Peril, and Yellow Journalism”

  1. I applaud your article and its array of apercus. It is certainly one of the most thoughtful analyses of this issue that I’ve seen in the blogosphere. I have only one caveat about the thrust of your polemic: Asian-Americans seem to enjoy an unusual number of positive stereotypes compared to other minorities (such as being smart and hard-working). If anything, I think the positive stereotypes outweigh the negative ones for Asian-Americans. And it is no secret that these positive stereotypes evolve out of familial and community pressure placed on young Asian-Americans to embody these qualities. Yes, I think Cho was outraged by the racism he encountered in life; but he might have been equally frustrated by his inability to live up to the ideals of academic and material success that are so strongly ingrained within many Asian-American communities.


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