Tuesday, April 3, 2012

[UPDATED] Shooting spree at Korean college in Oakland kills at least seven people

Another tragedy involving a shooting at a school. Things are still being sorted out, but authorities say at least seven people have died and three have been injured at Oikos University in Oakland (across the bay from San Francisco, for those of you unfamiliar with California geography). The shooting suspect has been described as an Asian male.

Oikos University is a private Korean college, so there's a good possibility the shooter is Korean*, bringing echoes of Seunghui Cho, the mass killer who gunned down nearly three dozen people at Virginia Tech in 2007. Still, a good number of teaches and students there are not Korean, so it would be imprudent to jump to conclusions.

The Korean Presbyterian (?) school runs programs in theology, nursing, music, and "Asian medicine," authorized by the state of California, but I'm not sure of its accreditation.

Let's hope and pray things end quickly and peaceably.

A suspect has been named, One Goh. This could be a Korean name (i.e., 원 고, or 고원-something in Korean). It conceivably be a Chinese name.

Oranckay, a legendary figure in the early days of the K-blogosphere and now a resident of Oakland, has chimed in at The Marmot's Hole with his thoughts. He might have been able to dig up more if he still worked for the Bay Area's Korea Times.

The Marmot's Hole quotes the Korean-language newspaper Donga Ilbo as saying the man's full Korean name is 고원일 (Ko Won-il, with Ko being the family name). They also described him as "한국계로 추정되는 미국인 남성," meaning "an American male presumed to be of Korean descent." However, American news sources such as AP (via the Orange County Register) are describing him as "South Korean national." A later Donga Ilbo article referred to him as hanin (한인/韓人), a term meaning "Korean" that is commonly used in relation to Koreans living outside of Korea. The same article suggests he is a US citizen.

The 43-year-old man reportedly immigrated to the US when he was in his twenties, but his English was apparently still poor. Oikos University, which has classes in Korean and English, was set up for people like Mr Goh, who want to pursue nursing or the ministry but may lack the stellar English skills necessary to thrive in a regular American university. From AP:
Those connected to the school, including the founder and several students, said the gunman had studied nursing. He was upset with administrators at the school, and also with several students.

"They disrespected him, laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students," Jordan said. The 43-year-old South Korean national had been expelled, possibly for behavioral problems, according to Jordan.

Goh left behind a string of debts and minor traffic citations in his former home state of Virginia and was evicted from one apartment complex. His brother was killed in a car accident last year in Virginia while on active duty in the U.S. Army, according to Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Donga Ilbo also runs with that idea, describing Mr Goh as a wangtta (왕따), a slangish term for someone who is a social outcast and perhaps is bullied or ridiculed by his peers as a result. It reports that he was seeking an LVN (licensed vocational nurse) degree at the hospital, which would have allowed him to perform basic nursing care as an entry-level health provider (an RN is the loftier of typical nursing degrees, roughly equivalent to a bachelor's degree, while a master's in nursing allows you to more easily get involved in nursing administration).

I'm still not entirely sure if Mr Goh is a US citizen or a ROK citizen, but neither do I think the Korean media is trying to "Americanize" Mr Goh either. They are very clearly describing him as being Korean in some way and they make clear he grew up in South Korea.

And that situation makes Mr Goh's case a bit different from that of Virginia Tech killer Cho Seunghui (or Seunghui Cho), who grew up in the United States. It seems more akin to the Georgia shooting in late February that left five dead at a Korean spa.

Indeed, this kind of violence has to make one sit up and take notice. I don't want to suggest that there is a disproportionate amount of mental illness among Korean immigrants, but there may be a problem with Korean immigrants — even long-term residents — not knowing where they can go for help (for themselves or another person) or not willing to go for help. I want to also throw in the case of Dae Kwon Yun (윤대권), the father who killed his two kids Ashley and Alexander when he was distraught over gambling and business losses.

There are many caveats to what I just said. For starters, I don't really have enough to go on by suggesting Mr Goh or the Atlanta spa shooter are/were mentally ill, much less that they didn't get help. Also, in the case of Cho Seunghui, his parents did in fact take him to professionals to get to the bottom of what was wrong with him.

But I'm also troubled by a South Korean youth I met last semester, when I was working on a film project in downtown Honolulu. This kid (about twenty or twenty-one) was living in a men's shelter. "Ryu" (not his real name) ended up in the US for school and then he dropped out and came to Hawaii, and when his money ran out, he needed up in Iwilei (ground zero for Honolulu's homeless).

One of the directors asked me to go and chat with Ryu in Korean, thinking that the usually taciturn kid might open up a bit more in Korean. Actually Ryu spoke English pretty well, and since there were others around us, we ended up speaking mostly English. The director had advised me that the thought Ryu might be "suffering from schizophrenia," and I was listening for any indicator that might support or refute that notion.

We were talking about Ryu's plans for the future. He didn't really want to go back to school, but he was keen on joining the military (the US military). When I saw him again a week or two later, I asked about that and he said he was planning to take some tests for that. "Great," I told him, and we discussed it some more. Then he told me — ever so casually and without a change from his generally happy countenance — that the great thing about being in the military is that if things get too tough "I can take a gun and blow my brains out."

My inner voice was floored, but my outer exterior did not wince (one thing I learned in Compton: don't flinch). Calmly, as if I have these conversations every frickin' day, I told him, no, you don't want to do that. What could possibly be so bad that you'd want to do that? Before he could answer, a woman listening in on our conversation repeated almost exactly what I'd said.

I would have reported this to the director anyway, but a little bit later, completely out of the blue this time, Ryu again spoke of his desire to blow his brains out. The shelter has resources for people suffering from mental illness, and they need to know stuff in order to protect themselves and the other residents, so I don't think I was remiss in bringing that up. Nor do I think I could have done much more.

I regret that I honestly do not know what happened with Ryu after that, except that the director (whom I called later that day to report this) told me he would alert Ryu's case worker.

Okay, that long story was meant to highlight something that I think, anecdotally at least, is a real problem. For some people, the United States is the apex of achievement, the place to go for the greatest universities, the greatest living opportunities, and an all-around superior life. This ideal attracts some of Korea's best and brightest, not just the rich but also those of modest means who mix hard work and academic talent.

At the same time, however, America is also a last-chance saloon. If you make it nowhere, you can make it there, to paraphrase an old song. The US attracts some immigrants (or illegal visa overstayers) who for whatever reason could not succeed in South Korea's dog-eat-dog academic, corporate, or economic sectors. Among them, sadly, are those who have mental illness or emotional troubles that need treatment but don't get it: America is their way out.

From my discussions with him, Ryu was clearly one of those people. I can't help but wonder if Mr Goh and the others are/were the same.

* I'm going to hold back on making some statements in regard to this until after we know more details. 



  1. Cho Seunghui's parents may have sent him to a therapist for a consult, but he did not go to one long-term and get the care he needed. His mental health was largely neglected by his working parents according to news reports. They just left him to fend for himself knowing that he was diagnosed with a learning disability/psychological problems. Perhaps they did not have the money for such services, but there are government resources available. Money shouldn't be an excuse to not look for the help that your children need. His sister asked her friends to look out for him at Virginia Tech. The whole family was aware that he had problems prior to Virginia Tech. I believe that if his parents were active in seeking out mental health services for him, there would have been no shooting spree. Just sending him to a church or some community organization with caring people would have helped him. He did not have a criminal record prior to this.

    The Oikos shooter had psychological problem according to news reports. He had personal and professional difficulties, a failed marriage, many unsuccessful job changes, the death of his mother and brother in a short span of time. None of his victims tormented him. I guess it was a way to unleash his rage. Anyhow, yes, emotional support from friends or family may have prevented this.

    1. I agree with you, itissaid, that both of these tragedies could have been prevented. I don't know how much I will fault Cho's parents, though. Had they shown no interest whatsoever in getting him help, out of shame or whatever, I'd have had no end up condemnation for them. But they did try, and the scale of that event was probably something they never could have fathom.

      One reason I'll cut those working-class parents some slack is that mental health services, in practice, are often prohibitively expensive. From government policymakers to insurance providers to school systems to regular folks themselves, the US does not provide adequate resources for people to get long-term help when they need it. Even short-term help is difficult. I have a close relative who is need of mental health care, with which I've been helping, and it is a bear. On her fixed income, it is difficult, even with insurance.

      She doesn't seem to be a danger to herself or others, but the light in her life is just much dimmer. That kind of thing leads to lower productivity and other issues which even someone only concerned about bottom line should think is a bad thing.

      I haven't read much about Mr One at Oikos. It appears he had some serious issues, but what I wrote about in the last half or so of this post may be a valid point.

    2. Well, I agree that mental health services can be expensive. I did some more digging and found that his mother had sought out church and mental health services for him. But I don't know how consistent she was and there were reports that Cho was left alone a lot. It seems that he was a troubled child with special needs. I think his mother should have just stayed home and let the father run the business. When your child needs you that much, you quit your job if you have to. Anyhow, she did continue to seek help for him after high school, but he was an adult and could refuse.


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