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An Isolated Boy in a World of Strangers

The 1999 Stone Middle School yearbook shows Seung Hui Cho at top right in the symphonic band portrait.
The 1999 Stone Middle School yearbook shows Seung Hui Cho at top right in the symphonic band portrait. (James M. Thresher - Twp)

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Investigators said Cho was a Korean national with a green card and used the Asian style of putting his last name first, which the news media generally followed. But Cho had spent nearly twice as much time in the United States as in Asia. He is part of what Korean Americans call the "1.5 generation" -- children who immigrated to the United States and who live in both Korean and American cultures but sometimes feel completely at home in neither.

As his name was broadcast to the world, Koreans abroad and in the United States struggled with their reactions, cultural analysts say. The South Korean government expressed fears of a backlash against all Koreans. Korean pastors and civic leaders who had no relationship to the family or Virginia Tech apologized on behalf of the shooter. Academics said the reactions revealed how personal the shooting has been for Koreans and Korean Americans. It was as if Cho was one of their own family members. Shame and blame boiled to the surface.

Cho's isolation as a youth may have been exacerbated by the strains of the Korean immigrant life, sociologists said. Parents, working one or two jobs to provide for their families, often have little time to spend with their children, let alone have meaningful talks with them. Cultural stigmas make it difficult to deal with the mental illness or emotional stress of a child.

"Korean immigrants would feel shame," said Sang Lee, director of the Asian American Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. "There would be some reluctance and some hesitancy in admitting [a mental illness] and openly seeing a doctor."

Josephine Kim, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the Korean American community should not feel responsible for an incident it had nothing to do with. Instead, it should reexamine how it addresses mental health issues, she said.

"Here is this person at Virginia Tech who may have been an adult academically, but emotionally and socially, he's clearly a child who's been stunted," said Kim, who is also a licensed mental health professional. "He didn't know how to deal with people. He lived in pure isolation."

Busy Parents, Little Money

Within his family, Cho did not appear to have a lot of supervision, relatives and associates of the family said. His parents were busy at work. Money was tight.

Before immigrating to the United States, his father ran a secondhand bookstore that never made much money, relatives said. In a suburb of Seoul, the family rented a three-room basement that was no larger than 430 square feet. The apartment, now unoccupied and full of mildew, was the least expensive rental in the building, according to Korean news reports.

The Chos began to dream of America, but it took years to get the necessary immigration papers. Much of their savings were gone by the time they arrived in 1992, according to an aunt, and they barely made ends meet. Fortunately, they had plenty of relatives in the United States who could teach the father dry cleaning skills.

By 1997, the Chos had saved enough to buy a $145,000 townhouse on Truitt Farm Drive in Centreville. Seung Tae Cho changed jobs several times and recently worked at Green Cleaners in Manassas, where he pressed pants.

Moon Hee Lee, one of his bosses there, said the elder Cho never took more than a day off at a time and worked Monday through Saturday.

"He was working too hard, just working, working," she said.


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