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Questions linger after teen's slaying of mother

On March 6, Blue Valley North High School student Esmie Tseng pleaded guilty to killing her 55-year-old mother, Shu Yi Zhang, seven months earlier with a kitchen knife.

Prosecutors had sought to try Esmie as an adult with charges of first-degree murder. Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison said then: “This defendant knew what she was doing. She had her wits about her at the time she committed this crime.”

But seven months later, the table was turned. Morrison now thought the slain mother was “unfair and cruel” to the defendant, implying that Esmie was a victim of abuse. Taking her “home life” into account, he dropped the charge to voluntary manslaughter in adult court.

“Attorneys for both sides recommended that Esmie serve eight years and four months in prison,” The Star reported. Sentencing is May 3.

Unfortunately, neither investigators nor the general public will ever know what had been going on at Tseng’s household before Shu Yi Zhang’s brutal death on Aug. 19. The defendant’s father has kept a stony silence about the mother-daughter relationship that led to the matricide.

I, an Asian, have nagging questions: Are the prosecutors treating the American-born defendant and her slain Chinese mother fairly and justly? What if some of the accusations against the victim are false? Who can speak for one in eternal rest when the laws are made strictly for the living?

I can’t help but wonder whether the prosecutor’s generosity in allowing Esmie to plead guilty and reducing her prison time has to do with the fact that she was an American-born honor-roll student and had an army of American supporters — teachers, parents and legal experts.

According to The New York Times, 9,700 prisoners are serving life sentences today for crimes they committed before turning 18, and the number of teenage felons is steadily increasing nationwide. Mother-killing is a grave crime in any culture, no matter who committed it. Should a girl who stabbed her mother to death walk out of the prison after serving only eight years and four months?

Zhang might have shared a common quality with many other Asian mothers by attempting to protect her daughter from the social ills that American youngsters are exposed to today — sex, drugs and alcohol, crime, fantasy for glamour and lust. I, too, set strict rules for my girls, often eavesdropping on their phone conversations and demanding to know who they were talking to and why. Am I lucky to be alive?

While reading the “Kansas City Chinese,” the community online journal, I glimpsed the shock and pain that community members had suffered over Zhang’s sudden death. One member considered the tragedy a wake-up call.

“If this could happen (to Zhang), anything can,” she said.

Zhang’s friends remember her as a “very well-educated lady who could talk about anything ... (a) responsible and conscientious worker.”

Esmie posted her journal on her two online blogs, expressing her frustrations toward her Chinese parents. One of the messages reads: “We were always on the (expletive) road in the stupid van with that damn tourist group my mom chose. All Orientals, speaking AT me because they know I only understand the minimal jist [sic]. ... I’m not who I’m ‘supposed’ to be, and I’m happy about that, but they’re going to (expletive) it up.”

Her words are blatantly disrespectful to her parents, their friends and their Chinese “roots.” If this were her everyday language, it would have been a nightmare for her Chinese mother, who came from a culture where youngsters respected adults, to deal with her.

Why didn’t Esmie’s teachers and counselors help her understand that, by honoring her cultural heritage, she would gain knowledge of herself and her parents, and further appreciate her life here in the United States? Understanding of our parents and their legacies reflects not only on our lives but our children’s lives, and the cycle of give-and-take continues, linking one generation to another.

The wake-up call isn’t only for Chinese parents but all parents of American teenagers.

Born and raised in South Korea, Therese Park is a former cellist with the Kansas City Philharmonic, now the Symphony. Since her retirement in 1996, she has published two novels. She lives in Leawood. To reach Midwest Voices columnists, write to the author c/o the Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108. Or send e-mail to .