The lethal language of tongue-tied immigrants

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2012, 12:00am


For those who feel powerless to transform themselves, the gun can be seductive. It provides power. It speaks in a language everybody understands, across colour lines. It opens doors for the invisible into the public space. Unfortunately, it is the language of annihilation and not creation. It speaks up once or twice, but often the user succumbs to his curse: that of silence.

One Goh, 43, an immigrant from Korea who allegedly shot and killed seven people at a school in Oakland, California, is the latest in a string of inarticulate men who became mass murderers in America. Before him, there were Cho Seung-hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Jiverly Wong.

Wong, in April of 2009, locked the back exit of a civic community centre in Binghamton, New York, where immigrants had gathered to learn English, and shot 13 people before killing himself.

In 2007, Cho, a 23-year-old English major, shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech before killing himself. Cho has since entered modern history as one of the worst mass murderers in the United States.

What ticked them off? They have no tongue.

The opposite of a cosmopolitan is a kind of 'aphonic' drifter, someone who fails at articulation. While the former can easily move from one culture to the next, the latter feels disconnected and marginalised by both. The successful border-crosser is blessed with the power of metamorphosis and the gift of eloquence. His counterpart, alas, finds himself tongue-tied and trapped in a defective chrysalis, unable, but deeply desiring, to change.

What keeps him from gaining that coveted transformation is language, the loose tongue, that shamelessness and cunning ability to slide between worlds. Cho spoke with a speech impediment that made him a pariah at school; he was an English major who was lousy at expressing himself.

Wong, too, was defeated by the English language, though he had passed the US citizenship test. He was reportedly frustrated by his inability to speak English despite two decades in America. He was, as his former co-workers described him, 'quiet'.

And now there's Goh. News reports mentioned that Goh felt ridiculed because of his lack of English-speaking skills. Goh was upset at being disrespected. Administrators and several students, according to Oakland police chief Howard Jordan, 'laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students.' And ashamed, which further binds the tongue.

An inarticulate tongue often leads to rage. And rage has its own language. In America, that language often finds expression through using a gun.

In a video Cho made before his killing spree, he was a jumble of words, but what screamed out were the guns he displayed. They were his language.

Wong, too, sought guns. He went to the firing range every Saturday, newspapers reported. There, he was at his most articulate. There were pictures of him posing with his Berettas.

Many famous Asian immigrants have entered America's public space through their power of language - be it men and women of letters, like Ha Jin and Salman Rushdie, or musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang.

Yet, some choose another way to enter America's consciousness - through acts of violence.

The Asian shame-based culture, one that keeps its citizens in line and well-behaved, is prominent. But it is the American gun culture that is most conspicuous. It is ubiquitous on television and film, in video games and the internet, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied.

The successful border-crosser uses language to overcome shame by refusing silence, finding ways to articulate his shame until he rearranges it and redefines himself. His counterpart, however, remains defeated, finding no way to transform himself in the new world. They remain cultural misfits.

For them, the gun - be it in video games or at the shooting range - speaks volumes.

New America Media editor Andrew Lam is the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora