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Cho Seung-Hui: Mocked Everywhere; Protected at Church

John on May 8, 2007 at 10:01 pm

After the initial shock of the Virginia Tech killings, the press began to dig into Cho’s background. He was almost uniformly described as a troubled loner who rarely spoke. Multiple news sources indicated that he was picked on in junior high and high school:

As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, `Go back to China.’

Once, in English class, the teacher had the students read aloud, and when it was Cho’s turn, he just looked down in silence, Davids recalled. Finally, after the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho started to read in a strange, deep voice that sounded “like he had something in his mouth,” Davids said.

“As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, `Go back to China,’” Davids said.


Stephanie Roberts, 22, a fellow member of Cho’s graduating class at Westfield High, said she never witnessed anyone picking on Cho in high school…But she said friends of hers who went to middle school with Cho told her they recalled him getting picked on there.

“There were just some people who were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him,” Roberts said Wednesday. “He didn’t speak English really well and they would really make fun of him.”

Another article defies Roberts’ recollection that Cho wasn’t picked on in high school:

“People would make catcalls to him in the hallway,” said Davids. “They would call him chink or Chinatown.”

Newsweek’s Evan Thomas added to the litany of mistreatment in in his special report for the April 30th issue of Newsweek titled Making a Massacre. Here’s the quote:

Cho was trapped in a generational warp, neither quite Korean like his parents nor American like his peers. His parents turned to the church for help with his emotional problems, but he was bullied in his Christian youth group, especially by rich kids. “Cho was a smart student who could understand the meaning of the Bible,” recalled his boyhood pastor at Centreville (Va.) Korean Presbyterian Church, who asked not to be identified in an interview with NEWSWEEK to avoid further media inquiries. But the pastor doubted that Cho believed the words.

From Newsweek this claim has spread to thousands of websites including Cho’s wikipedia entry. A google search for “Cho bullied youth group” returns 25,600 hits, including newspapers around the world.

On April 25th I read an account of Cho’s church written by a journalists who had visited it and interviewed several of its members. Reporter Katie Wang described it this way:

The church only has about 40 members, mostly middle-class immigrants who like the Chos settled in Fairfax County because of the schools and affordable homes.

That didn’t seem to fit with Evan Thomas’ description and I said so. I decided to contact the pastor of the church identified in Evan Thomas’ article. I sent him two e-mails asking him to confirm the statements he had made to Newsweek. Finally, I received a response from the pastor’s assistant [I'm omitting the names for privacy]:

My name is —— and I am writing on behalf of Pastor —–.

Pastor —- was not aware of the Newsweek article, so it’s taken him a few days to respond back. First of all, Pastor —- has never spoken to Newsweek, and he does NOT remember any kids “bullying” Seung Hui Cho at the church.

After receiving your email, Pastor —- read some of newspaper articles, including Korean newspapers, written about Korean Presbyterian Church of Centreville. We did find an article on the internet, (referenced, I think by Korean Cental Daily Newpaper,) interviewing a Pastor K. age 50, who said the things you are referring to on April 18th.

Pastor K. was a member of the church for a very short time and he has not been with our church since early 2001.

It turns out Pastor K is the person Newsweek got this story from. He left the church almost two years before Cho graduated high school. In an interview published in various Korean language newspapers between April 18th and April 20th, Pastor K shared his experiences with Cho.

In this article dated April 19th, Pastor K says that Cho’s mother wanted him to join a Saturday youth group because she was concerned that he was too withdrawn and spending too much time playing video games. While at the youth group, Pastor K reports that he rarely spoke except to say “yes” or “no.”

But in this article from another Korean paper, Pastor K adds that Cho was picked on in the youth group though, as you’ll see, calling this “bullying” is a bit of a stretch. Here is the complete article translated into English [One of my wife's co-workers agreed to translate it for me. I streamlined some of the wording]:

“When we watched his video manifesto explaining his reasons behind the massacre, all of our family said “that is not like Seung-Hui’. That’s because it was the first time we saw him talking in full sentences and not in pieces of words and because we were surprised to see him spitting out curses like bullets.”

As a Christian leader, I feel responsible when I see him cursing Christianity.According to the interview with Joongang Ilbo (Korean newspaper) on the 18th, Reverend K (age 50) — who taught Cho at the Korean Church in Centerville for 2 years beginning in 2000 when Cho was a 10th grader in High School in Fairfax County, VA — who wished to be remain anonymous, said “As a Christian leader, I feel responsible when I see him cursing Christianity. I am terribly sad.” The followings are excerpts from the interview:

- Have you seen Cho’s video?

“It was the first time I ever saw him so angry. I couldn’t believe it.”

- What was he like in the past?

“He was a loner. I never knew he could talk so fluently. In the past, he never spoke in sentences. If I asked him to pray, he usually didn’t say anything for at least a minute and then would say short sentences like “Let’s have a good time. Let’s be thankful.” Because he always had his mouth shut, even elementary school kids made fun of him. Some even pushed him a bit. So, often I told Seung-hui, “if you get annoyed by these little pranksters, why don’t you yell or get angry with them?” But his usual responses was to just nod and do nothing about it. Because of Cho’s inaction, teasing by some of the mischievous elementary age kids lasted for quite a while.

- Didn’t Cho’s behavior change as he came to church?

He was smart and quick to understand the biblical stories. But his understanding never materialized into faith. I’d say his faith was at about 20%. Every Saturday, I gave him a ride to our church so he could make friends his own age in the youth group. But he never got along with anyone. During snack time, he usually ate in the corner by himself.

- In his manifesto, Cho said ‘do you know how it feels to be insulted (or to suffer)?’ and showed his hostility toward the world .

When other kids made fun of him, he never reacted on the outside but perhaps he felt scorned and belittled inside. Among those whom I had to counsel not to bother Cho were some kids from rich backgrounds. Maybe these little things accumulated inside Cho’s mind for a long time and then exploded all at once.”

- Has he ever been rebellious in church?

No. However, once I recommended that his mom take Cho to see a doctor because he showed some autistic behavior. But his mom didn’t agree with my evaluation and refused to take him to the doctor. If Cho had received proper medical care from early stage, it’s possible this terrible thing might not have happened. I feel regretful for not persuading his mother more firmly at the time.”

So, according to Pastor K, Cho was indeed teased at his Saturday youth group, just as he was everywhere else. His pastor at the time was aware of it, took steps to shelter him from it and tried to get him to stand up for himself. The Newsweek story condenses all of this down into a single sentence that introduces the word bullying:

His parents turned to the church for help with his emotional problems, but he was bullied in his Christian youth group, especially by rich kids.

Is bullying what Cho really experienced in youth group?Is bullying what Cho really experienced in youth group? According to Pastor K he was teased and even pushed by some kids. That might sounds like bullying except for the fact that the kids involved were in elementary school. Cho was in 10th grade at the time. It’s not the image most people probably have in mind when they hear the word “bullying.” For me, that brings to mind a hefty kid who likes to hit people when they don’t hand over their lunch money, not a couple of 5th graders making wisecracks about a sophmore in high school.

It also appears that there were some wealthy kids who picked on Cho, but the pastor stepped in and told them to leave him alone. He wasn’t left to the mercy of these spoiled brats as the Newsweek piece suggests.

So here’s the real story. Cho was picked up and driven to a Saturday youth group so he could make friends, yet sat alone in the corner. He was protected from teasing by his pastor, but refused to protect himself from teasing by much younger kids. He was invited to join a Bible study; yet, until the manifesto appeared on TV no one had ever heard him utter more than a few words. His pastor recommended he be examined by a doctor but — possibly because of the shame associated with mental illness in Korean culture — his mother refused to take him.

Cho’s church made a sincere effort to reach out to him and help him fit in. For whatever reason, he was unable to respond. Perhaps he had a serious mental illness (schizophrenia has been suggested by some, autism by others). Perhaps he was physically or sexually abused by an adult, as his college writings seem to suggest. In either case, it’s hard to imagine what more Cho’s church could have done to help him.

Far from being just another part of the problem, church seems to be the only place Cho went where an adult stood up for him.A lot of people mocked and picked on Cho Seung-Hui. A few, in high school and college, reached out to him, including members of Tech’s Korean Campus Crusade chapter. But no one tried harder to reach out to Cho than the pastors at Centerville Korean Presbyterian Church. Evan Thomas’ story for Newsweek isn’t a lie since Cho was in fact picked on in his youth group, but it manages to mislead the reader about what really happened there. So far as we know, Pastor K was the only adult who attempted to teach Cho how to get along with others. Far from being just another part of the problem, church seems to be the only place Cho went where an adult stood up for him. That effort deserved a lot better treatement than Evan Thomas’ dismissive one-liner.

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Category: MSM & Bias, Religion & Faith |

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