WASHINGTON – Warning signs about Seung-Hui Cho came early in his life.
Cho was unusually quiet as a child, relatives said. He did not respond to greetings. He did not want to be hugged. But when Cho fought with his older sister, he would punch her with shocking violence.
Kim Yang Soon, a great-aunt in Korea, said Cho’s mother told her the boy had autism. After the family immigrated to the United States in 1992, when Cho was 8, Kim would call his mother and ask how the boy was doing. “She only talked about her daughter,” Kim said. “We knew something was wrong.”
Because Cho did well in school, his mother did not seem very determined to get treatment for him, Kim added.
It is unknown what, if any, help the parents sought for their son before he attended Virginia Tech, where last week Cho killed 32 of his schoolmates and teachers. The Chos left their home in western Fairfax County the day of the shooting and are staying at an undisclosed location. Only a few friends are in contact with the family, and most have declined to talk, upon the Chos’ request.
The Chos spoke for the first time Friday, releasing a statement to the Associated Press through an attorney, saying they feel “hopeless, helpless and lost.”
“We are humbled by this darkness,” wrote Cho’s sister, Sun-Kyung, 25. “This is someone that I grew up with and loved. Now I feel like I didn’t know this person. … My brother was quiet and reserved, yet struggled to fit in. We never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence.”
Before Monday, when Cho went on his shooting rampage, the family’s story shared similarities with that of other Korean immigrants.
Seung-Tae Cho and his wife, Hyang-In, told friends they came to America for the sake of their children’s education. They settled in a townhouse in Centreville, Va., near good public schools. The father worked long hours pressing pants at a dry cleaner in Manassas, Va. The mother occasionally went to church.
And when their firstborn, Sun-Kyung, got into Princeton in 1999, it seemed as if all their sacrifices had paid off. The parents, once adrift in poverty in South Korea, now had an anchor for the good life in America through their Ivy League daughter.
Beyond these broad brush strokes of Cho’s life in Fairfax, only bits and pieces have emerged from relatives. The local ethnic organizations that typically gather Korean immigrants – churches, social clubs and civic associations – say the Chos were largely unknown and disconnected in the Washington area, which is unusual for the tight-knit community.
“They’re like ghosts,” said Ron Kim of the Korean-American Dry Cleaners Association of Greater Washington. “It is really strange for a family not to be known.”
A world of his own
Cho, likewise, was difficult to know, his classmates in Fairfax said. He often seemed to be in a world of his own.
Students who knew him as far back as middle school remember a dramatically uncommunicative boy who never spoke, not even to teachers. Some remember classmates derisively offering dollar bills to Cho if he would just talk. The band director would urge him to play his trombone more loudly and to hold his head up.
“Teachers would call on him, and he wouldn’t respond,” recalled Sam Linton, 21, a freshman at New River Community College near Virginia Tech, who attended classes and shared a homeroom with Cho at Stone Middle School in Centreville. “He would just sit there until they would call on somebody else.”
James Duffy, 21, a Virginia Tech junior who also attended Stone, said the first time he ever heard Cho speak was on television Wednesday night, when NBC aired the recordings he had mailed in the middle of the rampage.
“That was also the first time I ever saw an expression on his face,” Duffy recalled.
Other students recalled that he carried violent writings in his notebooks. He wore “geeky” clothes, not stylish or popular, that his parents might have picked out, Linton recalled.
When Cho was a sophomore, he was a member of the Westfield High School Science Club, according to the school’s 2001 yearbook. In his sophomore and junior year portraits, he is dressed identically: light-colored T-shirt with a plaid button-down shirt on top.
The next year, when Cho was in the 12th grade, neither his name nor his picture appears anywhere in the yearbook.
David Gearhart, 21, a junior at Virginia Tech who attended Stone Middle with Cho, said Cho’s antisocial behavior prompted teasing from other kids.
“We might have cracked a couple of jokes, nothing to his face for sure. Nothing very serious. We would just say, ‘Did you see Seung say nothing again today?’ Something like that.”
Gearhart remembers a friend seeing a paper fall out of Cho’s notebook. “It had all kinds of hate writing,” he said.
The ‘1.5 generation’
Not since the Los Angeles riots in 1992, when one of the nation’s largest Korean enclaves was ransacked and burned, has an event gripped the Korean American community like the massacre at Virginia Tech. Several area Koreans said that when they heard that the shooter was an Asian American male, they were desperately hoping he was not Korean. Their hearts sank when police announced the name as Cho Seung-Hui.
Investigators said Cho was a Korean national with a green card and used the Asian style of putting his last name first. But in reality, Cho had spent more time in the United States than Asia. He is part of what Korean Americans call the “1.5 generation” – immigrant children, many of whom live in both Korean and American cultures but feel completely at home in neither.
As his name was broadcast to the world, Koreans abroad and in the United States struggled with their reactions, cultural analysts say. The South Korean government expressed fears of a backlash against all Koreans. Korean pastors and civic leaders, who had no relationship to the family or Virginia Tech, apologized on behalf of the shooter. Academics said the reactions revealed how personal the shooting has been for Koreans and Korean Americans. It was as if Cho was one of their own family members. Shame and blame boiled to the surface.
Cho’s isolation as a youth may have been exacerbated by the strains of the Korean immigrant life, sociologists said. Parents, working one or two jobs to provide for their families, often have little time to spend with their children, let alone have meaningful talks with them. Cultural stigmas make it difficult to deal with the mental illness or emotional stress of a child.
“Korean immigrants would feel shame,” said Sang Lee, director of the Asian American Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. “There would be some reluctance and some hesitancy in admitting (a mental illness) and openly seeing a doctor.”
Josephine Kim, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the Korean American community should not feel responsible for an incident it had nothing to do with. Instead, it should re-examine how it addresses mental health issues, she said.
“Here is this person at Virginia Tech who may have been an adult academically, but emotionally and socially, he’s clearly a child who’s been stunted,” said Kim, who is also a licensed mental health professional. “He didn’t know how to deal with people. He lived in pure isolation.”
Within his family, Cho did not appear to have a lot of supervision, relatives and associates of the family said. His parents were very busy at work. Money was always tight.
Before immigrating to the United States, his father ran a secondhand bookstore that never made much money, relatives said. In a suburb of Seoul, the family rented a three-room basement that was no larger than 430 square feet. The apartment, now unoccupied and full of mildew, was the least expensive rental in the building, according to Korean news reports.
The Chos began to dream of America, but it took years to get the proper immigration papers. Much of their savings were gone by the time they arrived in 1992, according to an aunt, and they barely made ends meet. Fortunately, they had plenty of relatives in the United States who could teach the father a few dry cleaning skills.
By 1997, the Chos had saved enough to buy a $145,000 townhouse on Truitt Farm Drive in Centreville. Seung-Tae Cho changed jobs several times and recently worked at Green Cleaners in Manassas, where he pressed pants.
Moon-Hee Lee, one of his bosses there, said the elder Cho never took more than a day off at a time and worked Monday through Saturday.
“He was working too hard, just working, working,” she said.
But during lunch breaks, over Korean meals, he would often boast of his daughter. “He was very proud of her. He always talked about her,” she said.
About almost anything else, she said, the family remained quiet.
Others in the local Korean community, including pastors of the largest Korean churches, civic leaders and members of the dry cleaners association, examined their records and talked to associates to see whether the Chos had any relationship with their groups. So far, none has been found.
Some classmates at Princeton said they couldn’t remember Sun-Kyung, Cho’s sister, ever talking about her family.
Sun-Kyung, who now works as a contractor for the State Department, was part of a 25-member “food co-op,” or eating club, during her senior year, where students met for dinner every night and often stayed for hours talking about current events and deep philosophical issues. Those in the club described her as a driven and focused student who sometimes put herself under enormous pressure.
Francis Pickering, who was in the same eating club, said Sun-Kyung was a “very, very hard worker” who seemed to keep to herself, never discussing her family or much about herself.
Another friend said this week that he was surprised to learn that she had a brother, as she rarely, if ever, mentioned her family. In a telephone interview, the friend spoke anonymously because Sun-Kyung had passed a message through Princeton’s Manna Christian Fellowship asking her friends not to talk to the media. Others added that the family appeared to struggle with the media frenzy and what to say publicly before finally issuing the statement through Raleigh, N.C., lawyer Wade Smith.
Some relatives said the family has kept its distance even from them.
Sung-Ryol Cho, an uncle who runs a dry cleaner in Anne Arundel County, Md., said he hasn’t talked to the family in years. His wife said she has tried to call them this week but has received no response.
“We don’t know where they are,” she sad. “We hope they are okay.”
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