updated 4/23/2007 4:54:22 AM ET 2007-04-23T08:54:22

Korean Americans in the community where Seung-Hui Cho grew up are still reeling from the shock of learning that the Virginia Tech gunman was one of their own. But many say Cho was a stranger even among the tight-knit families who were his neighbors.

Cho moved to northern Virginia when he was 8 and was raised in a growing immigrant community where the pressure to succeed was overwhelming and seeking mental health care carries a stigma.

After the slayings, Korean Americans held prayer meetings and candlelight vigils as they struggled to understand how Cho slipped through the cracks.

“I think we failed him as a society at large,” says Josephine Kim, a mental health expert who also emigrated from South Korea at age 8. “I think our community failed him, the school system failed him, and definitely the immigrant life really failed him.”

Cho, 23, left South Korea with his family in 1992. He and his older sister, Sun-Kyung, belong to what Korean Americans call the “1.5 generation” — those born in Asia but raised in U.S. and fluent in English by the time they reach high school.

Their parents, Sung and Hyang Cho, found work at a Washington-area dry cleaner, a business that has attracted many Korean immigrants. And like nearly three-quarters of the Korean community in the United States, the family attended a Korean church for a time. The children attended high school in nearby Chantilly.

He was very cold’
A friend and high school classmate of Sun-Kyung Cho, Diana Hong, says Sun-Kyung was an overachiever — smart and accomplished. But she worried about her younger brother, who relatives said was unusually quiet and classmates say was sullen and withdrawn.

“From the beginning, he wouldn’t answer me,” Kim Yang-soon, Cho’s great aunt, told AP Television News on Thursday in South Korea. Cho “didn’t talk. Normally sons and mothers talk. There was none of that for them. He was very cold.”

She said the family was told in the U.S. that Cho suffered from autism — but no records show such a diagnosis.

When her brother landed at Virginia Tech as a freshman, Sun-Kyung Cho asked friends to watch out for him, Hong said.

“The very first time we went to his dorm room, we were like: ’Hey, I know your sister ...’ But he just nodded, and that’s it,” she said.

Cho didn’t respond to further invitations and e-mails, Hong recalled.

Hong said her heart sank when she heard last Monday about the shooting at her alma mater. Later that day, she learned a friend was among the wounded, but would survive. On Tuesday, she discovered Cho was the shooter.

“He was very alone. He didn’t talk with anybody,” Hong said, twisting her hands. “Maybe we didn’t try enough. I guess these questions come up in hindsight.”

‘He has made the world weep’
Sun-Kyung Cho said in a statement Friday that the family was “heartbroken” by their son’s actions.

“We have always been a close, peaceful and loving family. My brother was quiet and reserved, yet struggled to fit in. We never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence. He has made the world weep. We are living a nightmare.”

Many wonder why Cho did not receive more help — and why school officials or police failed to intervene, allowing a troubled young man to buy a pistol.

Kim, who specializes in depression among Korean Americans, characterized Cho as an “internalizer.”

“They’re not disruptive,” she said. “Those students are withdrawn and isolated, and even though we see that as a problem, because it’s not disruptive, often they slip through the cracks.”

Mental illness a social taboo
And she said Korean society — Confucian, patriarchal, and steeped in pride, dignity and the importance of family — has long viewed mental illness as a taboo topic best kept in the closet.

Many Koreans consider it “a sign of bad blood or a sin to be depressed, Kim said. “It’s against our culture to talk about these things.”

In immigrant families, the generation gap often is exacerbated by the cultural divide of parents struggling to make ends meet while their children try to become American, she said.

“Every Korean immigrant kid goes through it. And I think some come out stronger and better, and for some, it’s really tough and they can’t get over it,” Hong said.

Kim, whose younger brother, Paul, was a classmate of Cho’s at Virginia Tech, said she did not know the Cho family personally. But she speculated that “the parents really wanted to provide the American Dream for their kids, which required that they made superhuman sacrifices working really hard.”

“That might have meant they didn’t have enough time at home with their kids. It’s often kids raising themselves,” said Kim, speaking by telephone from Cambridge, Mass.

Little is known about Seung-Hui Cho’s childhood and upbringing and what triggered Monday’s rampage.

For some, time to reflect
“Regardless of what circumstances shaped Seung-Hui Cho’s life, I think this is an important time for the Korean-American community to reflect on how to take better care of the young people who feel like they’re on the margins,” said Heidi Shin, whose family lives in northern Virginia. “It’s an absolute tragedy but we as a community have to figure out to learn from it.”

The Chos, like many Korean immigrants, settled in the outskirts of the Washington suburbs. Centerville, about 26 miles from the nation’s capital, had been known as an enclave for young, working-class families seeking more affordable housing in affluent northern Virginia.

Though still predominantly white, Centreville is more than 14 percent Asian, and Fairfax County was home to more than 28,000 Koreans, according to the 2000 Census, making it the sixth-largest Korean-American community. And that number is clearly rising, residents say.

Northern Virginia — wealthy, competitive and awash with high-achievers — is not an easy place for any teenager. But studies suggest adolescence is especially hard for young, Asian-American males, many of them conscious of the burden of living out their parents’ dreams.

Study: Depression, Korean Americans linked
Kim cited a 1993 study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease that showed the prevalence of depression higher among Korean Americans than other Asian Americans subgroups — and highest among Korean-American males.

Cho’s classmates say Cho was a solitary, quiet figure who wore a low-riding backpack and was teased for his mumbled speech.

Charles Hsu, a Virginia Tech student, said he never knew Cho. “I’m pretty in with the Asian crowd at Virginia Tech but not many people knew him. I don’t know how he went under our radar; usually Asian Americans tend to flock together.”

Hsu is Chinese-American, but he joined about 150 Korean Americans who gathered Friday night at their church in nearby Herndon. Candles flickered on coffee tables, photos of the 32 killed lined the walls, and the U.S. and South Korean flags hung on the walls.

“We respond to this tragedy as Americans and as Koreans, so let’s pray for this nation, that this nation will heal,” the Rev. Dihan Lee said in prayer.

Many sobbed openly. After praying, they scribbled messages of condolences and faith on Hokies banners to take back to the Blacksburg campus.

But Lee urged worshippers not to be ashamed of their Korean heritage.

“Right now there’s a lot of shame being passed around, but it’s really important to understand: This is not our shame ... even though we sense it.”

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