No Model Minority: The Alienation of Oakland's One L. GohApril 4, 2012 6:33 AM
Next time a stupid disc jockey makes a joke about an Asian American's accent or when someone goes to the buck-tooth "ah-so" route to describe an Asian immigrant, please don't laugh and say, "Where's your sense of humor, bud?"
Instead, remember our Asian American of the moment, One L. Goh.
Goh is the gunman who has now confessed and admitted to the shooting deaths at Oikos University, the small private vocational school in Oakland, California, where 7 were killed and 3 injured on Monday.
Oakland Police say Goh, a 43-year-old Korean immigrant who had been a nursing student there, felt picked on by other students for the way he talked.
He was also mad about being booted out of the school last January for what's been called "bad behavior," though exactly what that means isn't clear.
It does, however, lay the groundwork for revenge as a motive.
When Goh returned to the school this week, the administrator who kicked him out wasn't there.
But Goh had a Plan B. He lined up a few of his former classmates execution-style, and shot at his victims at least 30 times.
Goh's victims were a diverse group from places like Tibet, the Philippines, Nigeria and Korea.
They were all trying to get ahead, just like Goh.
Katleen Ping, 24, wasn't even a student, but the receptionist. She immigrated from the Philippines and lived with her parents, siblings, and her 4-year-old son. Ping had been living apart from her husband, who was still in the Philippines awaiting his chance to rejoin his family. It's a typical circumstance in the multi-generational immigration process.
The unfortunate irony is that Oikos U. was founded as a place of real hope for newcomers to America, particularly those who may not have felt comfortable with their other public and private school options. Connected to a Korean Christian church, the Oikos campus was but a single story building with little more than 100 students, teachers, and employees.
It was supposed to be a safe haven of sorts, especially for Korean Americans.
Now we know that even a 43-year-old can feel bullied and teased by other younger immigrants.
But is Lady Gaga singing for One L. Goh?
Considering Goh's age, the divide between him and his fellow students was likely more generational than cultural. The conflicts were real enough for Goh to purchase a gun in February and then use it this week, just two weeks shy of the fifth anniversary date of the Virginia Tech shooting.
He wasn't waiting to mark history. That shooting--the worst campus shooting in U.S. history- claimed the lives of 28 students and 5 teachers.
By comparison, Goh's seven victims were far fewer in number, but made up a larger percentage of the overall population at small Oikos U.
Goh did have a few things in common with the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho.
Like Cho, Goh once lived in Virginia where he left a trail of credit card debt and back rent owed. He also had a relatively small federal tax lien of about $2,300.
Guns were the weapon of choice for both, though Goh appears to have had a single gun and wasn't armed to the hilt like Cho.
Then the similarities diverge.
Cho had a documented history of mental health issues and was a young 23.
Goh, on the other hand, seems to have been suffering more from external matters, the hard knocks of life, and may have been despondent over his financial woes and the recent death of his brother, a staff sergeant in the Army.
At 43, Goh was middle-aged and much more traditionally Korean than Cho. To most members of Goh's generation, mental health services aren't an option. You hold it in, you cope until you can't take it any longer.
Depression? A sign of weakness. And you don't seek out help or talk about anything in public.
If only Goh knew to seek help. Or had someone to turn to. Maybe the Oikos shootings could have been avoided.
Culturally sensitive health care options aren't always available, especially when it comes to mental health (another reason to back Obama's Affordable Care Act).
And candidates for care like Goh are rarely recognized as needing help at all. Is there any question now?
At Monday's news conference, showing just how the system can seem ill-equipped to deal with the diversity in these areas, Mayor Jean Quan put out the word for the need for more Korean-speaking grief counselors.
Oakland would seem to be a unique diversity milestone: a city leader, the perp, and so many of his victims all Asian American. But then there was the case in San Francisco a little more than a week ago when in Mayor Ed Lee's city, Bin Thai Luc, a Vietnamese immigrant, was accused of bludgeoning five to death.
These cases should go a long way to dispel that old Model Minority myth.
They should, but they won't.
As Asian Americans grow in number, and as more of our social pathologies come out in public, Asian American diversity doesn't automatically mean the debunking of that decades old "positive" stereotype.
Despite the Gohs, the Chos, and the Bin Thai Lucs of the world, Asian Americans remain saddled with the tag, "Model Minority," a label from the Reagan era that renders us so hard-working and perfect that we don't need any help. Indeed, why can't all people of color be just like us? Asian Americans do double duty as conservatives' passive social policy.
Well, we aren't all math whizzes, spelling bee champs, and science fair gurus.
It's just convenient to think we are all Jim Yong Kim, Obama's choice to helm the World Bank. Or a fellow I recently met in San Francisco the other day, Chang K. Park, the inventor of the Universal Remote Control.
Of course, among self-reliant genius level boy and girl wonders, there's the rest of us.
We're not Jeremy Lin with good knees, American Idol's Hee Jun Han on a serious day, or Vera Wang on a wedding day.
Taken as a whole, more often than not, we're just barely scraping by like One L. Goh.
We hurt. We're misunderstood. We're ignored. We come in Third world. We find ourselves somewhere around two-and-a-half.
But if we get the help we need, maybe the next tragedy can be averted.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter @emilamok.