30 Years after Saigu: Seeking a New American Dream

by Jiny Kim

Thirty years ago today, I was a scared twelve-year-old, standing on the front patio of my apartment building, holding tightly to the hand of my five-year-old baby sister, watching my beloved neighborhood burn. Koreatown was on fire, and my parents had rushed to help salvage what they could of my aunt’s store on the outskirts of the city, leaving me and my sister in the relative safety of a line of low-rise apartment complexes a block behind the line of burning furniture stores on Western Avenue.

I remember April 29, 1992 in flashes of images, of feelings, random memories out of sequence. I can’t remember if it was that same day that my mom rushed to pull me out of school, my hair still wet from swimming during P.E. “Pokdong,” she said. We need to get home.

I see a hand-painted banner, “Justice for Rodney King” that the teachers at the Korean pre-school my mom managed had draped over the green metal handrail at the front entrance. I hear Radio Korea blaring on our clunky plastic battery-operated radio. All day. All night. Our only source of local news my parents and our neighbors could understand.

And I remember smoke. So much smoke. In the bewilderment and haze of those several days, it was only after the smoke cleared that I realized how much the community and how much my family had lost.

Just four years earlier, my family had experienced an immense change in circumstance: from out of the shadows of undocumented immigrant life, reprieve came in the form of a temporary worker permit and a sea of TV cameras. My father was the 500,000th applicant in the Southwest Region to receive amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. We were the photogenic nuclear family they splashed across newspapers and the evening news, at the intersection of the two myths of the “good” immigrant and the model minority. We became the poster children of the American Dream, thrust from the shadows into expectations and a living wage.

So my parents worked. Hard. Embracing both the opportunity given to us as a family, and the notion that success is for the taking if you just work hard enough. The prior years of cleaning gas stations and toiling in the garment factories of downtown Los Angeles gave way to growing an office supply business and opening a bilingual pre-school. I remember tagging along with my dad on his delivery route on weekends, him lugging heavy boxes to storefronts all over Koreatown, delivering receipt paper, napkins, and plastic shopping bags printed with the iconic yellow smiley face — and me getting freebies from the ahjummas who would hand me sweet dduk or other goodies. Everyone knew Mr. Kim with the easy smile, who made friends with each and every one of the customers on his route. And even months after all the news stories faded, I’d still hear his customers tell him congratulations — because now, with legal status, he was living the American Dream.

But over the course of a few short days in Spring 1992, that dream crumbled. My father’s entire customer base of Korean American small business owners — clothing stores, restaurants, grocers, and so many others — was decimated. And so, despite emerging from the fires physically unscathed, he too was forced to shut down the business he built up for years soon after the smoke cleared from our beleaguered city. So here, in the crumpled remains of my dad’s smile and the burnt-out shell of my neighborhood, lay the American Dream.

The funny thing about formative experiences in your childhood is that you don’t realize how much they shaped you until you’re far from it. And how much you don’t remember besides the distinct memories seared in your mind.

What I remember isn’t the narrative of Black-Korean conflict so often talked about those fateful days 30 years ago.

What I do remember is a sense of abandonment by the government — of a community left without the protection of public safety services — of a community left to burn, without firetrucks or police cars, without any intervention, in the face of lives and livelihoods going up in smoke.

What I do remember is a sense of betrayal — by the courts that acquitted the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King, and gave no jail time to the Korean American shopkeeper who killed Latasha Harlins.

What I do remember is feeling helpless against forces so much greater than myself, my family, my community — and thinking this isn’t just about Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, and conflict between Korean shopkeepers and Black customers. This is bigger, I thought. This is overwhelming.

I was too young to understand the larger context of what was happening. In one sense, Sa-I-Gu was a separate and distinct experience for myself, my family, and the local Korean American community than the Los Angeles Uprising.

The latter was an uprising in the face of systemic racism and injustice, an explosion of violence from the powder keg that was Los Angeles, sitting atop decades of explicitly racist redlining, of disinvestment in Black communities, and of police brutality gone unrecorded until that fateful video in 1991. Into this context entered new Korean immigrants running businesses in Black neighborhoods without full grasp of the language and culture of their new homes — with some undoubtedly adopting America’s pernicious notions of anti-blackness, without understanding the implications of liquor stores being more plentiful than supermarkets, without understanding that the prices they charged at their corner grocery to pay rent, keep food on the table, and strive for the American Dream were part of economic forces that kept their customers paying more for food and necessities at smaller corner stores than at more affordable supermarkets in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.

The former is a collective trauma, of a bewildered, mostly newer immigrant community, many who lived and worked exclusively in Koreatown with little understanding of the forces and history behind the violence that befell their community. Sa-I-Gu it is called — the three digits of the date it started 4–2–9 — the other three-digit historical reference in the collective Korean immigrant consciousness is Yook-I-Oh (6–2–5), the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950.

Poverty and inequality exact a toll on society, and those who bear the brunt are often the newest, most othered and unprotected members. We see this every time there is economic anxiety, and a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment follows.

We saw this in the Los Angeles Uprising.

We saw this in the murder of Vincent Chin.

And we see this today in our communities facing ongoing and rising anti-Asian hate.

What I lost 30 years ago most of all was the trust that now that I was documented, America would protect me. And that America would protect me because my parents worked hard and I studied hard. And that America would protect me because I would soon become an American on paper, the way I was American in my heart.

But with that loss of trust came an understanding. That I can love my country and be heartbroken by it at the same time. Learning there is a way toward the American Dream, free from the myths that kept me complicit for too long with notions of the “model minority” and the hardworking immigrant. Understanding that racism and inequality exist in the structures of our society, in zoning laws, immigration policies, economic forces, the criminal justice system, and so much more. Recognizing that protection in America starts with political power — making it incumbent upon each of us to build power together, across racial lines, across all communities left unprotected. And so I work, today, and every day, toward that horizon line — a vision of a multiracial democracy that is inclusive, embracing, and holding in its protection all of us who call America home.

Jiny Kim is the Vice President of Policy and Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC.

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