THE NEW YORK TIMES. MARCH 28, 2013. On April 2 last year, a 43-year-old former nursing student named One L. Goh walked into Oikos University in Oakland, Calif., with a .45-caliber handgun. He killed six people and wounded three others, then exited the building and shot and killed Tshering Bhutia, a former classmate, in the school’s parking lot. Goh then climbed into Bhutia’s car and drove to a Safeway in the nearby city of Alameda, where he ultimately surrendered to police.
Five days later, I went to see Goh at the Santa Rita jail in Dublin, Calif., 25 miles south of Oakland. The visitation area consists of a series of stalls equipped with a phone on either side of a glass partition. The prisoners take their spots before the doors open, so if you stand by one of the hallway windows, you can see rows of men waiting for their visitors. At a far window, an elderly Vietnamese woman waved fondly at her son. On a wooden bench near the check-in desk, two older men talked about how the word “correctional” meant that the prisoners were supposed to come out as better people. A young woman held an infant up to the window and cooed, “Say hello to Daddy.” Two days after the shooting, I sent Goh a letter written in Korean explaining who I was and that I would be there on Saturday. Now as I waited, I routinely stood up to peek into those windows to see if he had shown up. He wasn’t there.
A buzzer went off, and the heavy door to the visitation area swung open. I walked in with the other visitors, checking each stall, until I saw a dumpy Korean man with thick eyebrows and heavy jowls. He watched as I sat at his booth, but his face registered nothing. He stared ahead with dark, small eyes and waited for me to settle in my seat. When I reached for the receiver on my side of the glass, he picked up his end. I asked if he was One Goh. He said yes.
During the conversation that ensued, Goh repeatedly rubbed his face with the heel of his palm. On a couple of occasions, he appeared to be on the verge of tears. He said he had come down to the visitation area because he was expecting to see his father. He asked who I was. I told him — truthfully, though it was more complicated than this — that I was planning to write a book about school shootings and wanted to ask him about his life. In his measured, raspy voice, Goh said, “I have not seen my father since — ” before trailing off into something inaudible. He said his lawyer had instructed him to not talk to anyone about the case. I asked him if he was sure. Goh nodded but didn’t make a move to hang up the phone.
Then he began to talk. Early police reports never specified what happened after the shooting, when Goh went to the Safeway near the school, though there was agreement that he walked inside and asked to used the phone at the customer-service desk. I asked whom he called, and Goh said: “I called my father and told him that I had shot a lot of people. He told me to turn myself in. I went outside to try to wave at a police officer, but he didn’t turn around, so I walked back inside and talked to the security guard.”
After a pause, he said, “I know my father loves me, he just shows it in a different way.” When I asked him to describe his father, Goh asked me about my nationality. I told him I was also Korean. He said, “You know, my father is a pretty typical Korean guy.” I told him I knew what that meant. There’s a shorthand among Korean immigrants, and as I sat across from One Goh, I tried not to think about the ease with which we had connected.
Goh told me that his relationship with his father was mostly nonexistent, but that he cooked dinner for him every Wednesday night. Then, with a look of great annoyance, he immediately changed his assessment. “You cannot find one unlucky thing in my childhood,” he said. “I have been raised pretty good.
“But I’m a loner,” Goh continued. “I do not have the skills to deal with other people. I cannot do things that other people do.” When I asked him to elaborate, he said, “My entire life, I cannot do things other people do.” I asked for an example of something he could not do, and Goh rubbed his face with the heel of his palm and squeezed his eyes shut. When he reopened them, he was staring straight at me. “Like lying,” he said.
I asked if he had any fond memories of his childhood in Korea. Goh nodded and said that his life there had been different and that he had become a loner only after his family came to the United States.
He stared down at a stack of papers he had brought with him. Some indecipherable emotion — something close to irritation — passed through his face, and he squinted and slightly opened his mouth. In a slow, considered cadence, he said, “Let me assure you, whatever the situation I was in, I always tried to find the better way.”
Then he paused and looked down at his papers again and said emphatically: “But not that time. Not that time. I was trapped.”
I asked if he was sorry for what he had done. “I very much regret what happened,” Goh said. “I wish it hadn’t happened that way. I’m really sorry to society, Korean society and the families of the victims.”
I learned about the Oikos shooting shortly after it happened from a Korean friend who communicated the whole thing in a one-line e-mail: “We did it again.” I knew what he was talking about the moment I read it. “We,” indeed, had done “it” again, and “it” required no further explanation. We first did it five years earlier, on April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech University. This phrase may sound cynical and callous, but it speaks to a truth shared among immigrants whose people have done terrible things. Nothing quite welds a group together as immediately and as forcefully as these moments of collective trauma.
Last year, I published a novel in which the main character ruminates at length about Seung-Hui Cho and about his own volatile yet always suppressed anger. The book was an intensely personal endeavor, born out of an irrational but unshakable implication I felt, as a young Korean man in America, in the Virginia Tech killings. Oikos brought all that back, and because I still did not understand why I felt so implicated in the actions of two random Korean-Americans, I flew up to Oakland with no plan in mind other than to to try to talk to One Goh and the people he left in his wake.
The Community Center for the Tibetan Association of Northern California is a reclaimed building tucked away in a narrow residential strip between two major East Bay freeways. On my first night in Oakland, I went there to meet a young nursing student named Dechen Yangzom. We sat in the community center’s main room, a drafty, dimly lighted space. At the front of the room, a shrine to the Dalai Lama was surrounded by dishes filled with oranges and packets of Oreos. Yangzom, a petite 28-year-old with big, hazel eyes, sat on a folding chair next to her husband and answered my questions with a detached intensity, as if she felt compelled to talk about something she still could not quite believe.
She grew up in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Tibetan government in exile, and like many Tibetans raised outside their native country, Yangzom dedicated her life to the Free Tibet movement. As a nurse, she hoped to care for the sick while teaching them about the oppressive actions of the Chinese government. She chose Oikos over other nursing schools because its tuition was low and it was recommended by other members of the Tibetan community.
Early on the morning of Monday, April 2, Yangzom arrived at Oikos for her first class. The heat in the classroom was not working, and the students asked if they could go elsewhere, so Yangzom and her nine classmates were crammed into a windowless room about the size of a small U-Haul’s cargo hold. They took an exam for the first hour of class, then after a 10-minute break returned for a lecture on the functioning of the human heart. Yangzom sat by the open door of the stuffy room and fanned herself. After about an hour, they took another break, and then went back to the classroom; a few minutes later, she thought she heard fireworks. All the students rushed to the door, but the bangs were followed by screams, and Yangzom heard Katleen Ping, a receptionist whose desk was 10 feet down the hallway, yell, “Jesus Christ!” A few seconds later, she thought she heard Ping holler, “Gun.”
Once she processed the reality of the situation, Yangzom sprang from her seat, slammed shut the classroom door and lay on the floor. Moments later, Samuel Lee, the instructor, said, “Someone turn out the lights,” and Yangzom leapt up, hit the switch and went back to the floor. From down the hall, she could hear Ping’s moans for help.
Then, only a minute later, she heard footsteps padding down the corridor and stopping outside the room. The door handle jiggled. Then came five or six thuds as whoever was on the other side tried to kick his way inside the room. Glass scattered across her back as he shot through the door’s narrow window.
“He was so quiet,” Yangzom recalled. “I was just praying for the gods to save us today. I was saying a mantra in my head to Tara. When you are having troubles or a nightmare, we believe the mantra will help you. But I kept thinking, I’m going to die.”
The gunshots stopped. The door handle jiggled again, but the lock held. Inside the classroom, nobody moved or said a word. Samuel Lee, the class’s instructor, sobbed quietly. He later told newspaper reporters he was staring at a cellphone photo of his wife and child. Yangzom could still hear Katleen Ping’s weakening cries for help.
After what Yangzom thought was another half-hour, someone else arrived at the door, announcing it was the police and telling the students to let them in. Yangzom’s friend Tenzin implored everyone to stay down, saying it could be a trap. Moments later, the door was kicked in and police officers gathered up Yangzom and her classmates and ushered them outside, through the quickly amassing mob of TV news crews, police officers and concerned family members and into a nearby building, where they found other survivors. (Katleen Ping was not among them.) An endless string of interviews began. One officer asked Yangzom’s class who locked the door. Yangzom, believing she had done something wrong, said nothing, but a classmate pointed her out. “The officer told everyone to clap for me,” Yangzom said, her voice almost expressionless. “Everyone clapped, but they were just doing what the police told them to do. I didn’t really feel anything. It was just so small, just closing and locking a door.”
When I asked how it felt to be in that room, certain she was going to die at the hands of a gunman, Yangzom’s face went blank. She poked at the skin between the fingers of her left hand. She screwed up her mouth and took a deep breath through her nose. After a heavy exhale, she said, “It felt completely empty.”
It’s easy to find the Koreans in major American cities. They’re the ones who don’t print their shop and restaurant signs in English, so if you’re driving along and see a cluster of signs in the blocky Hangul alphabet, you’ve found Koreatown. In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, one of the many criticisms of the Korean-American community was directed at the implicit hostility in posting signs that can’t be read by others. In the East Bay, you’ll find those signs around Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, just three miles down Telegraph Avenue from the University of California, Berkeley. The restaurants, clinics and nail salons there service the thousands of Korean immigrants who live in the Bay Area, and more or less no one else.
Nobody in Temescal’s Koreatown wanted to talk about Koreanness and One Goh. The head of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay gave me a lecture on how the subprime-mortgage crisis crippled the Korean community, and she implied that the problem with Korean rage lay in socioeconomic factors. I was politely escorted out of two separate Korean churches after I asked some members of the congregations if they had any concerns about the perceptions of the larger public. Overwhelmingly, the sentiment among the older Korean people I talked to was this: The shooting was a shameful act that would bring trouble on the community if publicized and discussed. For now, nobody in the mainstream media was drawing the link between One Goh and Seung-Hui Cho, and although all the Koreans I spoke with were well aware that two of the six bloodiest school shootings in American history were carried out by Korean gunmen, most of the people here were hoping to bury that fact.
There was one person who wanted to talk about One Goh, Seung-Hui Cho and Korean anger. A week after the shooting, Winston Chung, a 38-year-old Bay Area child psychiatrist, wrote a blog post on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site titled, “Korean Rage: Stereotype or Real Issue?” In the post, Chung called for a more honest inquiry into the cultural factors, like the intensity of suppressed emotions within the Korean immigrant community, that might have contributed to these tragedies.
I met Chung in front of the makeshift memorial that had been erected on the front steps of Oikos immediately after the shootings. Two weeks had passed since my first trip to the school. The flowers out front had turned to straw, and the ink on the signs had faded into a bluish gray. Dozens of stuffed animals had become swollen with moisture and mold. Chung, who also teaches part time at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, said the stuffed animals gave him some comfort. “At least there’s something here,” he said. This was Chung’s first trip to Oikos, and he, like everyone else, commented on the drab, mundane building. “It doesn’t really look like anything,” he said.
Chung’s interest in One Goh and Seung-Hui Cho comes from a lifelong, personal investigation into han and hwabyung, two Korean cultural concepts that have no equivalent in the English language. By Western standards, the two words are remarkably similar. Both describe a state of hopeless, crippling sadness combined with anger at an unjust world. And both suggest entrapment by suppressed emotions. Both words have been a part of the Korean lexicon for as long as anyone can remember, their roots in the country’s history of occupation, war and poverty. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between the two words would be to say that han is the existential condition of immutable sadness, whereas hwabyung is its physical manifestation. Those afflicted with hwabyungdescribe a dense helplessness and despair that always feels on the verge of erupting into acts of self-destruction.
Chung grew up in Naperville, Ill., a large, wealthy suburb of Chicago. He described his family as “typically Korean,” which to Chung meant that his parents attended a Korean church, suppressed traumatic events and rarely showed emotion, save the occasional angry, even violent outburst. He told me the story of a Korean woman his family knew, who, without any warning, burned herself alive in her car. The refusal of anyone within the small Korean community of Naperville to discuss the suicide or to offer any sort of consolation to the woman’s three daughters stuck with Chung throughout his life. “It was like it never happened,” Chung said as he inspected the school’s windows for bullet holes. “Everyone just went silent.”
Chung’s desire to understand and possibly defuse the destructive cultural forces he saw in both his family and the larger Korean community prodded him into the field of psychiatry.Han and hwabyung, which is now treated in Korea as a clinical disease, have profoundly affected Chung’s personal life. He admitted to getting into a lot of fights as a kid and said that there was a dark, residual anger within him that he did not quite understand. Through years of therapy for himself and research into larger cultural forces, he traced these traits back to a series of incidents, including the sensational suicide of his family’s friend. The violent events that dotted Chung’s childhood were in part a result of a communal refusal to discuss and process emotional pain. “In Korean culture,” Chung explained, “denial and avoidance are the status quo. Under all that suppression, emotional turmoil festers. When it’s not addressed, it can turn explosive. There’s this dark side that needs to be dealt with, but the Korean community as a whole will not acknowledge that something is up. Nobody will say anything about anything.
“I know this shooting had something to do with han, with hwabyung,” Chung went on. “I feel almost guilty saying that, knowing how hurtful those words might be to other members of the Korean community. But all my training, everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve read and my own personal experiences all point to that. This guy was suffering from something that was very Korean.”
The day after my first talk with Chung, I met Wangchen Nyima at the Dry Garden, a nursery housed in a converted gas station about a mile up the road from Temescal. At the age of 19, Nyima, a Tibetan exile, left his monastery near Dharamsala to travel the world. After spending time in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Nyima immigrated to the Bay Area in 1997 and began working part time at the Dry Garden to help support the father and three siblings he had left behind in India. Eventually, Nyima met a girl, renounced his monastic vows, married and fathered two daughters. Today, he helps run the nursery’s daily operations. The money he sent back to his family paid for the education of his two sisters and helped support his brother’s life as a monk. Sonam Choedon, the younger of Nyima’s two sisters, graduated from college. In 2010, Sonam left India and moved to El Cerrito, Calif., to be with her husband. Once stateside, Sonam chose to pursue a career in nursing. Like Dechen Yangzom, she settled on Oikos University because a few Tibetan students attended Oikos in the past, and because it was cheaper than other nursing programs.
At 9:30 on April 2, Nyima called Sonam while she was in class. It was his day off from the nursery, and he wanted to take Engsal, his 2-year-old daughter, on a shopping trip. He had never traveled on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) with his daughter and didn’t know if he would have to buy a ticket for her. Sonam picked up and said no, Engsal would not need a ticket.
Around noon, Nyima returned from his shopping trip, turned on the television and saw that there had been a shooting at a school in Oakland. Shortly thereafter, he heard that the shooting had been at Oikos, and Nyima began calling his sister’s cellphone. “She didn’t pick up, and then I began to get very nervous,” Nyima said. “I texted her to call me. Still no call. This was very unusual. She always picks up her phone right away.”
Nyima drove to the school, where he encountered a mass of police officers and reporters. He asked the officers if they had any information about someone named Sonam Choedon. For the next three hours, Nyima stood with the crowd that had assembled on a grassy median and waited for word about his sister. His wife had been calling Sonam’s cellphone and still hadn’t managed to get a response. When Nyima learned that five victims had been sent to Highland, he had his wife call the hospital. There was nobody named Sonam Choedon checked in as a patient there. “That’s when I got really nervous,” Nyima said. “That’s when I thought, My God, this is so close.” At 3:30 p.m., Nyima was let into the school, where he met a police sergeant who took his information, went into a back room and came back with the following news: “There’s a 90 percent chance that your sister was killed today. We will call you tomorrow morning to confirm.”
On Tuesday morning, Nyima received the phone call. His sister had, indeed, been killed at Oikos.
“I used to be a monk, so I never drank or smoked or anything,” he said as we sat in a cafe next to the nursery. He was leaning forward in his chair with his arms wrapped around his midsection. But he spoke in a loud, clear voice that verged, at times, on hysterical anger. “Since my sister’s death, I need to drink a glass of whiskey to go to sleep. I cannot go outside because I think everyone has a gun. My sister comes to me every night in my sleep and says, ‘Brother, can I have some money?’ For all these years, I was always helping her with money, and that’s what I hear in my ear all the time, even when I’m not dreaming. When you take care of a sister like that and provide for her, it’s like losing a daughter. All the time now, I heard, ‘Brother, can I have some money?’
“People have asked if I am angry, because I used to be a monk, and we Tibetans believe in forgiveness and compassion. Of course I am angry. I am angry at the government because there are too many guns. I am angry at the school because they didn’t do enough to deal with this guy. I am angry at the guy who shot my sister because he was in her class and he knew her and he should have known that she was such a calm and down-to-earth person who was an immigrant like him. Everyone in that room was an immigrant. Everyone was the same as him. Everyone was just trying to make a better life for themselves here in the United States.”
The Monday before Thanksgiving, eight months after the shooting at Oikos, a psychiatrist appointed by the Alameda County Court found One L. Goh incompetent to stand trial. David Klaus, the assistant public defender who represents Goh, told the news media that his client suffered from paranoid schizophrenia that caused him to believe that he was playing a key part in a war between God and Satan. A second hearing in early January confirmed the first assessment. Goh was transferred from the Santa Rita jail to the Napa State Hospital in Northern California, where he will be treated with antipsychotic medication until he regains the mental capacity to stand trial.
In early December, I went back up to Oikos to meet with Pastor Hyeon Pak, the school’s chaplain. In May, the nursing school was placed on probation by the state regulators for lackluster pass rates on California’s licensing exam. The survivors of the shooting have all graduated or moved on. Pak walked me through the blue-carpeted hallways to the front of the school and pointed into a room filled with theology students who were just getting out of class. There were 30 desks and a white board and a cramped desk at the front of the room. It looked to me like the most unremarkable classroom in America. The students filed out of the doorway for a break, many shouldering jackets that seemed a bit too heavy for the weather, but they left their bags and purses and phones behind. Without those touches of color, Room A107 might have shown some of its scars. But any flaws in the paint, any spot where the floor had been scrubbed bare, could have been attributed to normal wear and tear. “That,” Pastor Pak said, “is the room.”
A few feet down the hallway, Pak knelt and ran his finger along a white tuft in the blue carpet. “Bullet,” he explained. We turned a corner and stood in front of the door to Room A103. Pak led me inside and showed me a pair of binders on a bookshelf. Two bullets, shot through the window, had ripped through the binder spines. I asked Pak why the school hadn’t swapped out the binders, why they hadn’t fixed the hole in the carpet. He shrugged and smiled and said, “I don’t know.”
The rest of the day was spent preparing for a memorial concert. Out in front of the school, someone had built a garden, complete with a sundial and seven volcanic rocks set out to commemorate the dead. This was the work of Kinsa Durst, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout who heard of the shooting and decided Oikos would be a good place for his Eagle project. Durst is a tall, good-looking kid who talks in the eager and earnest manner of do-gooders who, if you’re prone to cynicism, can seem laughable in their naïveté. He said he built the gardens to help bridge the gap between Koreans and Americans in the Bay Area. When I asked him what he meant by that, Durst, who is half-Korean and speaks the language fluently, said he worried that the shooting portrayed Koreans in a negative light. “I wanted to show we’re not all the same,” he explained. I pointed out that none of the local or national news media had run a story about a rash of violent Koreans and wondered where he might have heard such talk. Durst said: “Well, there was also Virginia Tech, and now there have been two shooters who were Korean. The school wasn’t getting much support because of people’s bad perceptions, so I wanted to come and help.”
I was reminded of Goh’s jailhouse apology to “Korean society” and how, in some deranged way, he must have been apologizing to kids like Durst, who are forced to now associate community, identity and family with his act. Durst told me a story about a Korean woman who, when he was raising money for the garden, discouraged him from commemorating the space. “She said building something at Oikos would just remind everyone of what had happened,” Durst told me. “She said I should just allow the school to keep it buried.” I asked how he responded to all that, and Durst smiled. In the same matter-of-fact tone he might use to instruct a Cub Scout on how to tie a perfect clove hitch, he said: “She was being really emotional. I just don’t engage when people are being emotional like that.”
At dusk, the sky above the flat, featureless buildings on Edgewater Drive turned dark purple. A choir made up of about 50 Korean students placed folding chairs down in the peace garden amid a scattering of red maple leaves. Cars slowed down to see what could possibly be happening here. Durst stood off to the side of the front steps in his Scout uniform, his hands clasped behind his back. At 5 p.m. on the dot, he climbed the front steps and gave a short, halting speech about the process of building a peace garden and his desire to produce something positive to alter the public’s perception of Oikos and the Korean community at large. He said: “Oikos was a small school in Oakland. It was a peaceful place, and it was now known for the wrong reasons. So I decided to build a peace garden here, which I thought would be good for Oakland, California, American and Korean relationships.”
Excluding Durst, the school’s administrators, the choir and two cameramen from the local news, only five mourners attended the memorial ceremony.
Two Korean-American men, five years apart, walked into their former places of education and executed innocent students. This, by definition, is a coincidence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Korean-American who feels that way. I have no idea whether these killings came out of han or hwabyung or some other shared heritage, but it’s clear that the search for an explanation is far more threatening to the Korean-American community than whatever the actual answer might be.
One week after the Virginia Tech massacre, I sat in a bar in Upper Manhattan with the same Korean friend who would later send me that four-word e-mail about Oikos and One Goh. He confessed that he felt violently angry nearly every day but couldn’t understand why. He wondered if Cho had felt the same way. His honesty upset me. I said some platitudes about how one maniac doesn’t represent an entire people, but even back then, I felt I was lying. I agreed in theory, but I did not believe it was actually true. I don’t mean to say that there’s something faulty and irreparable in the Korean psyche, but these shootings have become part of our identity, and they come, at least in part — and possibly in large part — from a place that many of us know instinctively. One Goh, sitting on the other side of the glass from me in jail, and Winston Chung, walking past the desiccated flowers set out in front of Oikos, both described their fathers as “typically Korean,” knowing that I would understand instantly what they meant. Kinsa Durst and I, even though we’re separated by 17 years, both had the same reaction to the news that the gunman at Oikos was Korean. And all the people I tried to talk to in and around Oakland who wouldn’t speak with me, who ushered me out of churches and cultural centers or grimly waved me off — their silence, protected so forcefully, spoke to the intensity of their shame.
On July 20 last year, James Holmes opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Two weeks later, Wade Michael Page killed six people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. For the first time since Virginia Tech, the conversation about gun violence picked up, despite a tacit refusal by the two men running for president to address the issue in their campaigns. Then came the Newtown shootings, after which President Obama gave several speeches on the need for substantive gun control. In those speeches, he mentioned Aurora and Oak Creek and a shooting in a shopping mall in Clackamas Town Center, Ore. Oikos was never mentioned.
It rakes at your guts, to watch your tragedies turn invisible. You know why it’s happening, but admitting it to yourself — that it has to do in some indivisible way with the value of immigrants’ lives — is something you’d rather not confront. The victims of the Oikos massacre came from Korean, Indian, Tibetan, Nigerian, Filipino and Guyanese backgrounds. They attended a low-cost, for-profit, poorly rated Korean-community nursing school in a completely featureless building set along the edge of a completely unremarkable part of Oakland. They were not held up as beacons for the possibilities of immigration, nor were they the faces of urban decay and the need for government assistance and intervention. They did not exist within any politicized realm. One Goh came from the same forgotten stock. And because the Oikos shooting occurred in a community that bore almost no resemblance to the rest of the country, the magnitude of the tragedy was contained almost entirely within the same small immigrant circles, many of whom fear that any talk about such terrible things will bring shame directly on them.
I am familiar with this emotion because I felt the same way when my friend told me about his own troubling, long suppressed feelings. I don’t know if I’ll ever quite understand the delicate contingency of my citizenship as clearly as I did that night. Here, a Korean friend was confessing his own visceral anger to me and searching for an explanation for it. And even though I’ve felt the same slow burn inside myself for much of my own life, I could not bring myself to talk to him about it.