tampabay.com

Linked by race, we share the shame

By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published April 23, 2007


No more gun ranges for me.

I had started going to ranges in the last month with Jon Abel, a fellow reporter. Just for fun. I had handled M-16 rifles in the army in Singapore, where I was born and raised. America afforded me a chance to try out different weapons in a responsibly organized setting.

That was before Seung-Hui Cho exploded into our consciousness. Before an Asian man of foreign birth killed 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech. Before I felt this sinking sensation that I was somehow guilty by association.

This is how it went:

Monday afternoon was the first time I saw the reference to "an Asian gunman." My heart sank.

When I knew for sure Tuesday, the first thought that sprang into my head was an expletive.

We like to pretend race doesn't matter, but when it comes to elemental forces - like Cho's naked, murderous anger - race and the minority complex seep back into the restless sea of questions.

A minority stands out, and gets associated willy-nilly with "its kind" - by itself as much as by the majority.

Think about the Muslim community after 9/11. They're still tainted, mostly unfairly, by association.

In my case, there were those trips to the gun range. I tried a 9mm Glock during my most recent visit. Now when I see pictures of Cho holding a similar weapon, I get the chills.

When the Beltway snipers, Lee Malvo and John Muhammad, were caught, an African-American friend had told me the black community felt a collective anguish.

"Did he have to be black?" I remember one of them asking.

He laughed, but it was a sad, small laugh.

I found myself laughing the same way last week.

Cho was Korean. In Washington, the South Korean ambassador gathered Koreans. In Seoul, the government has called emergency meetings to discuss Cho.

Online, minority chat rooms have been ablaze with discussions delving into the same gamut of emotions I felt last week.

It's odd, but one emotion that stood out for many Asians was shame.

You try to squelch it. You try to tell yourself it's not you.

But there it is.

An editor said to me, it must be how he would feel if he had been in China and Tim McVeigh had decided to go there and kill dozens of people.

I'm glad I have some great friends and colleagues. When I told some of them that I was sure some people would remark on my perceived similarities with Cho, they did me the favor of not lying.

One said, "You know, I hate to say it, but I think you're right. I think some people would think that."

I can't imagine how the families and friends of those killed have been devastated by the tragedy. But I do know that Cho's actions have also invaded the lives of a far wider community, if in less direct and painful ways.

Among them is the Asian community in the United States; about 4 percent of the national population.

Is it unreasonable for me to wonder if my trips to the gun range might get me hauled into a windowless office to answer questions?

Halfway through talking to a friend in Maine, I found myself saying, "I'm sorry. I know there's a tragedy, but I'm just talking about me-me-me."

But no more gun ranges for me.

And it's a pity, because I enjoyed it.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at 813 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.