Remembering Oikos

8 Apr

A little over a year ago, on April 2, 2012, six people were killed at Oikos University in Oakland. The shooter One Goh was an Oikos student.

If you’ve never heard of Oikos before or even since the shooting, that’s not surprising. Writer Jay Kang, observes “just… how unremarkable [the school] was and just how forgettable it was” when he visited the campus (

The fact of Oikos’ unremarkability takes on greater significance when you acknowledge two other facts:

  • the school’s main student demographic is immigrants seeking an affordable nursing education, who rely more on referrals within their community than glossy admissions marketing to choose where they will go to school, and
  • the school has recently been “on probation by the state regulators for lackluster pass rates on California’s licensing exam.”

It’s as if education doesn’t really matter there because the students don’t.

Does that sound melodramatic?

If so, consider how little the shooting has mattered in the national dialogue about gun control. Do Sandy Hook Elementary; Aurora, Colorado and Virginia Tech ring any bells? The shootings in those places certainly rang louder in the national ear.

As Kang reflects in an interview with NPR, “[F]or the most part, [poor immigrants are] just almost invisible, and so it makes sense that their tragedies would also be invisible.”

Sensible or not, the invisibility is still damaging. In the NY Times article “That Other School Shooting,” Kang writes, “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”  (

Of course, “you” don’t always have a choice about confronting what’s happening. In his exploration of the Oikos shooting, Kang describes learning about the incident from a Korean friend who wrote four words in an 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.

Does that sound paranoid? Like, come on… “we” could be anyone: men, people who own computers, human beings…

Well, as Kang writes, leaping from “we” to Korean-Americans “may sound cynical and callous, but it speaks to a truth shared among immigrants whose people have done terrible things.” I would take it further and say that any minority group who experiences tenuous tolerance by the majority can relate to this reflexive dread when anyone who can be identified with the group does something socially, morally or legally wrong. The flip side of being invisible in a community is that any attention can feel like scrutiny. And certainly, it is when one of yours has committed a mass murder.

Notably, the url for Kang’s NY Times piece (which, like other urls, offers an alternate title for the article it links to) includes this segment “should-it-matter-that-the-shooter-at-oikos-university-was-korean.”

Kang and Chung, both Korean-American, would say yes.

Kang writes about Goh and Chung both referring to their fathers as “typically Korean,” using that shorthand “knowing that [Kang] would understand instantly what they meant.” And he did. So, as a matter of fact, do I. Saying that you have a “typically Korean” father explains a lot about the emotional landscape in which you were raised and the interior terrain that you continue to navigate as an adult. Here, I’ll rely on Kang’s eloquent framing to elaborate:

[H]an and hwabyung, two Korean cultural concepts that have no equivalent in the English language [provide a lens into the psyche of Korean immigrants]. 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 hwabyung describe a dense helplessness and despair that always feels on the verge of erupting into acts of self-destruction.

According to Chung, the social ramifications of han and hwabyung are “denial and avoidance… 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.”

There’s a very real reason that Koreans and Korean-Americans may be silent about han and hwabyung, the latter of which is now recognized in Korea as a treatable clinical disease: the fear of being profiled as dangerous and bad people. This is no trivial or silly concern in a world that struggles with xenophobia.

Yet, the acknowledgment of han and hwabyung is not about finding a cultural scapegoat for the Oikos shooting. Rather, it’s about having another lens, in addition or as alternative to the one we impose by default on the world around us. Because we’re always looking at others and our experiences through cultural constructs that shape our perceptions. (And more often than not, the lens we use to see the world says a lot more about us than it does about the world.) And when we can consider more than one perspective, then we can truly discover and learn about what we are regarding, as well as ourselves.

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