Tomorrow my daughter turns five years old. And having endured the San Francisco Unified School District "lottery" she will begin kindergarten in the fall. So I have been thinking a lot about how to prepare her for the classroom environment and, in a way, life. The tragedy last week at Oikos University, though, brought to mind another five-year anniversary, the massacre at Virginia Tech.
The day before my daughter was born, a Korean American student, Seung-Hui Cho, shot and killed 32 people and wounded another 25, one of the worst massacres on a college campus in U.S. history. But on April 16, 2007, I had other things on my mind. My wife was in active labor and I was devoted to the futile effort to keep her comfortable. I rushed her to the hospital and in the wee hours of the next morning we had a medically uneventful delivery. I was overwhelmed with relief. As a pediatrician I have seen too many bad delivery outcomes to take for granted a pink screaming baby and a happily recovering mother.
At the same time, I was put off that the world was not celebrating with me. The TV coverage was saturated with images of students fleeing violence on Virginia Tech campus. While I was bonding skin-to-skin with my daughter, deranged videos produced by the killer played in a nauseatingly endless loop. I had planned to save the newspaper published on my daughter's birthday. Instead, I walked past the hospital newsstand, already knowing what the headlines read and refusing to acknowledge the link between the tragedy and this special day. While I celebrated the beginning of my child's life, 32 families mourned the end of their children's lives. Still, I couldn't look away. The monster who had caused so much suffering was, ethnically speaking, my brother.
Last week, when I learned of an eerily similar scene at Oikos University in Oakland, my clinic was in a typical Monday frenzy backed up with patients sick from over the weekend. The news said that seven people had been murdered on campus during a shooting rampage by a former student, One Goh. Shocked by events unfolding only eight miles away, I obsessively followed the reporting online, clicking the refresh button whenever I had a spare moment between patient visits. My first reaction was utter sadness at the loss of innocent life. School is a place to learn, not flee for your life. But upon learning that it was a South Korean school, my thoughts turned to, "Not again. Please don't let the shooter be Korean American."
The news updates provided increasing specificity about the perpetrator: "Male," then "thin Asian man," then later in the afternoon "Korean." My stomach twisted. Not again. Reports said that he retaliated after feeling victimized from both being teased about his foreign accent and not getting a tuition refund when he quit school. He had a history of financial problems. Just a year before the shootings, his mother had passed away and his brother had died in a car accident. I imagined his mother not being too different from mine and considered the staggering loss he must have felt. While in no way trying to justify his actions, I imagined that the sequence of personal loss and rejection after trying to create a new life must have been crushing.
Ethnic ties (as with ties to a hometown, university or any other community), are a strange thing. Fortunes are bound together. Their successes reflect well on you. And when tragedy strikes, you take a share of the shame, guilt and anguish. While both campus incidents were caused by individuals who just happened to be of Korean descent, ethnic Koreans in America, in South Korea and the broader Asian community all felt the burden. Following the Virginia Tech shootings, the then President of South Korea held a special press conference and the South Korean government issued an apology to victims' families. As odd as it sounds, I understood the sentiment. Both Seung-Hui Cho and One Goh could just as well have been my brothers. During the rampage, Lydia Sim's father suffered the ultimate father's nightmare, waiting on campus to pick up his daughter, unaware she had been killed. Lydia could have been my daughter.
The tragedy at Oikos University cuts close in another way. Five of the seven deceased students recently spent a time in my clinic as a part of their training in nursing school. Another had been scheduled to report to my clinic four days after the incident. (Here are stories about the lives of Lydia Sim, Tshering Bhutia and Doris Chibuko). Those in the nursing professions are an extraordinary group of people who devote themselves to the care of others. We all suffered a loss when these students who aspired to give so much to society were senselessly taken away. My own interactions with those student nurses were brief. I am ashamed to think that I could have made a greater effort to connect and express appreciation. Personally, it was a stern lesson to be kind to everyone I interact with, even to just extend a warm hello.
So this week I both celebrate my daughter's life and mourn the tragic losses at Oikos and Virginia Tech. The life lessons are inseparable. In a few months my daughter will attend her first day of school at her own campus. On that day, the excitement over the amazing things she is going to learn will eclipse my anxiety about her safety. I will remind her of the values I have tried to seed. Be kind to others. Rather than getting frustrated or giving up, try to solve problems. Consider how your words and actions affect others. And lastly, no matter what, remember your Umma and Abbah love you and are very proud of you.
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