As Korean Americans Become Visible, They Seek Understanding Black Winner of Essay Contest Describes Her Changing Views

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 27, 1993 | Go to article overview

As Korean Americans Become Visible, They Seek Understanding Black Winner of Essay Contest Describes Her Changing Views


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AS perhaps no event since the Korean War did, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 thrust the image of Korean Americans into the forefront of American awareness.

Television and newspaper pictures of gun-toting Koreans who kept looters at bay from 1,800 destroyed Korean businesses aroused sympathy, anger, and curiosity nationwide.

The ongoing story of their attempts to rebuild communities through aggressive entrepreneurship evokes respect from some, vilification by others. But the three-day upheaval and its aftermath have become a catalyst to greater understanding.

"In the American context, Asian Americans have always been defined primarily as Chinese or Japanese," says Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona. Yet Dr. Chang notes that in the past 25 years, the Korean American population has grown to more than 800,000, including about 300,000 in Los Angeles, the largest enclave of ethnic Koreans outside Seoul.

He adds, "The {L.A.} riots put Koreans officially on the map. It has since become our task to inform the American public who we are, where we stand, and what is our place."

In Los Angeles and other cities with large Korean populations - Atlanta, New York, Seattle, Houston - grass-roots intercommunity organizations have sprung up, cultural and religious exchanges abound, books on history and intercommunity relations have been published, all since 1992. New theater productions about Koreans' heritage are being performed, and Korean studies at universities are receiving a new impetus.

"These things are all a valuable beginning," says C. J. Lee, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Noting that Koreans looked to government for help during and after the riots here but found few Korean faces in positions of authority, Dr. Lee says Koreans have made major pushes into the political arena.

"It will take time," he says. "You cannot change people's long-entrenched attitudes in one year, but we have diversified our public profile. People now know we are not just shop owners, but also lawyers, doctors, professors."

A nationwide essay contest sponsored this summer by the Korea Society, a California-based organization promoting US-Korea exchange, shows significant progress in Americans' images of Koreans, according to organizers.

"I can admit that I wasn't too fond of Korean Americans in my community," says Los Angeles resident Kaia Niambi Shivers in her grand-prize-winning essay, announced July 14. …

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