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Home is where the 'han' is: A Korean American perspective on the Los Angeles upheavals.

ABOUT HALF THE APPROXIMATELY $770 MILLION IN ESTIMATED MATERIAL LOSSES incurred during the Los Angeles upheavals was sustained by a community no one seems to want to talk much about. Korean Americans in Los Angeles, suddenly at the front lines when violence came to the buffer zone they had been so precariously occupying, suffered profound damage to their means of livelihood.(1) Yet my concern here is the psychic damage that, unlike material damage, is impossible to quantify.

I wish to explore whether recovery is possible for Korean Americans and to ask what will become of our attempts to "become American" without dying of han. Han is a Korean word that means, loosely translated, the sorrow and anger that grow from the accumulated experiences of oppression. Although the word is frequently and commonly used by Koreans, the condition it describes is taken quite seriously. When people die of han, it is called dying of hwabyong, a disease of frustration and rage following misfortune.

Situated as we are on the border between those who have and those who have not, between predominantly Anglo and mostly African American and Latino communities, from our current interstitial position in the American discourse of race, many Korean Americans have trouble calling what happened in Los Angeles an "uprising." At the same time, we cannot quite say it was a "riot." So some of us have taken to calling it sa-i-ku, April 29, after the manner of naming other events in Korean history -- 3.1 (sam-il) for March 1, 1919, when massive protests against Japanese colonial rule began in Korea; 6.25 (yook-i-o), or June 25, 1950, when the Korean War began; and 4.19 (sa-il-ku), or April 19, 1960, when the first student movement in the world to overthrow a government began in South Korea. The ironic similarity between 4.19 and 4.29 does not escape most Korean Americans.

Los Angeles Koreatown has been important to me, even though I visit only a dozen times a year. Before Koreatown sprang up during the last decade and a half,(2) I used to hang around the fringes of chinatown, although I knew that this habit was pure pretense.(3) For me, knowing that Los Angeles Koreatown existed made a difference; one of my closest friends works with the Black Korean Alliance there,(4) and I liked to think of it as a kind of "home" -- however idealized and hypostatized -- for the soul, an anchor, a potential refuge, a place in America where I could belong without ever being asked: "Who are you and what are you doing here? Where did you come from and when are you going back?"

Many of us watched in horror the destruction of Koreatown and the systematic targeting of Korean shops in South Central Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict. Seeing those buildings in flames and those anguished Korean faces, I had the terrible thought that there would be no belonging and that we were, just as I had always suspected, a people destined to carry our han around with us wherever we went in the world. The destiny (p'aljja) that had spelled centuries of extreme suffering from invasion, colonization, war, and national division had smuggled itself into the U.S. with our baggage.

African and Korean American Conflict

As someone whose social consciousness was shaped by the African American--led Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, I felt that I was watching our collective dreams for a just society disintegrating, cast aside as naive and irrelevant in the bitter and embattled 1990s. It was the courageous African American women and men of the 1960s who had redefined the meaning of "American," who had first suggested that a person like me could reject the false choice between being treated as a perpetual foreigner in my own birthplace on the one hand and relinquishing my identity for someone else's ill-fitting and impossible Anglo--American one on the other. Thanks to them, I began to discern how institutional racism works and why Korea was never mentioned in my world history textbooks. I was able to see how others besides Koreans had been swept aside by the dominant culture. My American education offered nothing about Chicanos or Latinos, and most of what I was taught about African and Native Americans was distorted to justify their oppression and vindicate their oppressors.

I could hardly believe my ears when, during the weeks immediately following sa-i-ku, I heard African American community leaders suggesting that Korean American merchants were foreign intruders deliberately trying to stifle African American economic development, when I knew that they had bought those liquor stores at five times gross receipts from African American owners, who had in turn bought them at two times gross receipts from Jewish owners after Watts.(5) I saw anti-Korean flyers that were being circulated by African American political candidates and read about South Central residents petitioning against the reestablishment of swap meets, groups of typically Korean immigrant-operated market stalls. I was disheartened with Latinos who related the pleasure they felt while looting Korean stores that they believed "had it coming" and who claimed that it was because of racism that more Latinos were arrested during sa-i-ku than Asian Americans.(6) And I was filled with despair when I read about Chinese Americans who wanted to dissociate themselves from us. According to one Chinese American reporter assigned to cover Asian American issues for a San Francisco daily, Chinese and Japanese American shopkeepers, unlike Koreans, always got along fine with African Americans in the past (Chung, 1992). "Suddenly," admitted another Chinese American, "I am scared to be Asian. More specifically, I am afraid to be mistaken for Korean" (Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1992). I was enraged when I overheard European Americans discussing the conflicts as if they were watching a dogfight or a boxing match. The situation reminded me of the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern, in which we never see the husband's face. We only hear his mellifluous voice as he benignly admonishes his four wives not to fight among themselves. He can afford to be kind and pleasant because the structure that pits his wives against each other is so firmly in place that he need never sully his hands or even raise his voice.

Battlegroud Legacy

Korean Americans are squeezed between black and white and also between U.S. and South Korean government agendas. Government-controlled newspapers in South Korea have opportunistically seized upon sa-i-ku, in part to deflect attention from citizens' unrest over political corruption and economic woes and to fan the flames of South Korean nationalism, which enables the authoritarian regime. They depicted the problem as that of savage African Americans attacking innocent Koreans for no reason, and published articles using the names of Korean Americans who did not in fact write them.(7)

What is clear is that Korean Americans have been continually used as political pawns in an extensive war about which they had very little understanding, and that Koreatown became a battlefield in that war.

Those of us who chafe at being asked whether we are Chinese or Japanese as if there were no other possibilities or who were angered when news media sought Chinese and Japanese but not Korean American views during sa-i-ku are sensitive to an invisibility that seems particular to us. To many Americans, Korea is but the gateway to or the bridge between China and Japan, or a crossroads of major Asian conflicts.(8)

It can certainly be said that although little known or cared about in the Western world, Korea has been a perennial battleground. Besides the Mongols and the Manchus, there were the Yojin (Jurched), the Koran (Khitan), and the Waegu (Wako) invaders. In relatively recent years, there was the war between China and Japan that ended in 1895 and the war between Japan and Russia in 1904 to 1905, both of which were fought on Korean soil and resulted in extreme suffering for the Korean people. Japan's 36 years of brutal colonial rule ended with the U.S. and the former Soviet Union dividing the country in half at the 38th parallel. Thus, Korea was turned into a Cold War territory that ultimately became a battleground for world superpowers during the conflict of 1950--1953.

Becoming American

One of the consequences of war, colonization, national division, and superpower economic and cultural domination has been the migration of Koreans to places like Los Angeles, where they believed their human rights would be protected by law. After all, they had received U.S.-influenced political educations. They started learning English in the seventh grade. They all knew the story of the poor boy from Illinois who became President. They all learned that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights protected the common people from violence and injustice. Yet those who grew up in Korea watching "Gunsmoke," "Night Rider," and "McGyver" dubbed in Korean were not prepared for the black, brown, red, and yellow America they encountered when they disembarked at the Los Angeles International Airport.(9) They hadn't heard that there is no equal justice in the U.S. They had to learn about American racial hierarchies. They did not realize that as immigrants of color they would never attain political voice or visibility, but would instead be used to uphold the inequality and the racial hierarchy they had no part in creating.

Most of the newcomers had underestimated the communication barriers they would face. Like the Turkish workers in Germany described in John Berger and Jean Mohr's A Seventh Man,(10) their toil amounted to only a pile of gestures and the English they tried to speak changed and turned against them as they spoke it. Working 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, they rarely came into sustained contact with English-speaking Americans and almost never had time to study English. Not feeling at ease with English, they did not engage in informal conversations easily with non-Koreans and were hated for being curt and rude. They did not attend churches or do business in banks or other enterprises where English was required. Typically, the immigrant small-business owners used unpaid family labor instead of hiring people from local communities. Thanks to Eurocentric American cultural practices, they knew little or nothing good about African Americans or Latinos, who in turn and for similar reasons knew little or nothing good about them. At the same tiem, Korean shopowners in South Central and Koreatown were affluent compared with the impoverished residents, whom they often exploited as laborers or looked down upon as fools with an aversion to hard work.(11) Most Korean immigrants did not even know that they were among the many direct beneficiaries of African American--led Civil Rights Movement, which helped pave the way for the 1965 immigration reforms that made their immigration possible.

Korean immigrant views of America, shaped as they were by U.S. cultural influences and official anticommunist South Korean education,(12) differed radically from that of many poor people in the communities they served: unaware of the shameful history of oppression of nonwhite immigrants and other people of color in the U.S., they regarded themselves as having arrived in a meritocratic "land of opportunity" where a person's chances for success are limited only by individual lack of ability or diligence. Having left a homeland where they foresaw their talents and hard work going unrecognized and unrewarded, they were desperate to believe that the "American dream" of social and economic mobility through hard work was within their reach.


What they experienced on April 29 and 30 was baptism into what it really means for a Korean to "become American" in the 1990s.(13) In South Korea, there is no 911, and no one really expects a fire engine or police car if there is trouble. Instead, people make arrangements with friends and family for emergencies. At the same time, guns are not part of Korean daily life. No civilian in South Korea can own a gun. Guns are the exclusive accoutrement of the military and police, who enforce order for those who rule the society. When the Korean Americans in South Central and Koreatown dialed 911, nothing happened. When their stores and homes were being looted and burned to the ground, they were left completely alone for three horrifying days. How betrayed they must have felt by what they had believed was a democratic system that protects its people from violence. Those who trusted the government to protect them lost everything; those who took up arms after waiting for help for two days were able to defend themselves. It was as simple as that. What they had to learn was that as in South Korea, in the U.S. protection is largely for the rich and powerful. If there were a choice between Westwood and Koreatown, it is clear that Koreatown would have to be sacrificed. The familiar concept of privilege for the rich and powerful would have been easy for the Korean immigrant to grasp if only those exhortations about democracy and equality had not obfuscated the picture. Perhaps they should have relied even more on whatever they brought with them from Korea instead of fretting over trying to understand what was going on around them here. That Koreatown became a battleground does seem like the further playing out of a tragic legacy that has followed them across oceans and continents. The difference is that this was a battle between the poor and disenfranchised and the invisible rich, who were being protected by a layer of clearly visible Korean American human shields in a battle on the buffer zone.

This difference is crucial. Perhaps the legacy is not one carried across oceans and continents, but one assumed immediately upon arrival; it is not the curse of being Korean, but the initiation into becoming American, which requires that Korean Americans take on this country's legacy of five centuries of racial violence and inequality, of divide and rule, of privilege for the rich and oppression of the poor. Within this legacy, they have been assigned a place on the front lines. Silenced by those who possess the power to characterize and represent, they are permitted to speak only to reiterate their acceptance of this role.

Silencing the Korean American Voice

Twelve years ago, in Kwangju, South Korea, hundreds of civilians demonstrating for constitutional reform and free elections were murdered by U.S.-supported and equipped South Korean elite paratroopers. Because I recorded it and played it over and over again, searching for a sign or a clue, I remember clearly how what were to me heartrendingly tragic events were represented in the U.S. news media. For a few fleeting moments, images of unruly crowds of alienlooking Asians shouting unintelligible words and phrases and wearing white headbands inscribed with unintelligible characters flickered across the screen. The Koreans were made to seem like insane people from another planet. The voice in the background stated simply that there were massive demonstrations, but did not explain what the protests were about. Nor was a single Korean ever given an opportunity to speak to the camera.

The next news story was about demonstrations for democracy in Poland. The camera settled on individuals' faces, which one by one filled the screen as each man or woman was asked to explain how he or she felt. Each Polish person's words were translated in a voice-over or subtitle. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who was allowed to speak often, was characterized as a heroic human being with whom all Americans could surely identify personally. Polish Americans from New York and Chicago to San Francisco, asked in man-on-the-street interviews about their reactions, described the canned hams and blankets they were sending to Warsaw.

This was for me a lesson in media representation, race, and power politics. It is a given that Americans are encouraged by our ideological apparatuses to side with our allies (here, the Polish resisters and the anticommunist South Korean government) against our enemies (here, the communist Soviet Union and protesters against the South Korean government). Yet visual-media racism helps craft and reinforce our identification with Europeans and whites while distancing us from fearsome and alien Asiatic hordes.

In March 1992, when two delegates from North Korea visited the Bay Area to participate in community-sponsored talks on Korean reunification, about 800 people from the Korean American community attended. The meeting was consummately newsworthy, since it was the first time in history that anyone from North Korea had ever been in California for more than 24 hours, just passing through. The event was discussed for months in the Korean-language media -- television, radio, and newspapers. Almost every Korean-speaking person in California knew about it. Although we sent press releases to all the commercial and public radio and television stations and to all the Bay Area newspapers, not one mainstream media outfit covered the event. However, whenever there was an African American boycott of a Korean store or whenever conflict surfaced between Korean and African Americans, community leaders found a dozen microphones from all the main news media shoved into their faces, as if they were the president's press secretary making an official public pronouncement. Fascination with inter-ethnic conflicts is rooted in the desire to excuse or minimize white racism by buttressing the mistaken notion that all human beings are "naturally" racist, and when Korean and African Americans allow themselves to be distracted by these interests, their attention is deflected from the social hierachies that give racism its destructive power.

Without a doubt, the U.S. news media played a major role in exacerbating the damage and ill will toward Korean Americans, first by placing the spotlight on tensions between African Americans and Koreans instead of on efforts to work together and as opposed to many other newsworthy events in these two communities, and second by exploiting racist stereotypes of Koreans as unfathomable aliens, this time wielding guns on rooftops and allegedly firing wildly into crowds.(14) In news programs and on talk shows, African and Korean American tensions were discussed by blacks and whites, who pointed to these tensions as the main cause of the uprising. I heard some European Americans railing against rude and exploitative Korean merchants for ruining peaceful race relations for everyone else. Thus, Korean Americans were used to deflect attention from the racism they inherited and the economic injustice and poverty that had been already well woven into the fabric of American life, as evidenced by a judicial system that could allow not only the Korean store owner who killed Latasha Harlins, but also the white men who killed Vincent Chin and the white policemen who beat Rodney King to go free, while Leonard Peltier still languishes in prison.

As far as I know, neither the commercial nor the public news media have mentioned the many Korean and African American attempts to improve relations, such as joint church services, joint musical performances and poetry readings, Korean merchant donations to African American community and youth programs, African American volunteer teachers in classes for Korean immigrants studying for citizenship examinations, or Korean translations of African American history materials.

While Korean immigrants were preoccupied with the mantra of day-to-day survival, Korean Americans had no voice, no political presence at all in American life. When they became the targets of violence in Los Angeles, their opinions and views were hardly solicited, except as they could be used in the alreadyconstructed mainstream discourse on race relations, which is a sorry combination of blaming the African American and Latino victims for their poverty and scapegoating the Korean Americans as robotic aliens who have no "real" right to be here in the first place and therefore deserve whatever happens to them.

The Newsweek Experience

In this situation, I felt compelled to respond when an editor from the "My Turn" section of Newsweek magazine asked for a 1,000--word personal essay.(15) Hesitant because I was given only a day and a half to write the piece, not enough time considering the vastness of American ignorance about Koreans and Korean Americans, I decided to do it because I thought I could not be made into a sound bite or a quote contextualized for someone else's agenda.

I wrote an essay accusing the news media of using Korean Americans and tensions between African and Korean Americans to divert attention from the roots of racial violence in the U.S. I asserted that these lie not in the Korean immigrantowned corner store situated in a community ravaged by poverty and police violence, but reach far back into the corridors of corporate and government offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. I suggested that Koreans and African Americans were kept ignorant about each other by educational and media institutions that erase or distort their experiences and perspectives. I tried to explain how racism had kept my parents from ever really becoming Americans, but that having been born here, I considered myself American and wanted to believe in the possibility of an American dream.

The editor of "My Turn" did everything he could to frame my words with his own viewpoint. He faxed his own introductory and concluding paragraphs that equated Korean merchants with cowboys in the Wild West and alluded to African--Korean hatred. When I objected, he told me that my writing style was not crisp enough and that as an experienced journalist, he could help me out. My confidence wavered, but ultimately I rejected his editing. Then he accused me of being overly sensitive, confiding that I had no need to be defensive -- because his wife was Chinese American. Only after I had decided to withdraw the piece did he agree to accept it as I wrote it.

Before I could finish congratulating myself on being able to resist silencing and the kind of decontextualization I was trying to describe in the piece, I started receiving hate mail. Some of it was addressed directly to me, since I had been identified as a University of California faculty member, but most of it arrived in huge bundles, forwarded by Newsweek. Hundreds of letters came from all over the country, from Florida to Washington state and from Massachusetts to Arizona. I was unprepared for the hostility expressed in most of the letters. Some people sent the article, torn from the magazine and covered with angry red-inked obscenities scratched across my picture. "You should see a good doctor," wrote someone from Southern California, "you have severe problems in thinking, reasoning, and adjusting to your environment."

A significant proportion of the writers, who identified themselves as descendants of immigrants from Eastern Europe, wrote Newsweek that they were outraged, sickened, disgusted, appalled, annoyed, and angry with the magazine for providing an arena for the paranoid, absurd, hypocritical, racist, and childish views of a spoiled, ungrateful, whining, bitching, un-American bogus faculty member who should be fired or die when the next California earthquake dumps all of the "so-called people of color" into the Pacific Ocean.

I was shocked by the profound ignorance of many writers' assumptions about the experiences and perspectives of American people of color in general and Korean and other Asian Americans in particular. Even though my essay revealed that I was born in the U.S. and that my parents had lived in the U.S. for more than six decades, I was viewed as a foreigner without the right to say anything except words of gratitude and praise about America. The letters also provided some evidence of the dilemma Korean Americans are placed in by those who assume that we are aliens who should "go back" and at the same time berate us for not rejecting "Korean American identity" for "American identity."

How many Americans migrate to Korea? If you are so disenchanted,

Korea is still there. Why did you ever leave it? Sayonara.

Ms. Kim appears to have a personal axe to grind with this country that has

given her so much freedom and opportunity.... I should suggest that she

move to Korea, where her children will learn all they ever wanted about

that country's history.

[Her] whining about the supposedly racist U.S. society is just a mask for

her own acute inferiority complex. If she is so dissatisfied with the United

States why doesn't she vote with her feet and leave? She can get the hell

out and return to her beloved Korea -- her tribal afinity [sic] where her

true loyalty and consciousness lies [sic].

You refer to yourself as a Korean American and yet you have lived all

your life in the United write about racism in this country and

yet you are the biggest racist by your own written words. If you cannot

accept the fact that you are an American, maybe you should be living your

life in Korea.

My stepfather and cousin risked their lives in the country where your

father is buried to ensure the ideals of our country would remain. So don't

expect to find a sympathetic ear for your pathetic whining. Many of the letter writers assumed that my family had been the "scum" of Asia and that I was a college teacher only because of American justice and largesse. They were furious that I did not express gratitude for being saved from starvation in Asia and given the opportunity to flourish, no doubt beyond my wildest dreams, in America.

Where would she be if her parents had not migrated to the United States?

For a professor at Berkeley University to say the American dream is only

an empty promise is ludicrous. Shame, shame, shame!

[Her father and his family] made enough money in the USA to ship his

corpse home to Korea for burial. Ms. Kim herself no doubt has a

guaranteed life income as a professor paid by California taxpayers.

Wouldn't you think that she might say kind things about the USA instead

of whining about racism? At the same time, some letters blamed me for expecting "freedom and opportunity":

It is wondrous that folks such as you find truth in your paranoia. No one

ever promised anything to you or your parents.

Besides providing indications of how Korean Americans are regarded, the letters revealed a great deal about how American identity is thought of. One California woman explained that although her grandparents were Irish immigrants, she was not an Irish American, because "if you are not with us, you are against us." A Missouri woman did not seem to realize that she was conflating race and nationality and confusing "non-ethnic" and "non-racial," by which she seems to have meant "white," with "American." And although she insists that it is impossible to be both "black" and "American," she identifies herself at the outset as a "white American."

I am a white American. I am proud to be an American. You cannot be

black, white, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, German, French, or English or

any other and still be an American. Of course the culture taught in schools

is strictly American. That's where we are and if you choose to learn

another [culture] you have the freedom to settle there. You cannot be a

Korean American, which assumes you are not ready to be an American.

Do you get my gist?

The suggestion that more should be taught in U.S. schools about America's many immigrant groups and people of color prompted many letters in defense of Western civilization against non-Western barbarism:

You are dissatisfied with current school curricula that excludes Korea.

Could it possibly be because Korea and Asia for that matter has [sic] not

had...a noticeable impact on the shaping of Western culture, and Korea

has had unfortunately little culture of its own?

Who cares about Korea, Ms. Kim? ...And what enduring contributions

has the Black culture, both here in the US and on the continent contrib-

uted to the world, and mankind? I'm from a culture, Ms. Kim, who put

a man on the moon 23 years ago, who established medical schools to train

doctors to perform open heart surgery, and...who created a language of

music so that musicians, from Beethoven to the Beatles, could easily

touch the world with their brilliance forever and ever and ever. Perhaps

the dominant culture, whites obviously, "swept aside

Chicanos...Latinos...African--Americans...Koreans," because they

haven't contributed anything that made -- be mindful of the cliche -- a

world of difference?

Koreans' favorite means of execution is decapitation.... Ms. Kim, and

others like her, came here to escape such injustice. Then they whine at

riots to which they have contributed by their own fanning of flames of

discontent.... Yes! Let us all study more about Oriental culture! Let us put

matters into proper perspective.

Fanatical multiculturalists like you expect a country whose dominant culture has been formed and influenced by Europe...nearly 80% of her population consisting of persons whose ancestry is European, to include the history of every ethnic group who has ever lived here. I truly feel sorry for you. You and your bunch need to realize that white Americans are not racists.... We would love to get along, but not at the expense of our own culture and heritage.

Kim's axe-to-grind confirms the utter futility of race-relations -- the

races were never meant to live together. We don't get along and never

will.... Whats [sic] needed is to divide the United States up along racial

lines so that life here can finally become livable.

What seemed to anger some people the most was their idea that although they worked hard, people of color are seeking handouts and privileges because of their race, and the thought of an ungrateful Asian American, siding with African Americans, presumably against whites, was infuriating. How dare I "bite the hand that feeds" me by siding with the champion "whiners who cry 'racism'" because to do so is the last refuge of the "terminally incompetent"?

The racial health in this country won't improve until minorities stop

erecting "me first" barriers and strive to be Americans, not African-

Americans or Asian-Americans expecting privileges.

Ms. Kim wants preferential treatment that immigrants from Greece-to-

Sweden have not enjoyed.... Even the Chinese...have not created any

special problems for themselves or other Americans. Soon those folk are

going to express their own resentments to the insatiable demands of the

Blacks and other colored peoples, including the wetbacks from Mexico

who sneak into this country then pilfer it for all they can.

The Afro-derived citizens of Los Angeles and the Asiatic derivatives

were not suffering a common imposition.... The Asiatics are trying to

build their success. The Africans are sucking at the teats of entitlement.

As is usual with racists, most of the writers of these hate letters saw only themselves in their notions about Korea, America, Korean Americans, and African Americans. They felt that their own sense of American identity was being threatened and that they were being blamed as individuals for U.S. racism. One man, adept at manipulating various fonts on his word processor, imposed his preconceptions on my words:

Let me read between the lines of your little hate message:

"The roots...stretch far back into the corridors of corporate and govern-

ment offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C."

All white America and all American institutions are to blame for racism.

..."I still want to believe the promise is real."

I have the savvy to know that the American ideals of freedom and justice

are a joke, but if you want to give me what I want I'm willing to make


Ms. Kim, ...if you want to embody the ignorant, the insecure, and the

emotionally immature, that's your right! Just stop preaching hate and

please, please, quit whining.


A proud White-American teaching my children not to be prejudicial

Especially since my essay had been subdued and intensely personal, I had not anticipated the fury it would provoke. I never thought that readers would write over my words with their own. The very fact that I used words, and English words at that, particularly incensed some: one letter complained about my use of words an and phrases like "manifestation" and "zero-sum game," and "suzerain relationship," which is the only way to describe Korea's relationship with China during the T'ang Dynasty. "Not more than ten people in the USA know what [these words] mean," he wrote. "You are on an ego trip." I wondered if it made him particularly angry that an Asian American had used those English words, or if he would make such a comment to George Will or Jane Bryant Quinn.

Clearly, I had encountered part of America's legacy, the legacy that insists on silencing certain voices and erasing certain presences, even if it means deportation, internment, and outright murder. I should not have been surprised by what happened in Koreatown or by the ignorance and hatred expressed in the letters to Newsweek, any more than African Americans should have been surprised by the Rodney King verdict. Perhaps the news media, which constituted sa-i-ku as news, as an extraordinary event in no way continuous with our everyday lives, made us forget for a moment that as people of color, many of us simultaneously inhabit two Americas: the America of our dreams and the America of our experience.

Who among us does not cling stubbornly to the America of our dreams, the promise of a multicultural democracy where our cultures and our differences might be affirmed instead of distorted in an effort to destroy us?

After sa-i-ku I was able to catch glimpses of this America of my dreams because I received other letters that expressed another American legacy. Some people identified themselves as Norwegian or Irish Americans interested in combating racism. Significantly, while most of the angry mail had been sent not to me, but to Newsweek, almost all of the sympathetic mail, particularly the letters from African Americans, came directly to me. Many came from Korean Americans who were glad that one of their number had found a vehicle for self-expression. Others were from Chinese and Japanese Americans who wrote that they had had similar experiences and feelings. Several were written in shaky longhand by women fervently wishing for peace and understanding among people of all races. A Native American from Nashville wrote a long description of cases of racism against African, Asian, and Native Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system. A large number of letters came from African Americans, all of them supportive and sympathetic -- from judges and professors who wanted better understanding between Africans and Koreans to poets and laborers who scribbled their notes in pencil while on breaks at work. One man identified himself as a Los Angeles African American whose uncle had married a Korean woman. He stated that as a black man in America, he knew what other people feel when they face injustice. He ended his letter apologizing for his spelling and grammar mistakes and asking for materials to read on Asian Americans. The most touching letter I received was written by a prison inmate who had served 12 years of a 35--70 year sentence for armed robbery during which no physical injuries occurred. He wrote:

I've been locked in these prisons going on 12 years now...and since being here I have studied fully the struggles of not just blacks, but all people of color. I am a true believer of helping "your" people "first," but also the helping of all people no matter where there at or the color of there skin. But I must be truthful, my struggle and assistance is truly on the side of people of color like ourselves. But just a few years ago I didn't think like this.

I thought that if you wasn't black, then you was the enemy, but...many years of this prison madness and much study and research changed all of this.... [I]t's not with each other, blacks against Koreans or Koreans against blacks. No, this is not what it's about. Our struggle(s) are truly one in the same. What happened in L.A. during the riot really hurt me, because it was no way that blacks was suppose to do the things to your people, my people (Koreans) that they did. You're my sister, your people are my people. Even though our culture may be somewhat different, and even though we may worship our God(s) different.... [W]hite-Amerikkka [doesn't] separate us. They look at us all the same. Either you're white, or you're wrong.... I'm just writing you to let you know that, you're my sister, your people's struggle are my people's struggle.

This is the ground I need to claim now for Korean American resistance and recovery, so that we can become American without dying of han.

Although the sentiments expressed in these letters seemed to break down roughly along racial lines -- that is, all writers who were identifiably people of color wrote in support -- and one might become alarmed at the depth of the divisions they imply, I like to think that I have experienced the desire of many Americans, especially Americans of color, to do as Rodney King pleaded on the second day of sa-i-ku: "We're all stuck here for awhile.... Let's try to work it out."

In my view, it's important for us to think about all of what Rodney King said and not just the words "we all can get along,"(16) which have been depoliticized and transformed into a Disneyesque catch-phrase for Pat Boone songs and roadside billboards in Los Angeles. It seems to me the emphasis is on the being "stuck here for awhile" together as we await "our day in court."

Like the African American man who wrote from prison, the African American man who had been brutally beaten by white police might have felt the desire to "love everybody," but he had to amend -- or rectify -- that wish. He had to speak last about loving "people of color." The impulse to "love everybody" was there, but the conditions were not right. For now, the most practical and progressive agenda may be people of color trying to "work it out."

Finding Community through National Consciousness

The place where Korean and American legacies converge for Korean Americans is the exhortation to "go home to where you belong."

One of the letters I received was from a Korean American living in Chicago. He had read a translation of my essay in a Korean-language newspaper. "Although you were born in the U.S.A.," he wrote, noticing what none of the white men who ordered me to "go back to my country" had, "your ethnical background and your complexion belong to Korea. It is time to give up your U.S. citizenship and go to Korea."

Some ruined merchants are claiming that they will pull up stakes and return to Korea, but I know that this is not possible for most of them. Even if their stores had not been destroyed, even if they were able to sell their businesses and take the proceeds to Korea, most of them would not have enough resources to buy a home or business there, since both require total cash up front. Neither would they be able to find work in the society they left behind because it was plagued by recession, repression, and fierce economic competition.

Going back to Korea. The dream of going back to Korea fed the spirit of my father, who came to Chicago in 1926 and lived in the United States for 63 years, during which he never became a U.S. citizen, at first because the law did not allow it and later because he did not want to. He kept himself going by believing that he would return to Korea in triumph one day. Instead, he died in Oakland at 88. Only his remains returned to Korea, where we buried him in accordance with his wishes.

Hasn't the dream of going back home to where you belong sustained most of America's unwanted at one time or another, giving meaning to lives of toil and making it possible to endure other people's hatred and rejection? Isn't the attempt to find community through national consciousness natural for people refused an American identity because racism does not give them that choice?

Korean national consciousness, the resolve to resist and fight back when threatened with extermination, was all that could be called upon when the Korean Americans in Los Angeles found themselves abandoned. They joined together to guard each other's means of livelihood with guns, relying on Korean-language radio and newspapers to communicate with and help each other. On the third day after the outbreak of violence, more than 30,000 Korean Americans gathered for a peace march in downtown L.A. in what was perhaps the largest and most quickly organized mass mobilization in Asian American history. Musicians in white, the color of mourning, beat traditional Korean drums in sorrow, anger, and celebration of community, a call to arms like a collective heartbeat.(17) I believe that the mother of Edward Lee, the Los Angeles-born college student mistaken for a looter and shot to death in the streets, has been able to endure in great part because of the massive outpouring of sympathy expressed by the Korean American community that shared and understood her han.

I have lately been critical of cultural nationalism as detrimental to Korean Americans, especially Korean American women, because it operates on exclusions and fosters intolerance and uniformity of thought while stifling self-criticism and encouraging sacrifice, even to the point of suicide. Yet sa-i-ku makes me think again: what remains for those who are left to stand alone? If Korean Americans refuse to be victims or political pawns in the U.S. while rejecting the exhortation that we go back to Korea where we belong, what will be our weapons of choice?

In the darkest days of Japanese colonial rule, even after being stripped of land and of all economic means of survival, Koreans were threatened with total erasure when the colonizers rewrote Korean history, outlawed the Korean language, forced the subjugated people to worship the Japanese emperor, and demanded that they adopt Japanese names. One of the results of these cultural annihilation policies was Koreans' fierce insistence on the sanctity of Korean national identity that persists to this day. In this context, it is not difficult to understand why nationalism has been the main refuge of Koreans and Korean Americans.

While recognizing the potential dangers of nationalism as a weapon, I for one am not ready to respond to the anti-essentialists' call to relinquish my Korean American identity. It is easy enough for the French and Germans to call for a common European identity and an end to nationalisms, but what of the peoples suppressed and submerged while France and Germany exercised their national prerogatives? I am mindful of the argument that the resurgence of nationalism in Europe is rooted in historical and contemporary political and economic inequality among the nations of Europe. Likewise, I have noticed that many white Americans do not like to think of themselves as belonging to a race, even while thinking of people of color almost exclusively in terms of race. In the same way, many men think of themselves as "human beings" and of women as the ones having a gender. Thus, crime, small business, and all Korean-African American interactions are seen and interpreted through the lens of race in the same dominant culture that angrily rejects the use of the racial lens for viewing yellow-white or black-white interactions and insists suddenly that we are all "American" whenever we attempt to assert our identity as people of color. It is far easier for Anglo Americans to call for an end to cultural nationalisms than for Korean Americans to give up national consciousness, which makes it possible to survive the vicious racism that would deny our existence as either Korean Americans or Americans.

Is there anything of use to us in Korean nationalism? During 1,000 years of Chinese suzerainty, the Korean ruling elite developed a philosophy called sadaejui, or reliance of the weak on the strong. In direct opposition to this way of thought is what is called in North Korea today juche sasang, or self-reliance. Both sadaejui and juche sasang are ways of dealing with unequal power relationships and resisting the transformation of one's homeland into a battlefield for others, but sadaejui has never worked any better for Koreans than it has for any minority group in America. Juche sasang, on the other hand, has the kind of oppositional potential needed in the struggle against silence and invisibility. From Korean national consciousness we can recover this fierce refusal to accept subjugation, which is the first step in the effort to build community, so that we can work with others to challenge the forces that would have us annihilate each other instead of our mutual oppression.

What is clear is that we cannot "become American" without dying of han unless we think about community in new ways. At least for now, that may mean mining the rich and haunted lode of Korean national consciousness while we struggle to understand how our fate is entwined with the fate of others lying prostrate before the triumphal procession of the winners of History.(18) During the past 15 years or so, many young Korean nationalists have been studying the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that they share with peoples in many Asian, African, and Latin American nations. At the same time that we take note of this work, we can also try to understand how nationalism and feminism can be worked together to demystify the limitations and reductiveness of each as a weapon of empowerment. If Korean national consciousness is ever to be such a weapon for us, we must use it to create a new kind of nationalism-in-internationalism to help us call forth a culture of survival and recovery, so that our han might be released and we might be freed to dream fiercely of different possibilities.


(1.)According to a September 1992 Dun & Bradstreet survey of 560 business owners in Koreatown and South Central Los Angeles, an estimated 40% of the businesses damaged during April 1992 (sa-i-ku) have closed their doors permanently. Moreover, almost 40% had no insurance or were insured for 50% or less of their total losses (San Francisco Chronicle, September 12, 1992).

(2.)Following quota changes in U.S. immigration laws in 1965, the Korean population in the U.S. increased more than eightfold to almost one million. Between 1970 and 1990, Los Angeles Koreatown grew from a few blocks of stores and businesses into a community base for all sorts of economic and cultural activities.

(3.)Pretense, of course, because I was only passing for Chinese. The temporary comfort I experienced would come to an end whenever it was discovered that I could speak no Chinese and that I had no organic links to Chinese Americans, who frequently underscored both our commonalities and our differences by telling me that everything Korean -- even kimchi, that quintessentially Korean vegetable eaten at every Korean meal -- was originally Chinese.

(4.)The Black Korean Alliance (BKA) was formed, with the assistance of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, to improve relations between Korean and African American communities after four Korean merchants were killed in robberies during the month of April 1986. The BKA sponsored activities and events, such as joint church services, education forums, joint cultural events, and seminars on crime prevention and community economic development. The BKA never received political or financial support from the public or private sectors. The organization had neither its own meeting place nor a telephone. Grass-roots participation was not extensive, and despite the good intentions of the individuals involved, the BKA was unable to prevent the killing of a dozen more Korean merchants in Southern California between 1990 and sa-i-ku, or to stop the escalation of tensions between the two communities after the shooting of 15--year-old Latasha Harlins by Korean merchant Soon Ja Du in March 1991. By June of that year, after police declared the killing of an African American man by a Korean liquor store owner "justifiable homicide," African American groups began boycotting the store, and the BKA failed to convince African American boycotters and Korean merchants to meet together to negotiate an end to the conflict. Nor were the members of the BKA successful in obtaining the help of members of the Los Angeles City Council or the California State Legislature, who might have been instrumental in preventing the destructive violence of sa-i-ku if they had had the integrity and farsightedness to address the intensifying hostilities before it was too late. After sa-i-ku, the BKA was in disarray, and as of this writing its members are planning to dissolve the group.

(5.)According to John Murray, founder of the Southern California chapter of Cal-Pac, the black beverage and grocers' association, black liquor-store owners "sold stores they had bought in the mid--1960s for twice the monthly gross sales -- roughly $80,000 at the time, depending on the store -- for five times monthly gross, or about $300,000." After the Jews fled in the wake of the Watts riots, African Americans were enabled by Civil Rights legislative mandates to obtain for the first time credit from government-backed banks to start a number of small businesses. Yet operating liquor stores, although profitable, was grueling, dangerous, and not something fathers wanted their sons to do, accrding to interviews with African American owners and former owners of liquor stores in African American communities. Former liquor merchant Ed Piert exclaimed: "Seven days a week, 20 hours a day, no vacations, people stealing. That's slave labor. I wouldn't buy another liquor store." When liquor prices were deregulated in 1978 and profit margins shrank in the face of competition from volume buyers, many African American owners sold out to Korean immigrants carrying cash collected in rotating credit clubs called kye (Moffat, 1992).

(6.)In a newspaper interview, Alberto Machon, an 18-year-old junior at Washington Preparatory High School who had moved to South Central Los Angeles with his family from El Salvador 10 years ago, said that he was laughing as he watched every Korean store looted or burned down because: "I felt that they deserved it for the way they was treatin' people.... [T]he money that we are giving to the stores they're taking it to their community, Koreatown." Thirty-two-year-old Arnulfo Nunez Barrajas served four days in the Los Angeles County jail for curfew violation. He was arrested while going from Santa Ana to Los Angeles to see his aunt, whose son had been killed during the upheavals. According to Nunez, "...the ones they've caught are only from the black race and the Latin race. I haven't seen any Koreans or Chinese. Why not them? Or white? Why only the black race and the Latinos? Well, it's racism" (Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1992).

(7.)For example, a story about the "black riots" in the May 6, 1992, Central Daily News in Seoul listed the writer as Korean American sociologist Edward T'ae-han Chang, who was astonished when he saw it because he hadn't written it.

(8.)In 1913, a group of Korean American laborers was run out of Hemet Valley, California, by a mob of anti-Japanese whites. The Koreans responded by insisting that they were Korean, not Japanese. What might seem a ludicrous response to racist expulsion has to be viewed in light of the fact that the U.S. sanctioned Japan's 1909 annexation of Korea, closing all Korean delegations and placing Korean immigrants under the authority of Japanese consulates. Since they were classified as Japanese, Korean Americans were subject to the Alien Land Acts that targeted Japanese by denying them the right afforded all others regardless of race, nativity, or citizenship -- the right to own land in California and nine other states. Also, foreign-born Koreans were only able to become naturalized U.S. citizens after the McCarran--Walter Act of 1952 permitted naturalization of Japanese. I have heard some Asian Americans equate the Chinese and Japanese American use of signs and buttons reading "I Am Not Korean" during sa-i-ku with the Korean American (and, not coincidentally, Chinese American) practice of wearing buttons saying "I Am Not Japanese" during World War II. In light of the specificities of Korean and Korean American history, however, this cannot be a one-to-one comparison.

(9.)In a July 23, 1992, interview, a 50-year-old Korean immigrant woman whose South Central Los Angeles corner grocery store had been completely destroyed during sa-i-ku told me:

The America I imagined [before I arrived here] was like what I saw in the movies -- clean, wide streets, flowers everywhere. I imagined Americans would be all big, tall...with white faces and blond hair.... But the America here is not like that. When I got up to walk around the neighborhood the morning after we arrived in Los Angeles from Korea, it was as if we had come to Mexico.

(10.)See Berger and Mohr (1975). I wish to thank Barry Maxwell for bringing this work to my attention.

(11.)I am not grappling directly with social-class issues here because, although I am cognizant of their crucial importance, I am simply not qualified to address them at the present time. The exploited "guest workers" in Europe described by Berger and Mohr, unlike the Korean immigrants to the U.S., brought with them their laboring bodies, but not capital to start small businesses. Because they are merchants, the class interests of Korean American shopowners in Los Angeles differ clearly from the interests of poor African American and Latino customers. Yet working with simple dyads is impossible, since Korean American shopowners are also people of color and mostly immigrants from a country colonized by the United States. At the same time, it seems to me that class factors have been more important than race factors in shaping Korean American immigrants' attitudes toward African American and Latino populations. Perhaps because of the devastation caused by Japanese colonization and the Korean War, many Koreans exhibit intensely negative attitudes toward the poor and, indeed, desperately fear being associated with them. I have often marveled at the importance placed on conspicuous consumer items, especially clothing, in South Korean society, where a shabbily dressed person can expect only shabby treatment. In the 1960s, a middle-class American could make a social statement against materialistic values by dressing in tattered clothing without being mistaken for a homeless person. Now that this is no longer true, it seems to me that middle-class Americans exhibit some of the fears and aversions that I witnessed in South Korea. Ironically, in the society where blackness and brownness has historically been almost tantamount to a condemnation to poverty, prejudice against the poor brought from Korea is brought together with home-grown U.S. racism, and the results have been explosive.

At the same time, I have also noticed among Korean merchants profound empathy with the poor, whose situation many older immigrants know from firsthand past experiences. I personally witnessed many encounters between Korean merchants who lost their stores and African American neighbors in South Central during July 1992, when I accompanied the merchants as they visited their burned-out sites. None of the encounters were hostile. On the contrary, most of the African American neighbors embraced the Korean shopowners and expressed concern for them, while the merchants in turn asked warmly after the welfare of their neighbors' children. Although Korean-African American interaction has been racialized in the dominant culture, the quality of these relationships, like the quality of all human relationships, proved far more individual than that racial schematizing allows for.

(12.)Every South Korean middle school, high school, and college student is required to take a course in "National Ethics," formerly called "Anti-Communism." This course, which loosely resembles a civics class on Western civilization, government, constitutionalism, and political ideology, emphasizes the superiority of capitalism over communism and the importance of the national identity and the modern capitalist state. From the early 1960s through the 1970s, when most of the Los Angeles Korean immigrant merchants studied "Anti-Communism" or "National Ethics," they were taught that "capitalism" and "democracy" are the same, and that both are antithetical to "communism" or "socialism." According to this logic, negative criticisms of the U.S., a "democracy," are tantamount to praise of "communism." Such a view left little room for acknowledgment of racism and other social problems in American society. Indeed, the South Korean National Security Law formerly prosecuted and jailed writers who depicted Americans negatively and film makers who portrayed North Koreans as good-looking or capable of falling in love. Today, however, the interpretation of what constitutes antistate activity is far narrower than in former decades, and although the South Korean government maintains that "pro--North Korea" activities are against the law, anti-U.S. sentiments have been common in South Korea since the mid--1980s.

(13.)I cannot help thinking that these violent baptisms are an Asian American legacy of sorts, for in some sense it was the internment that forced the Japanese Americans to "become American" half a century ago.

(14.)Many Korean Americans have criticized the Los Angeles Times and local television news, and the ABC network in particular, for repeatedly running stories about Soon Ja Du shooting Latasha Harlins (the tape was the second-most played video during the week of the riots, according to the mediawatch section of A Magazine [Vol. 1,No.3:p.4]). They complained that the Los Angeles ABC affiliate aired the store videotape in tandem with the King footage. ABC even inserted the Du-Harlins tape segment into its reportage at the height of the sa-i-ku upheavals. Korean Americans have also protested the media focus on armed Korean American merchants. In particular, they objected to the repeated use of the image of a Korean merchant pointing a gun at an unseen off-camera target. They knew that he was shooting warning shots in self-defense at a wooden mannequin on the ground, but they felt that the image was used to depict Korean immigrants as violent and lawless. They argued that by blocking out the context, the news media harmed Korean Americans, about whom little positive was known by the American public. Tong S. Suhr wrote in a Korean American newspaper:

The Harlins killing is a tragic but isolated case.... This is not to condone the Harlins killing; nor is it to justify the death by countering with how many merchants in turn have been killed. Our complaint is directed to the constant refrain of "the Korean-born grocer killing a black teen-ager," which couldn't help but sow the seeds of racial hatred...[and make me wonder]: Was there any conspiracy among the...white-dominated media to pit one ethnic group against another and sit back and watch them destroy one another...? Why were the Korean American merchants portrayed as gun-toting vigilantes shooting indiscriminately when they decided to protect their lives and businesses by arming themselves because no police protection was available? Why wasn't there any mention of the fact that they were fired upon first? Why such biased reporting (Korea Times, June 29, 1992)?

I would challenge representatives of the news media who argue that visual images of beatings and shootings, especially when they are racialized or sexualized, are "exciting" and "interesting," even when they are aired hundreds or thousands of times, when compared with "boring" images of the everyday. Three months after sa-i-ku, I visited a videotape brokerage company in search of generic footage that could be used in a documentary about the Korean immigrant experience of losing their means of livelihood. Almost every inch of the stringers' footage contained images of police cars, fire engines, and uniformed men heroically wiping their brows as they courageously prepared to meet the challenges before them. Since there were neither police nor firefighters anywhere in sight in South Central or Koreatown during the first three days of sa-i-ku, none of this footage was of use to me. No doubt the men who shot these scenes chose what seemed to them the most "interesting" and "exciting" images. But if I, a woman and a Korean American, had had a camera in my hands, I would have chosen quite different ones.

(15.)May 18, 1992.

(16.)The text of the King statement was printed in the Los Angeles Times as follows:

People, I just want to say...can we all get along? Can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?...We've got enough smog here in Los Angeles, let alone to deal with the setting of those fires and things. It's just not right. It's not right, and it's not going to change anything.

We'll get our justice. They've won the battle but they haven't won the war. We will have our day in court and that's all we want.... I'm neutral. I love everybody. I love people of color.... I'm not like they're making me out to be.

We've got to quit. We've got to quit.... I can understand the first upset in the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on like this, and to see a security guard shot on the ground, it's just not right. It's just not right because those people will never go home to their families again. And I mean, please, we can get along here. We all can get along. We've just got to, just got to. We're all stuck here for awhile.... Let's try to work it out. Let's try to work it out (Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1992).

(17.)The news media that did cover this massive demonstration invariably focused on the Korean musicians because they looked and sounded alien and exotic. Ironically, most of them were young American-born or at least American-educated Korean Americans who learned traditional music as a way to recover their cultural heritage. They perform at many events: I remember them in the demonstrations against the 1991 Gulf War.

(18.)I borrow this image from Walter Benjamin (1969: 256). I would like to thank Shelley Sunn Wong for helping me see its relevance to Korean Americans in the 1990s.


Benjamin, Walter 1969 Illuminations. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." New York: Schocken Books.

Berger, John and Jean Mohr 1975 A Seventh Man: A Book of Images and Words about the Experiences of Migrant Workers in Europe. New York: Penguin Books Ltd.

Chung, L.A. 1992 "Tensions Divide Blacks, Asians." San Francisco Chronicle (May 4): 1.

Moffat, Susan 1992 "Shopkeepers Fight Back: Blacks Join with Koreans in a Battle to Rebuild Their Liquor Stores." Los Angeles Times (May 15).
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Title Annotation:Rethinking Race
Author:Kim, Elaine H.
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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