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Kathy Choi

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Rebirth of the Korean American Community

Posted: 04/27/2012 1:15 pm

"At that time, Koreans were condescending of their customer base ... I'm not saying it happened everywhere, but they were thriving off the people that truly support them. And that's why people didn't like the Koreans."


As I sat and listened to Aaron Harris, producer for Los Angeles rapper Thurz, while discussing their recent album titled LA Riot, I couldn't help but cringe at the comment. I wanted to jump to the defense of the Korean-American community, but I recalled flashbacks of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Ice Cube's Black Korea and the pervasive anger of the African-American community against Korean-Americans in the early 1990s. I decided to continue listening.


Uncomfortably familiar, his recollection made me wonder: Do young people in Los Angeles still have this perception of Korean-Americans today? How is the narrative different given the experiences of our parents and their peers? What feelings does race trigger in our communities now? Does the anger of the L.A. riots still seethe in the minds and emotions of even those who were merely children on April 29, 1992?


Some of the answers lie at the Flashpoint -- the corner of Florence and Normandie where Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and beaten senseless -- where the riots began. An hour after meeting with Thurz and Harris, I was at the infamous corner, along with my collaborators in a documentary about Angelenos and the impact of the L.A. riots on their attitudes about community and race. Pulling up to the liquor store on that corner brought back the same familiar cringe I felt an hour earlier. We proceeded to walk in.


An enthusiastic James Oh greeted us at the counter, with jokes and a smile for every customer. His energy was infectious and refreshing, and his customers greeted him back warmly. The dialogue and exchange between shop owner and customer was decidedly different from the script in Do the Right Thing. Clearly something had changed.


Later that evening, we listened to a UCLA professor address a meeting of Korean Grocers. His goal:to educate first generation Korean Americans about cultural sensitivities and preferences. There was no talk of blame or victimization, only awareness and solutions. Again, clearly something had changed. That cringing instinct was starting to fade.


Symbolic of this change is that Korean-Americans do not consider Sa-i-Gu (translation: 4-2-9. It is a Korean tradition to use the dates of tragic events to commemorate their significance) to be a date of only anger, victimization or injustice. It does not have the connotation we commonly associate with "9-11" and "never forget." It now represents the rebirth of the Korean-American community. It is the point at which the community recognized its consciousness about its impact on other communities. It is a Flashpoint in time, a flashpoint of awareness that the isolated pursuit of the American dream so cherished by the first generation had all but perished, and that a new dream had to be born: A new American dream where the second and third generation could only succeed as fully assimilated members of the greater American community. It represents a coming of age for a community, barely 10 years in the making at the time of the Riots. Sa-i-gu was the birth of a stark reality that the Korean American community could never be accepted and embraced by other communities without first accepting and embracing them as well.

After visiting with James Oh and the Korean Grocers, I recalled Harris' more recent view of the community, and that cringing feeling became a fading memory: "The Korean people nowadays are now part of the community. These Koreans here are cool. They know everybody... they're cool. The attitude that people were offended by years ago seems to have gone. We actually need them, and they need us."


It is clear that Aaron Harris and Thurz, like James Oh and the Korean Grocers, have an entirely different perspective twenty years since Sa-i-Gu. But has their collective wisdom reflected upon young people in Los Angeles? How is the narrative about race changing, in light of the experiences of our parents and their peers? Again, what feelings does race trigger in our communities now? These questions remain to be answered.


Next week my team and I will be going to a school in Koreatown where we will be documenting a multi-ethnic panel of speakers (including Thurz) as they talk to high school and middle school students. We will capture firsthand how those students interpret the multi-dimensional story of the L.A. Riots and the communities it affected.

 
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