COMMENTARY: Inarticulate immigrants and the language of guns

Andrew Lam

By Andrew Lam
New American Media

Mr. One L. Goh, 43, an immigrant from Korea who allegedly shot and killed seven people at a school in Oakland and wounded five others, may be the latest [in] a string of inarticulate men who became mass murderers in America.

In April of 2009, Jiverly Wong locked the back exit of a civic community center in Binghamton, N.Y., where immigrants gathered to learn English. He shot 13 people to death before killing himself. Cho Sung-hui, a 23-year-old English major, shot and killed 33 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, wounding 25 others before killing himself. Cho since then entered modern history as one of the worst mass murderers in the United States.

What ticked them off? They had no tongue.

The opposite of a cosmopolitan is a kind of an aphonic drifter. While the former may move from one social group to the next, the latter feels disconnected and marginalized. The successful ‘border crossers’ are blessed with the power of metamorphosis and the gift of eloquence. The counterparts finds themselves tongue-tied and trapped, unable to, but deeply desiring, change.

What keeps them from that covetous transformation is language, the loose tongue, that shamelessness, and the ability to slide between worlds. Cho spoke with a speech impediment that made him a pariah while in school. He was an English major who was lousy at expressing himself.

Though he had passed the U.S. citizenship test, Jiverly Wong was defeated by the English language. He was reportedly frustrated by his inability to speak English, despite being in America for two decades. He was, as his ex-coworkers described him, “quiet.”

And now there’s Goh. News reports mentioned that One L. Goh felt teased 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 and made fun of his lack of English speaking skills, which made him feel isolated and ashamed, emotions that further bind the tongue. An inarticulate tongue often leads to rage. And rage has its own language. In America, that language often finds expression through the use of a gun.

Cho’s YouTube video confession before his killing spree in Virginia was a jumble of words, but what screamed out were the guns he displayed. The guns were used to express himself. And they spoke volumes.

So many famous Asian immigrants have entered America’s public space through their power of language — be it men or women of letters, like Ha Jin or Salman Rushdie, or musicians like YoYo Ma and Lang Lang, or filmmakers like Ang Lee and John Woo. But there is another way to enter America’s consciousness, through acts of violence.

If the Asian shame-based culture is still prominent, keeping its citizens in line and well behaved, it is the gun culture in America that is most conspicuous. It is there on TV and video games and the Internet and the silver screen, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied. For them, the gun — be it in video games or at the practicing range — speaks volumes.

For some who feel powerlessness and marginalized but desiring change, the gun can be seductive. It provides power. It speaks in a language everybody understands. It speaks across color lines. It opens doors for the invisible into the public space.

Unfortunately, it is the language of annihilation. It speaks up once or twice, but often the user succumbs to his curse, that of silence. (end)

Andrew Lam is the editor of New America Media and author of “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres” and “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.” His next book, “Birds of Paradise,” is due out in 2013.

Andrew Lam can be reached at

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