As Korean Americans Become Visible, They Seek Understanding

Black winner of essay contest describes her changing views

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. Echoing a theme in many of the 3,000 submissions, according to judges, Ms. Shivers describes her understanding of Koreans before and after a recent trip to Seoul.

BEFORE: "I did not appreciate their cold, harsh treatment. It was hard for me to understand their English. Many Korean merchants ... acted overprotective and scared when I entered their stores...."

After: "In the spring of 1992, I represented African-American Catholic youth in a Korean/ African-American Dialogue.... The moment I stepped off of the plane [in Seoul], my life was altered," she writes. Recounting a two-week stay of traveling to museums, folk villages, restaurants, and the 1988 Olympic Coliseum, she concludes: "I now understood that it was lack of communication and cultural ignorance. Koreans are not mean and nasty, and African-Americans are not criminals. It was misunderstanding of bot h groups that widened the gaps between us."

"Korea was the last of the Asian cultures to open up to the West," notes Craig Coleman, executive director of the Korea Society. Its isolation until 1880 is still reflected in the dearth of books, publications, and general history of the state long known as "the hermit kingdom," Dr. Coleman says. Relative ignorance about Korea is reflected in American society from the news media to school curricula.

"Americans still think of Korea as the backward, poverty-stricken country portrayed on [the television series] M.A.S.H. for 12 years," he says. "When they find out it is one of the fastest growing, newly industrializing countries in the world, with rich traditions in music and art, they are very surprised."

Cross-cultural understanding works both ways, adds Professor Chang, who has just finished a book on the history of African Americans, printed in Korean.

"The book is being devoured by the Korean population here, who have never known the first thing about blacks," says Eui-Young Yu, a sociology professor at California State University, Los Angeles.

By giving Koreans a better understanding of black literature, art, and customs, he says, it is also healing intergenerational rifts among first- and second-generation Korean immigrants, who were often at odds with each other on how to assimilate into the Los Angeles community.

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