The New York Times on Korean Americans and Suicide

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

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Reader Carleandria sent us this strange New York Times article about heightened suicide rates in Korean American New York communities:

The number of suicides reported to the local Korean Consulate General has more than doubled this year, to 15 from 6 last year, and there were 5 in 2007. All of the dead were Korean citizens, said the consulate, which does not keep statistics on Korean-Americans.

The consul general, Kyungkeun Kim, said he believed that the actual total of suicides by Korean citizens might be more than twice as high. The Korea Times, a Korean-language newspaper published in the United States, reported in September that at least 36 Koreans and Korean-Americans in the New York region had taken their lives this year.

Money troubles have been the leading force behind the sharp rise, say Korean civic leaders and officials, who are alarmed by the trend.

While I assume these figures are accurate, the NYT offers no yardstick by which to interpret these numbers. For example, how does the Korean New Yorker suicide rate compare to the overall suicide rate in the US or simply in New York state? Why highlight suicide within the Korean New York community, as opposed to highlighting suicide rates in general? And how does this suicide rate compare to Korean communities in the rest of the US?

What this comes down to for me is, why are the suicides of the dead being pegged as an ethnic/cultural thing?

Many Koreans place an extraordinary emphasis on academic and professional achievement, said Sung Min Yoon, the assistant project director at the Asian Outreach Clinic of the Child Center of New York. Failure to get into top colleges, perform well at school or climb the economic ladder can cause deep shame and embarrassment.

“We have a very inflexible mentality,” Mr. Yoon said.

I admit this might have been a knee-jerk reaction, but this passage annoyed me.  It just sounds too similar to stereotypes about East Asians that are trotted out again and again: they are a stoic, inflexible people who are obsessed with doing well in school.

Korean Americans – like every other human being – have lots more going on than their ethnocultural identity.  So why not probe what other factors – beyond Korean culture – has led to this hike in suicides?

While all the observations of the article may be completely true – suicide rates are up in the Korean New York community; this is something to be concerned about; there is an emphasis on saving face and doing well in Korean communities – the way this article links these observations lacks nuance, and also plays on a tired, two-dimensional portrait of Koreans and East Asians.

Last year we cross-posted an article from Diana at Disgrasian, reporting on a study that said Asian American women were most likely to commit suicide.  Diana alluded to how the shame and silence around mental health in Asian communities can be truly crazy-making.  Commenters added on to this, discussing how racialisation, cultural clashes and gender expectations put an immense strain on American women of colour’s mental health.  I wholeheartedly agree that in many Asian cultures mental health is taboo, making it difficult within these communities for people to articulate their pain and get the support they need.

Yet discussions about the mental health of Asians within Western culture can’t leave Asian culture holding the bag, especially if we are talking about Asians in America.  It is much too convenient for our racist culture to act as if Western culture has no impact on the mental health of the people who live within it.  Besides, when was the last time you saw an article that read, “New York man kills himself, must be because he was white”?  No one’s actions are motivated solely by their race – but time and again people of colour’s actions are reported as totally race-based.

If the NYT article had put Korean American life and mental health in the context of their life in the US – these are Koreans in America we are talking about after all – we might’ve got a more thoughtful explanation of why suicide rates are on the rise for Koreans in NYC.  Instead the only comparison the article makes (apart from a fleeting one to Irish Americans)  is to suicide rates among Koreans in South Korea.  Despite the fact that the article discusses Koreans who were either born in America or who’ve lived in America for many years, the NYT would rather go thousands of miles across the globe than compare Korean Americans to next door neighbour Americans who aren’t Korean.  Again, East Asians who have been in America for years, set up businesses in America, and had children in America, face the subtle accusation that they really don’t belong.

The suicide stories in the NYT article are heartbreaking and tragic, yet the NYT really oversimplifies and disrespects these stories by insinuating that the sole motivating factor in something as complex and painful as suicide, is race.