K-Town, Episode 3 Recap (Part One): Soju is the Relationship Killer (Spontaneous Dance-Off Edition)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FS2gq6agLvA

Spoiler alert! Which hopefully you would have figured out by the word “recap” in the title.

This post will deal with the first five minutes of episode 3. That’s right — the first five minutes.

There’s a lot that could be said about this episode, but I think this pretty much sums it up:

ka-BOOM.

When last we left our fearless heroes and heroines, Jowe (aka “Prince of K-Town”) and Violet had shared a fleeting, soju-drenched, kiss in the hallway of a local K-town club. Some time later, the Prince was flirting with some random pants-less smoking girl at the bar. This girl, by the way, has a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard. She sounded like a vapid West Coast Valley Girl who’s been doping with cannisters of helium. She sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks on Xanax. I’m really sorry to say it: she sounded like she was looking to get punched in the face.

Anyways, as Jowe (perhaps we should actually call him the Prince of Revisionist History?)  puts it:

"So, Violet just comes up and introduces herself out of nowhere. And then, they just start complimenting each other on each others' outfits. And then next thing you know..."

Yeah, no. That is not what happened.

Look, I don’t know if the Prince was consciously trying to hook up with Random Pants-less Smoking Girl. But, I’m siding with the women on this one: approaching a girl and telling her that she’s pretty is a come-on. It’s pretty much the textbook definition of a come-on. Whether or not you should be picking up a girl while you’re partying with your ex- in the same room is a whole other topic for conversation; but, let’s not pretend that the Prince wasn’t trying to get some play just there.

Anyways: blah blah blah, “Oh, you’re not wearing pants?”, yadda yadda yadda, “Bitch!”, ker-splash. Let’s fast-forward to this week’s episode. One drunken alcohol… water… does-it-really-matter-flinging later, and Random Pants-less Smoking Girl tears after Violet (screaming “Oh, HELL no…!”), who is immediately whisked away by a flabbergasted, and surely cock-blocked, Jowe.

Okay, Jowe. If you’re reading this, let me give you a teeny-tiny piece of advice. Trying to have this conversation:

"Can we please talk about our feelings?"

… just hours after you and your friends did this:

I counted 18 shots of soju over 19 glasses of beer. Yes, I went back and counted. Yes, I'm a dork.

… and just minutes after you and your ex- did this:

This is an ill-advised, drunken hallway hook-up.

… is just plain dumb.

And, it’s especially dumb to try and have this conversation in the middle. of. the. goddammed. dance. floor. Cue, Scarlet, who has decided that this particular conversation needs to be a three-way.

Two's a party, but three's a perfect number for intimate discussions on the state of our romantic relationship.

Honestly, what Scarlet says isn’t really relevant. Hilarious, but not really relevant. What’s relevant is that at this exact moment, Random Pants-less Smoking Girl shows up with her own glass of soju, and flings it wildly over the verbal menage-a-trois.

This is Random Pants-less Smoking Girl. And that's an arc of soju. That's Scarlet's boob on the right side of the image.

Which prompts Violet to throw yet another drink at Random Pants-less Smoking Girl.

That's Violet in the far-right corner throwing water at Random Pants-less Smoking Girl's face. Meanwhile, Scarlet, who got the brunt of Thrown Drink #2, is on the left and is coming in for the kill.

(Yes, it took me something like four or five rewinds to get a grasp of this play-by-play.)

So, let me pause here for a moment. That’s not one -… not two-… but, three drinks thrown into someone’s face in the span of, what, like fifteen minutes. I’ve gone my entire adult life having never flung a beverage at another human being, while these girls manage to set some sort of Bizarre Drink-Flinging World Record in less than 30 minutes. Somehow, I feel like all this time I’ve been doing it wrong.

Anyways, three drinks are thrown, and (of course) all hell breaks loose. Honestly, at this point I kind of felt bad for Random Pants-less Smoking Girl: this wasn’t just an ordinary catfight that she suddenly found herself in the middle of. This was, like, some sort of coordinated catfight. It was like something out of Animal Planet — y’know where the lions circle around the wounded baby zebra and then go in for the kill? There was strategy. There was planning. There was fuckin’ flanking maneuvers. While Scarlet shoves Random Pants-less Smoking Girl to the ground, Violet grabs her by the hair. Scarlet flees for cover, some hand-slapping happens, Random Pants-less Smoking Girl connects with Violet’s left eye, and then the Prince breaks the whole thing up.

This would be all kinds of flashing lights, and handcuffs, and assault and battery charges... if it weren't so darned funny.
It's just complete chaos. Screams of "Let go of my fuckin' hair! Let go of my fuckin' hair!" and "Ow! My fuckin' eye! My faaace!" Complete and utter chaos.

Mike Le, was right; this show totally busts stereotypes. Specifically, the stereotype that all Asians know kung fu.

And, my favourite part?

This guy. Who can be seen in the background of the whole catfight, watching and laughing while nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.

Later, Violet sums up why she was so worried about getting a black eye in a line that’s equal parts sheer awesome and sheer bitch:

"Ugly girls have nothing to lose. Like, they don't care if their face gets fucked up. As for me...?"

Honestly, that’s the kind of line that would ordinarily make me hate a girl. Except, that later on, when the Prince drags Violet off to Hookup Hallway to talk about their feelings, Random Pants-less Smoking Girl confronts them both one more time, tries to start the fight again, and calls Violet fat.

Yeeeaaaah. Fuck you, Random Pants-less Smoking Girl.

Really? Violet? Fat? She’s fat like I’m seven feet tall and playing for the New York Knicks.

Which, unfortunately, neither is Jeremy Lin.

So, really, in the end it’s kind of just one big ‘ol superficiality slug-fest. And, in that context, I can kind of forgive Violet for being supremely bitchy.

After more insults are flung in Hookup Hallway, Random Pants-less Smoking Girl leaves. And that’s when we finally get to see:

Holy shit. She really WASN'T wearing any pants. Are those ass-less chaps?

The girls and the guys break off into separate groups to tell their sides of the story. And really, it’s kind of a brilliant piece of gender role-playing: Violet tells an emotional recounting of how Jowe is playing with her emotions while the girls help her process, while Jowe and the boys really can’t figure out what the big deal is. Jasmine, aka Jazzy (cutest nickname ever), encourages Violet to get the Prince out of her life.

Courage wound up, the Prince drags Violet back to Hookup Hallway for yet another “can we talk about our feelings?” chit-chat. Violet starts cussing and swearing. She’s revved up, infuriated and exasperated (and possibly still a little drenched with soju).

"I'm fuckin' pissed!!! I'm fuckin' pissed!!!" she screams at him.

At this point, I’m rooting for the girl: come on, Violet, you can do it!

"You're the one flirting with all the girls!" she yells at him.

You can tell him off! You can get in his face, give him a piece of your mind, and -… and-…

 

... and-....
........
When the fail is so strong, one facepalm is not enough.

(And, of course, wouldn’t you know that Young missed it all…?)

Tune in to my next recap post when I cover the second half of K-Town Episode 3.

Update: Part Two is here.

K Town, Episode 2 Recap: Why You Don’t Piss Off Drunk Korean Girls

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xCR9kfRvg0

I hadn’t even had time to hit “Publish” on my K Town episode 1 recap when episode 2 was released. Damn you, guys, I have real work to do; but, like some sort of fiend with the shakes, I sat down and surreptitiously watched episode 2 while no one at work was looking, and then I felt compelled to write about it.

Remember when executive producer Mike Le said this:

“The first episode, we spent quite a bit of time just setting up the players, but beginning with the next episode on, you better hold onto your seats, because we’re going from 60 m.p.h. to 250. All the Asian Americans out there who are afraid this show is going to be too wild, well, their fears are justified.”

That man was not joking around.

Spoiler alert! Which hopefully you would’ve figured out by the fact that this episode is titled “recap”.

So, episode 2 picks up after Violet and Jowe have their tête-à-tête and settle some post-breakup differences. The rest of the crew have wandered off to a local restaurant to snack prior to hitting the club later that night. Jowe plays cultural tour guide and informs the audience that K-town has structured partying: il-cha: Happy Hour, ee-cha: Food and Drinks, sam-cha: Pre-party and sa-cha: Party.

... because apparently us Asians can't even party without first formulating a strict schedule... (just kidding, guys, you know I love you!)

At round 2, Jasmine and Steve call out Joe for inviting Jowe (Violet’s ex-boyfriend) to hang with the crew without first letting Violet know. And, also, Steve kind of has an issue with a “stranger” (I dunno how much of a stranger you can be when you’re all castmates on the same reality TV show) joining them for the night. Either way, mad props to these guys for calling Joe out; that shit was shady. You just don’t do that kind of thing to your friends. Joe defends himself by saying that he invited everyone out at once so he could recruit them for his Belasco party that he’s promoting, which, y’know, is kinda putting business before your friends. But, whatever.

Violet and Jowe show up, and all that moral high ground Steve had just completely crumbled beneath his feet. Steve (and Young and Jasmine) just could not let Violet and Jowe’s heart-to-heart go, and practically demanded that they give a full recap for the entire crew.

Way to make it awkward, guys...

Speaking of awkward, Steve suggests that the friends play a drinking game, “Who Here”. Each person takes turn saying something like, “who here looks the most conceited?”, “who here looks like a liar?”, “who here looks like they’ll have sex for money?” or, in the case of Young, “who here looks the best in… looks like they are the best at… is the best in… y’know… sexing?” The person with the most votes cast against them must drink, unless they predict they will get the most votes, which results instead in everyone who voted for them having to drink.

This is a game almost guaranteed to result in tomorrow's headlines reading about a triple homicide by chopstick in the heart of Koreatown.

I propose a better drinking game for the crew: take a shot everytime Scarlet dry-humps something.

If this episode is any indication, you would be plastered by ee-cha.

After snacks, the crew head to a nearby bar. Joe, it seems, is a Party Nazi, and all night, he is cutting the party short and keeping the crew moving. ‘Cuz nothing says fun like rigid scheduling…

"There has been 95% the requisite amount of fun at sam-cha. We will maintain the party here for an additional 15 minutes, but then we will all proceed to sa-cha. Do you all copy?"

At the bar, the cast meet Cammy, Steve’s “best friend” who apparently works as barkeep. Everyone does a series of shots, including what looks like the awesomest thing ever, the Seoul train. I’ll confess, at this point, I would be fuckin’ plastered, but then I guess that’s why I’m not a reality TV star. Party Nazi then death-marches the crew on to the club for the remainder of the night.

At the club, we come to a shocking and horrific realization: Jowe is kind of a douchebag.

Okay, maybe he’s not actually a douchebag, but he plays a douchebag really well on TV. Jowe and Violet flirt in the corner of the club, and then out in the hallway, Jowe lays on the lamest come-on in come-on history: “So, we look like the best-looking couple in the house. How about we kiss and get it over with?”

Seriously? Seriously?

... although, I'm not sure what kind of pick-up gems we're expecting from a guy who actually introduces himself as "the prince of K-town".

And, of course, it works.

This, right here, is the power of soju.

Meanwhile, Scarlet and Jasmine thoroughly embarass a guy at the bar who tries (badly) to pick them up. Although it was kind of mean-spirited, it was definitely one of the most hilarious and ballsy things I’ve ever seen a girl do to an unwanted pick-up. The camera pans to him after the two girls leave:

This is the face of a man who is contemplating drowning himself in that martini glass.

The group then notices that Jowe is, I shit you not, making the rounds at the club, and is, I shit you not, still introducing himself as “the prince of K-town”.

I shit you not.

Jowe starts flirting with a girl, and Violet (who is really, really hammered — you can tell by how badly she’s slurring her speech) just loses her shit. She confronts Jowe and this chick (whom Violet notes is lacking pants), and one thing leads to another, and, well…

This, too, is the power of soju.

Take-home message from this week’s episode: soju is some crazy shit.

Stay tuned for next week’s episode, when Violet potentially gets her eyes clawed out by some random girl who is both without pants and now dripping with vodka.

K Town, Episode 1 Recap: Welcome to K-Town

It’s been two years (almost to the day) since the announcement that Tyrese Gibson’s production company announced its intention to collaborate with the team behind reality television bonanzas Jersey Shore and The Hills to create an Asian American-centered reality TV show set in the night-life of L.A.’s infamous Koreatown. K-town, as its known by some, rivals the Jersey Shore for its wild after-hour party scene and was introduced to the MTV generation as the backdrop against which Far East Movement set its music video for “Like a G6”.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4s6H4ku6ZY

Seems like the perfect setting for a group of twenty-something Asian Americans to prove that they can match the Jersey Shore cast fist pump to fist pump. K Town announced its 8 cast members in July of 2010, along with the release of behind-the-scenes photos of the show’s first week of shooting; this was followed soon afterwards with TMZ “leaking” a compilation of casting videos.

And then… nothing.

Although Asian America waited with bated breath for K Town — which was anticipated to be picked up by MTV — to air, the show instead quietly fell off the radar. Eventually, we chalked it up as just another failed project that woulda shoulda coula headlined Asian Americans. We figured it was probably just another symptom of our community always being the bridesmaid and never the bride.

Or maybe there had been just a little too much of this, and the cast had collectively ended up in a two-year alcohol-induced coma.

And then, this past week, K Town rather unexpectedly revealed its first episode. Jeff Yang gives us the skinny on his latest Tao Jones column:

“Once we started shopping [K Town] around town, we got interest everywhere we went. There was a bidding war between two networks, and we went with one of them,” [says Executive Producer Mike Le, who is also vice president of Tyrese Gibson’s HQ Production company].

And then? “And then things didn’t work out.”

According to Le, a combination of “regime change” and a refusal by the net’s new guard to let the producers make the show they’d had in mind led to the show going on an extended hiatus — one that as of last Wednesday, had lasted almost two and a half years. That’s when the first episode of the new, no-holds-barred online edition of K-Town was unveiled, as the tentpole property of LOUD, a newly launched YouTube channel from equally new startup Electus.

Here’s episode 1 of K Town:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rhDjxDLyjk

For those of you too lazy to watch the full 12 minutes, here’s the skinny. Episode 1 of K Town is almost anti-climatic in its lack of hyper-sexed drunken debauchery. After nearly two full years of anticipation and hype, episode 1 spends most of its time introducing us to the cast and some of the inherent drama. This is pretty much par for the course for any reality TV show, and is akin to that first wasted hour of any Real World season where we follow each cast mate as they get off the plane and are whisked off to staged introductions with one another. Episode 1 is 12 minutes long — we really can’t expect any fireworks this soon.

But, have no fear, K Town fanatics — Le warns that episode 2 will blow the wheels off of episode 1. Writes Yang:

“The first episode, we spent quite a bit of time just setting up the players, but beginning with the next episode on, you better hold onto your seats, because we’re going from 60 m.p.h. to 250. All the Asian Americans out there who are afraid this show is going to be too wild, well, their fears are justified,” [says Le].

... I can barely contain my excitement.

***

In Episode 1, we are introduced to the cast. Two years ago, I made some wild guesses about the characters they would play on K Town based on some leaked behind-the-scene photos, a little revised after I saw the casting video). Let’s see how close I was:

5 out of 8 dead-on, and 2 partial credits. I either have a future in reality TV casting, or I've watched waaaay too much MTV.

In Episode 1, we meet the cast. Jasmine (who is ridiculously adorable and charming) is an (“award-winning”) hair-stylist who has been friends with Scarlet for awhile, and the latter has just moved to K-Town. Violet is also their friend, and has lived and partied in K-Town since she was a kid. She’s a single mother (Jeff notes that Violet is a former junior beauty queen pageant contestant who married at age 21) who has been on the K-Town club scene since she was a kid.

As for the guys: Joe is a club promoter at the  Belasco, who also spends most of his time at the gym; he clearly looks the part of the personal trainer, but eeek, dude, you’re leaning a little heavy into those rope pull-downs! Joe also seems like a genuinely nice guy, and I did enjoy his “motivation” of the other guys. As for the other boys, there’s Young, a dancer and aspiring “entertainer”, and Steve who, well, in his own words:

“I live by one motto: work hard, and drink harder, and show your loves to women, man.”

The Situation couldn't have put it better himself. Probably because The Situation can barely talk, but, y'know...

We learn through the course of episode 1 that Violet and Jowe, the self-proclaimed “Prince of K-Town” (whom we meet later in the episode), had a short relationship prior to the start of shooting, but that they have since broken up. This is clearly going to serve as a major story arc over the season.

Joe organizes a get-together for the 7 castmates (we haven’t met Cammy yet) to announce that he needs their help to promote a huge party at the Belasco (or he could get fired!), and so that Young can announce that he got engaged to a girl who had to return to Korea after her visa expired.

(Aside, I realize that Young wants to be an “entertainer” but I really hope he’s not planning a career as a comedian. In the confessional, he jokes: “What’s funny is my name is Young and her name is So Young!” *frenzied laughter*… I’m sorry, sweetie, but that’s not really that funny.)

And, in true manufactured reality TV drama fashion, Joe doesn’t tell Violet that he has invited Jowe to show up (which he does, all late like a crackhead). As Jowe greets the other cast-mates, the camera is trained dead on Violet’s reaction.

Violet gives a look that's 50% I-could-kill-you-all and 50% I-want-to-crawl-into-this-corner-and-die.

That was seriously a bitchy ass thing for whomever (Joe? K-Town producers?) to do. But, hey, it makes for good TV, right?

The episode ends with a strained truce called between Violet and Jowe after the rest of the castmates leave, and foreshadowing for next week’s episode, which will cover the party at Belasco  later that night (corrected).

***

In Jeff’s Tao Jones piece, Jeff touches upon the purpose of K Town:

“High-impact” and “buzz-worthy” seem like apt terms to describe K-Town — now dubbed “the reality show no TV network could show you.” The show’s teaser trailer features epileptic flashes of castmembers bootyshaking in their lingerie, licking liquor off one anothers’ bodies, tongue-tangling and pelvis-grinding in various gender combinations and drunkenly punching each other senseless — in short, engaging in activities that are not commonly associated with Asian Americans in mainstream media.

And that, says Mike Le, is the point.

“I think we as Asians have a tendency to embrace our own ‘model minority’ hype,” he says. “To me, that one-dimensional, positive stereotype is as bad as the images in the mass media that depict us only as ninjas or dragon ladies or asexual IT guys. Yes, the interest in the show is Asians going wild — you better believe that when we took it around to the networks, the old white execs we showed it to were popping their eyes out. But in reality, K-Town’s about the fact that all the stereotypes, good or bad, don’t fit when you’re talking about real people. Our cast doesn’t represent all Asians. They simply represent themselves.”

The desire to present a more three-dimensional image of Asian Americans on TV, as a direct challenge to the stereotypes that are traditionally embodied by Hollywood’s Asian faces, appeals to the Asian American community. Indeed, when K Town was slated to air on a major TV network such as MTV, I could rationalize the need for a show like K Town; less than 3% of primetime TV’s main characters are played by Asian American actors, and most embody a classic Asian American stereotype. A show like K Town being aired on MTV alongside images of Asian Americans as doctors, scientists, and IT specialists could help to provide a more complex, humanized image of Asian Americana.

However, the argument  becomes less compelling given K Town‘s new iteration as an online TV show. Unlike cable TV, the Internet is not only well-trafficked (and thus well-represented by) Asian American users — but is also a place where one can readily find examples of Asians and Asian Americans as spoken word artists, musicians, rap battlersdancers, and yes, even liquored-up fist-pumpers. The Internet is a place where Asians and Asian Americans displayed art, screened movies, created comic books, got angry, built a political voice, and even lip synced to the Backstreet Boys.

One wonders how K Town can really help to diversify the Asian American image in this medium? Or should we just be straight with ourselves? Maybe we should just stop trying to put K Town into some larger sociopolitical context where it’s something special because it “challenges stereotypes”.

Maybe K Town is best being treated for exactly what it is: yet another trashy reality TV show that we’ll indulge in because, goddammit, we just can’t get enough of our guilty pleasures.

And, seriously. Before today, I didn't know who the fuck these people were. Now I can't explain why I need to know how Violet and Jowe end up hooking up in the corner of Belasco of some club later that night (corrected).

 

Happy Valley Hate Crime a Hoax

A day after I posted that an Asian family was targeted by anti-Asian hate crime after moving to a suburban community in Oregon, it was revealed that the whole episode was a hoax conjured up by the family’s 16-year-old son, who was angry about having to switch schools and make new friends.

The family’s 16-year-old son (whose name isn’t mentioned in most of the news articles I’ve read about the story — in and of itself suspicious since reporters published pictures and names of the other three kids when the story initially broke yesterday) apparently was the one to spray-paint racial slurs on the family’s new house, and to leave a threatening note next to a box of matches and a bottle suspected to contain gasoline. The note read “LEAVE” and “Last Warning. We will burn down your house if we have to.”

Slurs spray-painted on the house included "gook", "homo" and "chink".
That could be gasoline. Or vegetable oil. I'm not entirely sure.

I guess the son didn’t realize that a hate crime is a serious offense; and that this story would actually make news locally and around the blogosphere.

The son appears to have apologized to the family and no charges will be pressed. But I’m also guessing that the teenager is going to be punished badly enough that juvie jail might almost look like the better consequence. He thought it was bad moving to a new school before? Think how tough it’s going to be to make new friends when all the students know you’re the new kid who graffitied his own house with racial slurs because he missed his old school, and is now grounded for the remainder of his natural life.

Moving to a new high school sucks pretty bad, but yikes — I think it would’ve just been easier to try with the making of the new friends, rather than with the empty threats of arson.

Asian Male Takes Hostages at Discovery Channel HQ (and Comparisons to Virginia Tech)

James Lee, a militant environmental activist, was killed by police after taking hostages at the Discovery Channel HQ this afternoon.

I completely missed the ongoing news drama today (work, work, work), so I’m a little late blogging on this.

Turns out that earlier this afternoon, a gunman stormed into Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland. The gunman had silver cannisters taped to his torso (believed initially to be explosives), and took three male hostages in the lobby of Discovery Channel HQ. Apparently the gunman’s grievances involved believing that humans are “filthy, destructive, polluting creatures” responsible for destroying the environment, and that the Discovery Channel encourages “the birth of more parasitic human infants” — (I guess he was talking about reality television shows like Birth Day aired by Discovery Health that follow pregnant mothers about to give birth).

Oh, yes, and the gunman was an Asian male named James Lee. Great.

When I first caught the headline half an hour ago on the CNN homepage, I experienced the familiar feeling of holding my breath and hoping that this Lee wasn’t Asian. Sadly, I was wrong. As we learn more about James Lee, the more we see the familiar story of an Asian guy with severe mental issues falling between the cracks, and losing his life because of it. In fact, it’s a little eerie how similar Lee’s story is to that of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman who slaughtered over thirty college students in 2007.

Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman of the Virginia Tech Massacre.

The similarities extend far beyond the shared demographics of the gunmen (sorry Angry Asian Man, I am making the connection — but hopefully I’ll demonstrate that it’s not just an easy comparison based on the whole race thing…). Both Lee and Cho displayed a marked hatred of humanity. In Cho’s case, he railed against fellow college students, whom he described as “brats”, “charlatans” and “snobs”:

“You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything,” MSNBC.com quoted Cho as saying.

Lee’s manifesto and other writings are also available online, through blogs, forum posts, and his MySpace page. In them, Lee also demonstrates a strong antipathy for humanity, advocating forced sterilization to decrease the human population and railing against “anchor babies” (…way to go, Republicans and Fox News…). He writes: 

Humans are the most destructive, filthy, pollutive creatures around and are wrecking what’s left of the planet with their false morals and breeding culture.

Both Lee and Cho used new media to release their twisted rants to the media. Cho sent a “multimedia manifesto” containing videos, text and photographs to MSNBC on the morning of his rampage; it was actually dropped into the mail while Cho walked to the building where he staged his rampage. Lee’s writings are collected from years of blogging and forum posting, but are nonetheless both public and multimedia in nature. In both cases, it’s clear that Lee and Cho felt unheard and used whatever means they had at their disposal to force a dialogue on their issues.

Both Lee and Cho demonstrated mental health issues in their final, violent stand-offs (although, arguably, what kind of gunman doesn’t have mental issues?). Importantly, both Lee and Cho had encounters with mental health professionals, and in neither case were Lee or Cho properly diagnosed and treated. Cho was assessed by psychiatrists in 2005 — two years before the Virginia Tech massacre — and identified as potentially posing “an imminent danger to himself or others”, yet he was recommended only for outpatient treatment. Cho failed to comply with that order, and it was never followed up on, allowing Cho to slip through the cracks and spiral further out of control due to lack of therapy and mental care. Lee was arrested in 2008 after a protest on the sidewalk outside of Discovery Channel headquarters where he threw money in the air causing a public disturbance. While in jail, Lee was assessed by psychiatrists but claims he was not diagnosed with any mental disorder.

”I told them my idea of saving the planet,” Lee was quoted in the Gazette. ”They couldn’t find anything wrong with me.”

Yet, Lee clearly suffered from undiagnosed mental issues. Aside from the rambling, hate-filled manifesto that has been published online, hostage negotiators reported today that Lee appeared to be severely troubled.

Manger said hostage negotiators negotiated for almost four hours by phone with Lee while police officers watched and listened to Lee on the building’s surveillance system.

“At times during the negotiations, he was calm, but I wouldn’t call him lucid. The conversation was indicative to me he was dealing with some mental issues,” he said.

Cover art for Daniel Quinn's book, "Ishmael".

Finally — and perhaps weirdest and most disturbing — both Cho and Lee appear to have some sort of connection with the name “Ishmael”. Ishmael is Abraham’s son in the Hebrew bible and the Qu’ran, who was hated and eventually exiled based on the circumstance of his birth. “Ishmael” is also the name of a 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn (and is referenced in two subsequent books) that recounts a dialogue between a gorilla (Ishmael) and a human. Through their interaction, the unnamed narrator of the book learns of Ishmael’s belief that humans have a responsibility to care for the planet and its inhabitants, rather than to pillage and consume it. 

In 2007, it was revealed that Seung-Hui Cho wrote “Ax Ishmael” on his arm immediately prior to his rampage, and that his “multimedia manifesto” had a return address to “A. Ishmael”, suggesting that Seung-Hui Cho was trying to reinvent himself in reference to either the biblical figure or the 1992 Quinn novel’s primate protagonist. Jason Godesky of Anthropik Network (who has read Quinn’s novel and is familiar with its themes) argues that Cho’s actions indicate he never read “Ishmael”, and that he carried himself in direct conflict with the book’s message of peace and self-discovery, fueling further controversy over whether Cho’s “Ax Ishmael” alter-ego referenced the Hebrew bible or Daniel Quinn’s book.

Lee also, apparently, had a connection with the name “Ishmael”, although in this case it is clear that he is referring to Quinn’s novels. Lee recounts in his writings that reading Quinn’s “Ishmael” was a transformative experience for him:

Lee said he began his crusade to save the planet after being laid off from his job in San Diego and reading ”Ishmael,” a novel by Daniel Quinn about a gorilla that tells a man what it is like to live in captivity in a world where humans exploit natural resources.

Lee said he then felt an ”awakening,” watched former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary ”An Inconvenient Truth,” and decided he had been doing too little to protect the environment.

Now, I’m not saying that Daniel Quinn’s book causes Asian men to go on shooting sprees. What I am noting is how the name Ishmael, whether in reference to the Hebrew bible or Daniel Quinn’s gorilla, symbolizes alienation, oppression, powerlessness, and moral redemption, and how these themes resonated with both shooters. Could it be that Asian males suffering from destructive mental health issues specifically — and uniquely — identify with these same themes?

In any event, if there was any more evidence needed that there is a huge health disparity between Asian Americans and the rest of the population, this is it. Less than ten years ago, findings from one of the first and most comprehensive studies conducted on Asian American mental health were published by the National Institute of Mental Health. In it, Asian Americans are identified as having lower rates of mental health concerns — but that is coupled with substantially lower rates of seeking treatment. (This begs the question — do Asian Americans have lower rates of mental health, or lower rates of being diagnosed with mental health problems?)

Usage of mental health treatment is reduced in Asian American populations, from API Info Net. Click image for source.

Researchers have identified several potential factors that appear to discourage Asian Americans from seeking mental health treatment, including cultural stigma and language barriers. Other studies have shown that, despite the lower rates of mental illness among Asian Americans, the suicide rate in the APIA community (5.75 deaths out of 100,000) is higher than that of other ethnic groups. Furthermore, elderly Asian American men experience a suicide rate nearly four times the overall community average (27.95 deaths out of 100,000), and the suicide rate amongst Asian American women rankest highest amongst females of any other ethnic group.

In short, this is a problem, folks. A real problem. A we-can’t-afford-to-ignore-this problem.

Thankfully, unlike with the Virginia Tech Massacre, no one was killed in today’s hostage situation except the gunman, James Lee. But it would still be a tragedy to forget the lessons that could be learned from today’s drama: we should not learn to hate or fear Asian males (or to stereotype them as violent offenders prone to shooting sprees), or to subscribe to Lee’s misguided beliefs involving forced sterilization. But, rather than to fear the inevitable comparisons between Seung-Hui Cho and James Lee (and to lament yet another story that paints Asian folks as the bad guys), we can instead use this incident to start a national dialogue about mental health issues that are proven to exist within the Asian American community precisely because we don’t like to identify those patterns or associate ourselves with those problems.

Hopefully today’s events can teach us to be more cognizant of mental health issues and how they are socially and culturally stigmatized — particularly in the context of the Asian American community. We can and should do more to raise mental health awareness amongst Asian Americans, and to support and promote non-profit and federal efforts to improve diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in Asian American patients.