On welfare issues with Korean-Australian students

19 Apr


This post has become very long. Written over two days, it has four distinct sections.

— The first part is my immediate response to questions being asked about possible cultural factors in the tragedy that occurred at Virginia Tech. It should be noted that I do not aim to “explain” that tragedy.
— Then I present some other posts I have found that take up the same or similar questions. The most significant one comes from a Korean-American pastor.
— In the third section you may read further thoughts based on my own observation of Korean and Korean-Australian students in Australia.
— I conclude with reflections on the need to have a perspective shaped by something more than monoculturalism.


In the past fifteen years I have both at school and in the tuition sector had quite a bit of contact with parents and students in the Korean community. Before that (1990-1991) I learned something of Korean culture and attitudes from young adults studying English at a Sydney language college. Some of the conversations at that college went into some depth. There were some very thoughtful people in the groups I had then, many of whom were very keen to share, at times very personally and very deeply. I was interested as I had known virtually nothing about Koreans before that. What I learned stood me in good stead later on. (Hence too the longish section of Korean links on the page on Multicultural Resources tabbed above.)

The majority of the Korean adolescents I met in high school thrived; indeed many did very well in all respects, academically and socially. But there were sometimes issues. Such issues were of sufficient concern for the Korean Consulate to organise a community forum in 2004, which I attended.

Korean Student Forum 8 September 2004 at Sydney Institute of TAFE.

Report prepared at that time and published on my Tripod blog.

This very valuable day was organised by the Consulate-General of the Republic of Korea, the NSW Department of Education and Training, the Australian-Korea Welfare Association, and Korea-Australasia Research Centre (KAREC) at UNSW. In his opening remarks, Dr Chung Suk Suh from the University of NSW set the task: to identify issues concerning Korean students and to begin exploring collaborative strategies to address these issues. The day was characterised by great openness and frankness. Dr Chung memorably reminded us at one point that diversity is not a problem to be solved, but a rich resource to be tapped.

Other speakers included Ms Park In-soon from the Korean Consulate-General, Mr Qeefaa An (a community information officer), Mr Keith Lee from the Australian-Korea Welfare Association, two Year 12 students, one UNSW student, the Acting Commander of Eastwood Police, and the Principals of Killara and Carlingford High Schools and of the Saturday Community Languages School. Workshop sessions in the afternoon came up with suggestions that will be codified and distributed later. An ongoing network has been established. Many of the issues and ideas raised apply also to students of other backgrounds.

In 2003 there were 2800 Korean and Korean-Australian students in NSW state schools, with at least 1000 more, many of them overseas fee-paying students, in private schools. At Sydney Boys High we currently have 38 students who identify Korean as their first language.

Ms Park reminded us that students in today’s Korea have their own culture, very different from that of their hard-working parents in many cases. Mr Lee explained the lingering Confucian tradition in Korea, stronger there than anywhere else in Asia. Traditionally, Korean parents claim ownership of their children even after the children are married, and parental authority extends to choice of school and university, even of wife. Hence some Korean students might find it hard in situations where they have to take responsibility for themselves. However, about 18% of Korean parents are more detached from traditional values, encourage activities involving creativity and sport, and are more comfortable in mixing beyond their own group. It was interesting that the three students who spoke strongly valued making friends and contacts both within and beyond Korean contexts, and two of them actively pursued leadership roles in their schools.

Some parents, Ms Park said, think hard work equals length of hours, so the number of hours studied perhaps outranks the quality of the effort made. Sometimes such parents ignore the student’s natural ability and needs. Pressure can lead to rebellion, but where the family is strong such students usually get through this and achieve a balance in their lives. For overseas fee-paying students away from home, however, sometimes without adequate guidance, serious issues can arise. Dr Carter, the Principal of Killara High School, cited instances of self-harm following unrealistic expectations and excessive pressure. Mister Lee spoke of an over-zealousness about education which may combine with parental uncertainty about the Australian system to produce underachievement, stress or rebelliousness in some cases.

Mr Lee also pointed out that parents often learn that their involvement in school activities tends to get their children noticed. He suggested that schools need to educate the parents in every way possible about the philosophy and methods valued in Australian education; information nights and translated material are of great use here. Of 350 Korean students surveyed by Mr Qeefaa An, only 18 always spoke English at home. 102 responded “Never”. 92 always spoke English with friends.

Taking part in the workshop on “behaviour” I was pleased to be able to report that the various welfare initiatives [at Sydney Boys High] in recent years, such as peer support and peer mediation, have had good effects, as too have such positive role models as Mark Nam (School Captain 2002) and John Shin (Year 12 2003) to name but two.

In the “behaviour” workshop one of the police officers said something that adds perspective. He said that if we see a group of young people kicking a soccer ball around a park we feel positive about it, but if you take away the soccer ball and have the same group a bit later at night, or at a mall, people start saying “It’s a gang.” There’s something in that.

Of the 350 students surveyed, 125 said they had experienced bullying or racism at school, 50 outside school.

  • See also Factors affecting the adjustment of Koreans studying in Australia (DFAT/Australia-Korea Foundation 2004.)

  • A Korean cultural component in the Virginia Tech tragedy?

    I would be very reluctant to draw any conclusions about the relevance of any observations I may have made of Korean students, or anything I have learned in forums like the one just described. However, whatever the etiology in psychological or societal terms might be of Cho Seung-Hui’s personality and actions, some suggestions might be made. I have seen milder instances of such anger arising from factors like excessive pressure, bullying, racism (real or perceived), and loss of face — a concept very much alive among many Koreans, more so than among Mainland Chinese. I witnessed one of the young adult Koreans back in 1990 trash a classroom — not my classroom. His friends and others pointed out that harmony and self-control were paramount virtues in Korean culture, but when something went wrong it tended to go wrong spectacularly. See also A Generation in Transition: A study of Korean-American youth by Charlie Swan and Jill Weissbrot, Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education 2000 Vol. 2, No. 1.

    So I can’t help wondering, as I am sure many also are, about what went wrong in Mr Cho’s case, though no doubt it was a process over time. It does appear that issues were picked up by fellow students and teachers, and it may be, tragically, that what was done was all that could reasonably be expected to be done. While there has been much talk here and in the USA about the issue of access to the type of weapons used, not so easy here in Australia, it is fair to say that such events really could occur anywhere. In this case we had a highly prestigious and presumably well-ordered school, and yet the tragedy happened.

    Looking at the report in Education Week I note:

    The gunman suspected of carrying out the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people dead apparently killed two female students who had graduated from the same Northern Virginia high school as the shooter, but there was no information available from law enforcement on whether he knew the two women and singled them out.

    Meanwhile, a chilling portrait of the gunman as a loner and misfit is beginning to emerge, according to various media reports.

    Police identified the gunman in the classroom attack as 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui (pronounced Choh Suhng-whee). Cho held a green card—meaning he was a legal, permanent U.S. resident—and had been in the United States for about 15 years, federal officials said.

    Mr. Cho, who graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., in 2003, had been living in the United States since 1992. The two female victims from Westfield High, Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson, graduated from the high school in 2006.

    Mr. Cho’s family lives in Centreville, Va., a Washington suburb, but he was living on campus, in a different dorm from the one where the bloodbath began, university officials said…

    Mr. Cho, an English major, was referred to the university’s counseling service because some of his creative writing was seen as disturbing by his professors.

    Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university’s English department, said she did not personally know the gunman. But she said she spoke with Lucinda Roy, the department’s director of creative writing, who had Mr. Cho in one of her classes and described him as “troubled.”

    “There was some concern about him,” Ms. Rude said. “Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it’s creative or if they’re describing things, if they’re imagining things or just how real it might be. But we’re all alert to not ignore things like this.”

    She said Mr. Cho was referred to the counseling service, but she said she did not know when, or what the outcome was. Ms. Rude refused to release any of his writings or his grades, citing privacy laws…

    Yes, such things can happen anywhere. There is much about this to make teachers especially think again about welfare issues. I can’t help thinking that Mr Cho was the same age as the Korean students I refer to in my report, whose stories are obviously happier.

    While it may well be that some of the issues raised in that report are relevant, that there may be cultural as well as individual factors, I hardly need point out that Martin Bryant, who murdered 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania in 1996, was of English background.

    Next day

    I commend the following posts:

    1. making sense of the senseless by Eugene Cho, born in Korea, raised in San Francisco, a Christian pastor.

    Like everyone else – here [Seattle], there [Virginia], West [United States, East [Korea], and everywhere, I am trying to make sense of something that is simply – senselesss. Personally, the emotions have been even more convoluted because I am Korean-American. I am a Korean immigrant [immigrated at the age of 6] and understand and lived the immigrant experience; I am a Korean-American Immigrant Male [who even shares the same last name – CHO – as the gunman]. I am a Christian pastor involved in the institution of Religion that Seung Hui Cho criticized and expressed disappointment. For these reasons, many have asked, called, IM’d, and emailed asking me to share some of my thoughts – as a person, a Christian, an immigrant, a pastor, but especially as a Korean-American man. I’m sharing some thoughts [some which are still in vomitaceous process] in hopes that we can dialogue here…

    2. What do the Virginia Tech slayings say about South Koreans? in Foreign Policy Passport.

    3. South Korea is in the grip of some furious soul searching… from Radio Australia.

    4. Cho Likely Schizophrenic, Evidence Suggests — ABC America.

    …What a forensic psychiatrist would want to know is, how socialized he was into American cultural icons of manhood and militarism?

    We cannot generalize about South Koreans. It is an advanced nation with an ambivalent cultural relationship to the United States. Many South Koreans have a tremendous appetite for American culture. There is no greater sense of identification with American culture than choosing America for his college years.

    So culture matters?

    Absolutely. An assailant who carries out a crime of the alienated, the emasculated, the rejected may have been inspired to a destructive path precisely because of how much he associated mass shooters with the American iconography…

    …So is the solution to isolate the paranoid in order to prevent mass shooting?

    Absolutely not. It is the level of increasing isolation that fuels the destructive fantasies. However, for people who are specifically targets of paranoid thinking, they should engage someone else to keep the paranoid, weapon-obsessed and beligerent connected to humanity, while they themselves step back until that individual stabilizes.

    That person could be a benign and detached presence — just someone nonthreatening who can slowly defuse the ticking bomb. In my professional opinion, the dynamics of such interactions are very similar to what is done with those who paranoid and rageful individuals who take strangers hostage…

    [Interviewee Dr. Welner is chairman of the Forensic Panel, a national forensic science practice, and an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.]

    5. “You’ll Have To Change What You Write.” by Kanani Fong.

    When Poet and Professor Nikki Giovanni decided to stop her students from being paralyzed by the brutal, rambling and violent-laden writings of Cho Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech, she told him that he’d have to change what he wrote. But she should have known this was impossible. For writing comes from within, and whatever hellacious renderings he was spewing on the pages came from a very dark place.

    I will not speculate on whether or not Cho was abused, neglected, molested or any of the other things the public is all willing to heap upon his parents without any proof. But I will speculate that he was mentally ill, and that it wasn’t just a recent thing. Cho had been troubled for years and was probably having issues even when he was in high school. He got by, well enough to graduate and go to VT. But by all accounts, what people observed was that he was friendless, a loner who gave monosyllabic answers to questions and stalked two women, who lodged complaints. He had enough psychiatric notes to cause alarm and I am baffled as to why he was allowed to continue as a student at Virginia Tech

    Also by Kanani Fong: Reporting Is Off The Mark .

    When he turned out to be Korean, I didn’t think that it was a slap at the entire Korean culture. Yet obviously, many in their community do.

    In one editorial and two articles in the Los Angeles Times, they’ve talked of a collective losing face, of feeling responsible. I think it’s slightly off the mark. In not one article or op-ed piece do they speak of mental illness. No reporter has inquired how mental illness is perceived within their community (it could be argued that this would be a valid question, given that they feel compelled to show a collective remorse). Not one. Yet, the proof is all there. Cho was mentally ill. It wasn’t because he was Korean that he shot everyone, it was that his neurotransmitters didn’t function. If they really want to make a difference in their community, they’ll support efforts to erase the stigma of mental illness and to seek diagnosis and treatment. Not just within the Korean culture, but everywhere.

    Nothing of what I have written, I hasten to add, is in any way meant to stigmatise Koreans or Korean culture, a point I made at the end yesterday with reference to Port Arthur. On the other hand I have seen up close less horrendous examples of the bicultural alienation some Korean-Australian students feel. Some years ago we were all shocked when one of our former students, a Korean-Australian, was murdered. We did much soul-searching then about what may have been involved. One of the more alienated Korean-Australian contemporaries of that boy opened up to me about a whole lot of things, and thanked me for some of the things I had been saying or writing on the cultural issues involved.

    About that time too after a Year 12 Farewell ceremony I was, much to my surprise, on the receiving end of a big hug from one of those Korean students I had been working with for the previous six years… 🙂

    Additional note

    A feature of the more alienated Korean students in my experience from the mid 90s through to 2005 — and I stress of some, though quite a few — was their fandom of the US star Tupac Shakur and of “Thug Life”.

    The concept of “Thug Life” was viewed by Shakur as a philosophy for life. Shakur developed the word into an acronym standing for “The Hate U Gave Little Infants F**ks Everybody”. He declared that the dictionary definition of a “thug” as being a rogue or criminal was not how he used the term, but rather he meant someone who came from oppressive or squalid background and little opportunity but still made a life for themselves and were proud.

    In fact the first I ever heard of Tupac personally was when MY, a Year 9 student at the time, gave a class talk around 1997. One can see the relevance the philosophy might have for some. Other Koreans, I should note, threw themselves enthusiastically into such studies as Ancient Greek or Music.

    The chief vice of many was to bunk off to Internet Cafes during school time to play video games. This is a notable feature of contemporary Korean youth culture generally: Contemporary culture of South Korea. “Korean gamers are famous for their devotion to their hobby, and many gaming sessions last hours; in a few extreme cases, days.” There were a small number of cases that came our way of drug and crime/gang-related activity, but while these impinged on the lives of more than a few who may have been bullied or been subject to petty extortion, the hard core was no doubt small. Some instances were dealt with along the way in the mid 1990s. Much of this was also, arguably, adolescent stuff generally.

    Another observation was that the students who were more likely to present issues were those who had been all or most of their lives in Australia, especially if they came from very religious or very traditional families. There are horrendous stories of the strictness of some of those homes and the punishments considered appropriate. Rebellion in some cases would take on a dimension quite excessive by “normal” standards. It was sometimes rebellion BOTH against Korean/family tradition AND against the “Skips” (Aussies).

    ** You may be interested in [PDF] Jee Sook Lee, INTERGENERATIONAL CONFLICT, ETHNIC IDENTITY AND THEIR INFLUENCES ON PROBLEM BEHAVIOURS IN KOREAN-AMERICAN ADOLESCENTS, University of Pittsburgh 2004. I certainly find much in this dissertation resonates with my own observation and experience here in Australia.

    And so? Thoughts on the Virginia tragedy and our own flight from multiculturalism

    The connection between what I have been exploring here and the recent tragedy in Virginia is tentative. I would argue that one aspect of this particular incident is that it may be in part at least a very extreme case of some of the issues and pressures discussed above. I am not pretending this is all that is involved.

    Second, I can’t help thinking that the Great Blandness and Homogeneity being imposed from above here in Australia has done a disservice because it does not correspond to reality. The retreat from a productive multicultural discourse has been under way ever since the Howard government came into power, though there have been countervailing pressures from some, including, I would argue, Senator Vanstone, not to mention certain backbenchers, public servants, state governments, and public agencies like HREOC — and ESL teachers. But the Howard-driven rush towards homogeneity makes a nuanced consideration of intercultural migrant issues far more difficult, because it favours lack of reflection, lack of response to the lives actually lived by people and the values by which they live, and lack of empathy.

    This is a diverse society, not a monocultural society. Teachers, especially ESL teachers, confront this every day. Sure, it is in the interests of all to negotiate integration and acculturation, but we also need to understand, and respect, the diversity that is out there. A one-size-fits-all approach is both lazy and counterproductive. The assumption that “our” way is normative and others should just shed beliefs, language, values, and entire ways of life when they step off the plane is a sure-fire way to cause problems, not a way to achieve harmony. On the other hand, migrants soon discover that they are indeed in a new environment where some of their former assumptions and values actually become disabling. This is a point I made in ESL and The Art of War back in 2000, with a cross-cultural reference to Sun Tzu’s dictum: “Even if you know the configuration of the land, if your mind is inflexible you will not only fail to take advantage of the ground but may even be harmed by it. It is important for generals to adapt in appropriate ways. These adaptations are made on the spot as appropriate, and cannot be fixed in advance.”

    Koreans have a very strong cultural identity, for which there are very good historical reasons. They have maintained that identity against great pressure from more powerful neighbours for centuries. They have also taken on and transformed in their own way influences from elsewhere. The Korean church, which has only been in existence for around 110 years, is a case in point. Most Australian Koreans belong to protestant churches, often very strongly evangelical and often with clear Korean features. Confucian values have transferred with ease to Korean Christianity. They have also quite clearly taken on Western practices in many other areas, again transforming those influences in their own way. Fitting into the Australian “mainstream” can, as for many migrant communities with strong identities, be a very variegated phenomenon, not without its strains and conflicts.

    I have also found Koreans and Korean Australians can be the kindest, most generous people you can imagine. I could illustrate that with many anecdotes. It is perfectly possible to be proudly and positively Korean while being a good and valuable Australian. Most no doubt are. But their Australian-ness may not always be exactly like yours or mine.

    Surely, though, that is mostly good?

    When we throw out the word “multiculturalism”, and the thought that word represents (however poorly), we lose the ability to deal with our society as it is. We are quite literally disabled when it comes to issues like those in this post. This is a tragic development, in my view. Populism in this case lets us down.

    At the same time, the Korean community (or communities — I know of internal tensions there too) has to face the fact that their Korean-Australian children will vary enormously in the degree to which their Korean-ness manifests itself and what values and lifestyles might thereby emerge. This is an issue in many communities, of course. When all can accept diversity that problem too becomes less potentially painful.

    Explore this theme.

    More thoughts from Eugene E Cho 24 April 2007

    See “one of our own…”. He is citing an article by Seattle Pacific University’s Dr. Bo Lim, an Old Testament Professor.

    …Race is unavoidably an issue in this tragedy. As soon as Cho’s identity was released, the media attention turned to the South Korean President’s reaction to this news and the possibility of strained relations between the U.S. and South Korea. Every time his name is spoken and his photo is shown we are reminded once again that he is not whom we expected to be. Just the other day while sitting in a café someone asked me, “Are Koreans more violent than other people?”

    …A Korean-American SPU student shared with me that her father, the day after Cho’s identity was released, was accosted by another man while going to a bank in Tacoma. The man asked, “Hey, are you Korean?” He then advanced toward him menacingly and yelling racial slurs including, “Go back to Korea!” Now I suspect that such an encounter will likely be labeled an “isolated incident” and the actions of “wackos and idiots.” But even if they are rare and the actions of the town dolt, they are still painful and leave a lasting impression not only upon an individual but on a whole community.

    I appreciated Robert Siegel’s commentary on Apr 18th edition of NPR’s All Things Considered. After reading Cho’s disturbing and violent script for a play Siegel comments, “I didn’t get the impression that his preoccupations were especially exotic or in any way Korean. Pedophilia, Michael Jackson, Catholic priests – this is the stuff of our news pages and culture, not some foreign country’s. His ability to buy a gun reflects an American interpretation of liberty – an idea which if not unique to us, is certainly no Asian import.” …

    I suspect Siegel’s intentions were to diffuse any racial profiling of Asians and for that I am grateful…

    But let us not neglect social reasons as well. I recognize that people of all races are bullied and teased. But they’re not necessarily treated as foreigners, aliens, or outsiders and told to leave. I agree with Siegel that he killed and died as an American. Yet although he lived in the United States, did he feel welcome as an American? My hope is that as this tragedy spawns a reexamination of issues like gun control, school security, and mental illness, we would not neglect to ask ourselves the following questions: “How do we treat those different than us?” “What does it mean to be an American?” “From whom did these high school students learn their racist behavior?” “What effect does experiencing racism have on an individual’s psyche?” My prayer is that we would not only probe deep into the mind of a murderer but also gaze deep into the soul of a nation. Seung Hui Cho is after all, one of our own.

    I think that adds to the dimension I have been seeking to explore.


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    6 responses to “On welfare issues with Korean-Australian students

    1. Jim Belshaw

      April 20, 2007 at 5:39 pm

      A very good post, Neil, although I think that we can come at this from a different direction. By the way, you appear to have a presentation problem on this blog stopping the whole thing being seen including comments.

    2. ninglun

      April 20, 2007 at 6:14 pm

      Thanks, Jim. Presentation addressed. I read your post. I still think cultural issues are possibly relevant, as indeed they were in the Malay phenomenon you allude to. Bear in mind I have had to be discreet and careful about what I have seen, been told, or know.

      Jim has replied, but it is only too easy here on WordPress to send something to the spam bucket when you mean to approve it! Sorry, Jim. Past experience suggests your comment will surface again… But it hasn’t so far.

    3. Jim Belshaw

      April 20, 2007 at 8:23 pm

      I knew that you were being careful Neil, it’s a minefield, and am sure that cultural issues do come into play. However, I really was struck by the arguments I heard.

      Leaving aside the links to the US episode, I thought that your post was an interesting general cultural analysis.

    4. Kanani Fong

      April 25, 2007 at 4:36 pm

      Thank you very much for taking the time to share my posts on the recent tragic events at Virginia Tech.

      Thank you for sharing your perceptions that are based in experience and scholarly research.

      My focus is on mental illness, and as time goes by we need to find out how he slipped through the cracks. Sadly, so many children with mental health needs are overlooked by not only the school districts, but their needs are not taken seriously by parents as well. It has been claimed by his relatives in Korea that his parents were told that he had Autism. Whether or not this is accurate is not known. But if it is, we need to know what services were given –and if they weren’t why not? In addition, if services were offered, and refused, again we need to know what factors influenced the parents decision. As you can imagine, this will be a case that mental health professionals will be studying for a very long time.

      All of this can help parents understand the importance of early diagnosis, treatment, school and social assistance, and family support.

    5. ninglun

      April 25, 2007 at 4:58 pm

      Thank you for your response. The suggestion of some kind of autism is especially interesting, I think. I am sure there are many dimensions to this tragedy and that the mental health issues you raised are very significant. My emphasis on some of the possible cultural factors by is no means offered as an all-purpose explanation. Such cultural factors must also interact with personality factors in ways we are still not always really competent to unravel.

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