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. …