Over the years, KoreAm has documented the impact of the 1992 Los Angeles riots on ours and other communities, and urged an understanding of lessons learned. As we count down to the 20th anniversary next year, iamKoreAm.com will be running a riot article, image or testimonial in this space every week until April 29, 2012. Some will be taken from our pages, while others will be excavated from our own personal archives. We welcome your submissions—first-person memories (no word limit), pictures, poems and (photographed/scanned) artifacts—for this project, too. Please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Riots Spot’. Many of us were mere children in 1992, but 19 years later, we have voices. We can speak now.
Here’s an article from KoreAm‘s May 2009 issue.
THE AMERICAN DREAM, RECONSIDERED
by Sung Min Yi
FIFTY thousand Koreans are singing “Go West,” and they’re keeping me awake. I presume it’s the Pet Shop Boys’ version, though it’s hard to tell.
To explain: World Cup 2002. Korea Republic vs. Poland. My parents had warned me that they would wake me up at 4:30 a.m. PST to watch The Game, and I’d blithely agreed to it. And now, here I am, swaddled like an invalid on the couch while my parents are clapping, chanting, burning with religious fervor, their faces aglow, the living room lights still mercifully off. So, here we are and there they are. Fifty thousand plus two Koreans trying to will our team to victory through the power of song.
“Go West,” despite its Gay Liberation associations, has proven remarkably robust in its afterlife as a soccer chant. But for me, the song evokes my uncle, who’s been dead for about 10 years. I thought my mother would have the same reaction, but at this moment, she registers nothing but absolute absorption in the fate of the Reds. My waesamchon. We never saw much of my extended family growing up. So my memories of my uncle are that he owned a series of liquor stores in Los Angeles during the ‘80s and ‘90s, had a pool and cable TV and looked like an Asian John Ritter of Three’s Company fame.
We went to his place twice a year, for New Year’s and the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Our goal was always to perform the ancestral worship ritual as soon as we got there. Everyone rushed to cook the food, stack the fruit, set up the table, the portraits and the incense, and then, the ceremony, with its bowing. Lots of bowing. Afterwards, my uncle left to open the store. Waiting for him to return was always worthwhile because he gave the most saebaedon. But he insisted on working a full day, so part of the ritual always included the interminable wait.
I remember the fever of boredom as we waited, checking the clock, learning to despise the Rose Parade for its wastefulness. Sometimes I wondered how his day was going. The first time we went to visit him at his store, I remember scouring the aisles with my brother, trying to find the single most delicious item we could, while my mom talked to him. We’d inevitably leave with a blade of watermelon Jolly Ranchers, and then it’d be years between visits, always a different store by then, in a different part of town. I’m not sure if the stores themselves got progressively more rundown. I don’t remember if they were in worse parts of town, either. But I remember a rack of second-tier porn titles like Orientail, and people buying loosies, and my uncle, smiling Ritter-esque over it all, unfazed.
Soon Ja Du. Latasha Harlins. Menace II Society. When all the “Blacks vs. Koreans” stuff started happening, the only concrete action I took was a personal boycott of Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album. I never really imagined how it might be affecting my uncle, that customers might be approaching him with newfound swagger, demanding credit or threatening him, giving him looks like he should get it, like all the f—ing Koreans, exactly what you people deserve. We didn’t hear from him until April 30, the second day of what would become known as the L.A. riots. When he finally called, I remember sitting on the stairs, listening while my mother talked on the phone in the kitchen. He’d stayed on his roof all night, shooting into the parking lot when anybody got too close.
I imagined the reddened sky silhouetting his tense body, perched on the roof above a pockmarked parking lot, a blatantly cinematic image that filled me with pride. Everything was fine, my mother said he said. Everything was fine. A year later, two thieves rushed into the store, took $200 he had in the register and ran for the door. One of the thieves stopped, turned and shot him in the chest. We didn’t even have time to visit the hospital. My mother got the call in the evening, just after I’d gotten home from school, and she just sat there, gray, shrinking. I hugged her and she cried into my T-shirt. I tried to stay as still as I could.
The police said there was little hope of catching the thieves. Continue reading