Los Angeles TimesCho's Family Background -- Oddities AboundingSun Apr 22, 2007 20:38
Cho's Family Background -- Oddities Abounding
Bright daughter, brooding son: enigma in the Cho household
Silent and withdrawn boy was eclipsed by his sister in a culture emphasizing male success. But no one expected what was to come.
By Bob Drogin, Faye Fiore and K. Connie Kang
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
Posted April 22 2007, 1:47 PM EDT
CENTREVILLE, VA. -- The three-story beige town house on Truitt Farm Drive stands as the Cho family's symbol of middle-class success, precisely what they were searching for when they left a dank basement apartment and a life of struggle in South Korea 15 years ago.
But the dream house is empty now, abandoned by a family on the run, not from the law but from a world seeking some sort of explanation.
Like millions of other immigrant families, Sung-tae Cho and his wife, Hyang-im, struggled to speak English, worked grueling hours and made countless sacrifices to lift their young family upward.
Out of that tough and potentially scarring experience came two very different children: a scholarly, idealistic daughter who graduated from an Ivy League university and a friendless, brooding son who retreated into a dark world of his own and committed the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Seung-hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech Monday killed 32 teachers and students and wounded more than two dozen others. It also left the Korean American community and the rest of the world to wonder what went so horribly wrong. Family members have offered few answers, speaking only to the FBI for the first few days and then saying in a emotional statement Friday that they felt "hopeless, helpless and lost."
No one can know what went through Cho's mind as he prepared and carried out his grisly acts. But there are clues.
Cho, 23, grew up on a quiet cul-de-sac where neighbors waved a friendly hello, but would later say they hardly knew he existed. He attended a mostly white high school that installed round tables in the lunchroom to encourage students to interact, but Cho barely spoke a word. And he was raised in a South Korean family and culture that so values boys his mother once told her employer that she wished her son had attended Princeton instead of her daughter.
Asian immigrants tend to emphasize education and success, and by all accounts, the Chos were no exception. From a South Korean immigrant's perspective, said Edward T. Chang, professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside and an immigrant himself, you are either a success or a failure.
"There is no middle ground."
Poor, rural roots
Cho's parents have always struggled to make ends meet.
Sung-tae Cho, the killer's father, came from a poor rural area. He was a "country bumpkin" and considerably older than his wife, the daughter of a refugee, said Seung-hui Cho's great-aunt, Kim Yang-soon. "We practically forced her to get married."
Hyang-im's father had fled south during the Korean War that separated the south from its communist northern neighbor, according to Korean news reports.
Sung-tae and Hyang-im Cho were ambitious and apparently educated because after they settled on the still semi-rural outskirts of Seoul, they bought a used-book store. One could make a decent living selling secondhand books in the 1970s, before South Korea's economy began to boom. But one relative said the bookstore just eked out a profit.
To ease his family's plight, Sung-tae Cho left his wife behind to be a laborer in the Middle East, working on oil fields and construction sites in Saudi Arabia for most of the 1980s.
Back home, his wife gave birth March 22, 1982, to their daughter, Sun-kyung. On Jan. 18, 1984, Seung-hui was born.
For the first few years of Seung-hui Cho's life, the family lived in a dark, damp basement apartment on a busy commercial street in Shinchang, a suburb of Seoul. They lived at the bottom of a three-story, red-brick home, and paid $150 a month, a bargain even then.
Cho attended an elementary school a short walk from his home. About 950 students attend today, about half the number when Cho was there. The cluster of three-story buildings frames a large, U-shaped dirt courtyard.
The school files contain only a single sheet of paper on Cho, showing he left the school in August 1992, at age 8, after partially completing second grade.
"We don't know anything about that student," said the vice principal, who refused to identify himself. "And I'd like to point out that he did not graduate from here."
The young Cho left little impression on those he might have met. Sketchy recollections in the South Korean media all emphasize his shyness, a trait that would follow him throughout his life.
"He was a quiet, well-behaved boy," said Lim Bong-ae, the family's former landlady.
His grandfather and great-aunt, both in their 80s, still live in Seoul. Though they met Seung-hui only twice, and had not seen him for years when his face appeared on front pages and TV screens last week, they said they remembered him as a troubled boy uncomfortable with affection.
Kim Hyong-shik, his grandfather, recalled "a grandson who was so shy he didn't even know how to run into my arms to be hugged."
Cho's great aunt, Kim Yang-soon, remembered a child who was quiet and strangely remote.
"He was docile and well behaved," she said. "But his mother used to say he does not speak, that he only looked at her but did not reply to her. And that symptom got worse when they went to America. It was his mother's greatest heartburning grief that her son did not talk."
But Cho's future seemed bright. Members of the extended family lived in America. The father's younger brother persuaded them to join him in the Washington, D.C., region, home to what is believed to be America's third-largest South Korean population after Los Angeles and New York.
The Chos arrived in America in September 1992. Their early years were difficult. Apparently unable to afford the airfare, Cho's mother did not return to Seoul for her mother's funeral. She called her relatives in South Korea only on holidays and kept the calls short.
But by 1997, they had earned enough to buy a $145,000 town house on Truitt Farm Drive, one of scores of cookie-cutter developments in the area. They were so proud of their new home that they sent photos to loved ones in South Korea.
Silence in high school
People on the block are friendly from a distance, but rarely get to know one another. Neighbors say Cho's mother would always smile. His father didn't say much, though once, at his wife's urging, he cleared the snow from a pregnant woman's car. Most of the neighbors didn't know the Chos had a son.
Cho graduated from Westfield High School in 2003. But there is no mention of him in that yearbook, not so much as a senior picture.
The high school, which opened in 2000, is stocked with high achievers. Newsweek magazine once ranked it among the 50 best public high schools in America. Its football team won the state championship the year Cho graduated. But with 1,600 students then, Cho was the odd boy who never spoke, former classmates recalled. He joined the science club but just sat there. He carried around an instrument that earned him the name "Trombone Boy."
School officials went to some lengths to encourage students to interact. They put round tables in the lunchroom so no one would feel left out. The "Westfield Welcomers" club formed to help wallflowers and outcasts fit in. But none of it seemed to work for the lonely, acne-plagued boy in glasses who was so quiet that some wondered whether he could speak at all.
In an advanced-placement Spanish class, students made recordings to practice for final exams. The teacher brought the tapes in one day and the class begged to hear Cho's.
"We wanted to know what his voice sounded like," said Regan Wilder, a classmate of Cho's from middle school through college.
"It was almost as if he was backed into a corner whenever you tried to talk to him," said Patrick Song, a Virginia Tech classmate who took AP calculus with Cho as a Westfield senior. "You took it as like he just wants to be left alone."
Luice Woo, another senior at Virginia Tech who was in Cho's high school calculus class, said: "I thought he was … a recent immigrant who didn't know English."
At Virginia Tech, he was the same, though a search warrant revealed that he phoned his family nearly every Sunday night.
Indeed, the profane, rambling diatribe Cho recorded between the shootings, widely broadcast after he ended his rampage with a bullet to his head, may be the most the outside world has ever heard him say.
While her brother tried to disappear at Westfield High, Sun-kyung Cho was soaring. She'd had offers from Harvard and Princeton and chose the latter because the scholarship was better.
By junior year, Sun, as she came to be called, had developed an interest in global economics. She traveled on an internship to the Thailand-Myanmar border to see factory conditions in a developing country.
The experience was transforming. "They were the most amazing three months of my life," Sun Cho told the Princeton Weekly Bulletin. The experience launched her career with a firm that works with the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office.
Her college social life was as rich as her brother's was barren. As a member of a dining co-op, she took turns shopping and cooking for 25 people. For nearly two years, Alan Oquendo ate meals with her almost every night. He remembers "a very humble person," a deeply spiritual woman who did not smoke or drink and wore little makeup. She worked at the college library and spent much of her spare time at prayer meetings and Friday night Bible studies with the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship.
She refrained from pushing her faith, but would discuss it after dinner with a few close friends. "That would be the only time she would talk about it," Oquendo said. "She was a very tolerant person."
It was Sun Cho, 25, who spoke Friday for her distraught family, issuing a statement that broke four days of silence:
"We are humbled by this darkness…. This is someone that I grew up with and loved. Now I feel like I didn't know this person," she said. "He has made the world weep. We are living a nightmare."
The pressures to succeed were intense.
Seung-hui Cho's father pressed pants six days a week at a dry cleaner in Manassas, Va., west of Washington. Cho's mother worked at another Korean-run dry-cleaning business in nearby Haymarket.
She pressed men's suit jackets from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week, a small woman maneuvering between hisses of steam and lines of hanging laundry.
"I knew life was hard for her," said Susana Yang, owner of the dry cleaner. "Her health was not good, and her husband suffered from a back problem."
Hyang-im Cho finally quit because her arm hurt too much.
"The only time she ever asked for time off from work was to attend her daughter's graduation from Princeton and to take her son to Virginia Tech," recalled her employer.
Yang described Hyang-im Cho as diligent and polite, utterly devoted to her children. "She was so proud of her daughter," she said. But, according to Yang, Hyang-im also said, "I wish it had been my son who was graduating from Princeton instead of my daughter."
Perhaps it was just South Korea's Confucian-steeped culture, where parents often expect boys to be more successful than girls.
Seung-hui Cho's mother never discussed her son with Yang. "Whatever burdens she carried, she kept them to herself."
Yang believes neither parent worked after 2004 because of poor health. When she first heard the identity of the Virginia Tech shooter, she did not immediately connect the name. Then she saw the pictures.
"In the two smiling photos of him in the car, I caught glimpses of Mrs. Cho," she said. "How can this be? I don't have words to describe the pain the family must be going through."
Indeed, rumors spread quickly among South Koreans worldwide that Cho's father had committed suicide and his mother had overdosed on pills.
The rumors were false. But In-suk Baik, president of the Korean-American Assn. of Northern Virginia, paid a visit to Seung-hui Cho's uncle in Edgewater, Md. Baik assured him that Americans wouldn't blame the Korean community for the massacre.
"Because of their upbringing, Korean parents blame themselves for everything that goes wrong with their children," Baik said. "But in America, people say, 'Not me.' "
Though America's South Korean American community can be insular, the Chos seemed unusually reclusive. They did not regularly attend church, a center of social activity and networking for many immigrants.
Even more important is the cultural emphasis on education and success. Failures are often viewed as dishonorable.
"Our life is governed by chae-myon, what other people think about us," said Tong S. Suhr, a Korean American attorney and an unofficial historian of Los Angeles' Koreatown. "Consulting someone outside the family is admitting that you can't handle it. It is shameful. So we keep everything to ourselves."
Chang, of UC Riverside, offered a darker view of the Cho family dynamic.
"The sister epitomized the immigrant success story, while the brother represented its failure," he said. "Cho was nerdy. Students made fun of him. He was a psycho who needed help. His parents and friends failed in that regard. Society failed too."
Los Angeles Times staff writers Wally Roche and Richard B. Schmitt in Washington; Adam Schreck in Blacksburg, Va.; Bruce Wallace and special correspondent Jinna Park in Seoul; and researcher Hugh McCarthy in Blacksburg, Va., contributed to this report.
The Times is a Tribune Co. newspaper.
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