February 14, 2008


Part of my narrative legacy as a 1.5 Korean-American is the burden of my parents' roles as Koreans in the inner-city. Their generation, which for me, includes six aunts, one uncle and a set of grandparents on my maternal side share a similar mindset regarding black Americans despite the fact that only my parents were the typical inner-city grocers.

We lived in Philadelphia. A city that is %12 black and one whose Korea town was and is a mean little strip of busy 5th street set squarely in a poor barely working class neighborhood. Trash fly around in the street in front of rowhouses that look more propped up than standing and yet Korean immigrants came and built their restaurants (the best jja-jjang mein is found here for less than $5), beauty salons and cell phone shops right next to beauty discount stores and fish and chicken fry houses with milky thick bulletproof windows.


Because Koreans of this generation are by and large thrifty. Cheap. Forever looking for a deal. And they would never spend their hard-earned money on something as valueless as real estate, especially rented real estate, when their point is to make money, in cash. And because Korean customers have the same understanding they look straight past appearances and think only of what they're going to order to eat, or how their hair should be done and they'll go just as easily from a burnt out city strip mall restaurant to church to their usually much nicer homes in the suburbs. No problem.

But there's another reason Korean immigrants felt at ease in the inner city. More than cheap real estate they felt at ease with poor black people because even before they moved to the States from Korea, they came with an understanding that they were superior in status to black people and therefore, superior. Period. (A problem with Confucian ideology in general is great at organizing society and relationships, bad at valuing human life.) Then throw into the mix some crazy culture shock, shame issues about being seen as shopkeepers with poor English, and a profound sense of dislocation, and a fair number of our parents could be found following their black customers around the store and muttering to each other disparaging comments about black people in general. No stranger to violence, many owned guns and guard dogs.

Alot of these issues were obviously related to the same problems of violence, crime and poverty that plague the inner city. Our parents stumbled into the mess almost randomly but then became players in their own right. Meanwhile most of us kids reaped the rewards, probably somewhere in the suburbs with nice homes, cars and schooling — we were the point after all — but few of us were in the dark about where we got our money. Weekends and after school days spent at the store collecting food stamps and coins, fending off racist slurs, drunks and gangsters while overcompensating with politeness toward our good customers- the single moms, the grandmothers, the church ladies and worker men. We were able to live in two profoundly opposite cultures daily without much thought to it at all. It was just the way it was.

Now as an adult, I think of this part of our history, and wonder about a narrative for it all. It's already come and gone for the most part, our parents by and large succeeded and we have moved on from the inner-city shops to everything from white collar professions to wandering artists (much to their dismay). We aren't the model minority for nothing. And yet this is our past. Our very recent past. And we have witnessed things that they don't talk about it in the ongoing white-black discourse about race relations and the inner-city. We know things about entrenched cultural values, whether good or bad, and we know most of all how much we owe a countless number of poor black Americans whose food stamps and dollars paid for our rice, our church picnics, and college educations. Those same dollars are helping many of us still.

As a critical part of our legacy, and one many 1.5 KA's still struggle with (racism is after all inherited), I see how many of us now are trying to find their places as citizens, as adults in our chosen society and country. And all this comes to mind when I saw and heard thisBarack Obama's speech to a Christian social action group called the Sojourners. He was speaking on christianity and religion as it related to politics. His message was so simple and yet profound it almost knocked me off my feet and made me realize how jaded I had really become. And how much I could be doing in the world for good. And how much my past ties me to the desperate needs in the world right now. And in a sudden moment of clarity, I see that this is how my past becomes the future, it's how I understand it in order to live right now.

Happy Valentine's Day.


posted at 11:33 AM by jenn

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02/14/08 12:31 PM

your posting gave me chills. thank you for a deeper insight into my culture. driving down 5th st. recently made me realize how inner city it really is and i never felt it was while i was growing up. it was just part of my hometown.

02/14/08 12:55 PM

I completely resonate with your reaction to that speech by Obama. The speech itself is largely regurgitated from his book, The Audacity of Hope, which I read and underwent a major shift in paradigm across a lot of different areas of thought. Like you said, he suggests such simple solutions and ways to reconcile things that seemed so irreconcilable - like religion and politics, racism and economics, reality and hope - in grounded, profound, yet doable ways. I don't agree with his opposers that he's simply a good preacher - I think there's something substantive to his seemingly simple vision for each issue in America.

02/18/08 09:58 PM

we are like twins. Twins! I was just thinking about this...especially as it relates to work I do at the hospital. Of course, your thoughts are much more articulate than mine.

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