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.
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.
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 …