At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own, with no help from anyone. —“Success Story of One Minority in the U.S.,” U.S. News and World Report (1966)
Can we all get along? Can we get along? —Rodney King on the third day of the LA Riots, after the acquittal of four police officers charged in his beating (1992)
My husband, dog and I have just moved from Seattle to the Bay Area, living temporarily in the hills on the southside of Berkeley, bordering Oakland in the airbnb bottom floor of an enormous old Tudor house that had once, many years ago, been divided into a tastefully eccentric woman’s bed and breakfast.
Now, it is a restaurateur’s house that feels decidedly French—“ceramic roosters and copper counters” French.
(It’s owned by a self-described “restaurateur,” people. SELF-DESCRIBED restaurateur.)
We live for the next six weeks in the bottom floor of this house—set up like a large studio with its own kitchen and bathroom that has the tiniest sink outside of France. (Every time I wash my face, I have to stick my entire head in, like I’m gassing myself in an oven, so that the water doesn’t just splash everywhere.)
Well-worn, questionably clean yet worldly rugs cover every flat surface below the feet, even in the kitchen and on the west-facing patio with two faded wicker chairs.
Sit there and sip your wine and look out at the sun setting distantly over San Francisco. Listen to the sound of the tasseled Tibetan (Nepalese? Indian? Guatemalan?) bells dangling from the second-floor deck above your head.
Rugs, rugs everywhere.
It’s the kind of place where you can never feel really clean.
I’m a little itchy all the time.
I’m only half-employed now, working from home and looking for a job while my husband commutes to San Francisco via BART. Once I’m done with work in the mornings, I take my dog on walks through the neighborhood in the hills, silently oohing and aahing at the mammoth, old houses in varying states of groomed decay. In front of almost every home is a family car (a Honda minivan, a beat-up Volvo wagon) and then a nice ride for “date nights”—the Mercedes, Audi, BMW.
Silently, I am in love with these houses.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood in LA, improbably close, practically breathing on, blocks away from homes like these—mansions of the impeccable brick and lawn that ooze prestige. Mansions with security system and political candidate signs stuck into the lawns as the only indications of danger and strife. Mansions that could afford to stay old, charming and well-maintained.
Like the face of Jane Fonda.
My mother and I would take long walks, passing these homes and imagining what the lives were like inside. Looking at the little children, often blonde, little girls with pink elastic headbands, running out of minivans or sitting at kitchen tables with big boxes of crayons, doodling.
Our own house, not necessarily on the wrong side of the tracks, but rather on top of the metaphorical tracks themselves, in a standoff area between working poor and rich, had good bones but had fallen into disrepair. Cottage cheese fell in chunks from the ceiling. Cracked window glass had been sealed with Scotch tape. The drawers and cabinets in the kitchen had been hastily painted over at some time—sticky with oil from my mother’s cooking.
We had been ashamed of our house. We almost never invited anyone inside. We did not have guests or parties. We did not want people to see the condition in which we lived. We didn’t think we had anything to be proud of, anything to really share.
When I think of that house, what I think of most, besides the practical dysfunction of it (the doors and drawers that did not shut, the cracks and draft we always had inside), are the windows.
Every window had bars over it.
Our home had only been broken into a handful of times, so the bars somewhat worked.
Although I often wondered if they did a better job keeping people out or keeping people, us, inside.
I grew up outside of Koreatown. But for as long as I can remember, my parents owned stores either south or southeast of LA, ten to fifteen miles away from our home in predominantly working-class, Latino neighborhoods near South Central and Watts.
Yes, of “Boyz in da Hood and those Friday movies with Chris Tucker” fame.
No, no, not “Cheech and Chong” fame or Stand and Deliver. (That’s East LA.)
No, there was no breakdancing. (That’s New York.)
Like many other immigrants, in particular Koreans of the ’80s and ’90s, my parents could only afford to have a store in those areas. Areas that we often refer to as “urban” when what we really mean is black and brown.
My parents were part of a group of Koreans who made it through the gauntlet of U.S. naturalization (I always imagine it like an episode of American Gladiator with all that jousting and hangtough in leotards) because they came from middle- to upper-class families, usually had college degrees and some money, and could get by, actually prosper with a small business in even the worst part of town.
Back in 1967, James Baldwin wrote, “When we were growing up [in Harlem]…our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the building…”
We were now the landlords. Koreans were the grocery store owners and the pawnbrokers and the people who sold liquor.
That was us. The story itself had not changed. Just some of its players.
We were now the landlords who did not take care of the neighborhood because we lived and raised our families somewhere else, who looked down upon the customers who had no choice but to support us, the solitary source of food and liquor in areas box stores wouldn’t brave.
And we were easy to hate. Our accents infantilized our emotions. Our often tired, bitter demeanor from the hours we worked made us seem one-dimensionally crude. Our faces could be made fun of efficiently—take your index fingers, pull the outer corners of your eyes and blink.
We were the restaurant owners who threw the cat in the chow mein.
And although we were more often economically mobile than other people of color (our customers), we remained a stationary blankness upon which mainstream culture, including black Americans, projected either their hunger for or resentment of exoticism, the other. We were the kitsch behind the Wu-Tang Klan. Or the Japanese car manufacturer destroying America, destroying Detroit. Or the masseuse. Or the guru. Wax on, wax off.
We rlove you rlong time.
I cringed when I saw or heard these images on the radio, in books or on the screen, yet the only response I had in my repertoire was to laugh nervously or to look away.
What was the proper response to something that hurt and alienated you yet was apparently relatable, normal to everyone else?
I cannot tell you the number of times growing up when I would look in the mirror and see a face disfigured. The small eyes, the yellow skin, the flatness, like bars on my windows.
But for people in poorer areas, areas that had been economically blighted because of years, rather, an entire living history of discrimination (in everything from banks to the voting booth and everywhere from Montgomery to Ferguson), despite movements that created a reluctant and resigned progress, for many of the black residents, we were a living, breathing, tangible and even laughable enemy.
Yo yo, check it out
So don’t follow me, up and down your market
Or your little chop suey ass’ll be a target
of the nationwide boycott
Juice with the people, that’s what the boy got
So pay respect to the black fist
or we’ll burn your store, right down to a crisp
And then we’ll see ya!
Cause you can’t turn the ghetto – into Black Korea
And we despised them as much as they despised us.
As immigrants, deep believers in the American Dream, people who had traveled thousands of miles, abandoned families and friends, we believed that if “these people” (our customers) couldn’t make it, then they must have done something wrong, or they must not be doing something right.
Hatred is easy when the alternatives are vague. And that is a mutual condition between landlord and tenant, storeowner and customer.
We were easy targets—all of us.
Oakland feels a little like the city I grew up in.
I take pride in having grown up in a diverse city and I like the idea of living here.
But when you go on the internet and Google “where to live in Oakland,” you find pretty much the same thing you get when looking up any of your medical symptoms—a litany of frightening, obscure diseases.
Losing weight means your thyroid’s out-of-whack. You’ve got Graves’ disease, which just sounds terrible. (It makes me think of both tombs and the stuff you pour on your turkey.) Basically, you find the projection of every fear known to man, which sells more Purell.
You find that in Oakland, there are a handful of areas where you actually want to live. And everywhere else is dangerous. You might get robbed at gunpoint or see a homeless person poo in a cup. You might have your house broken into and get propositioned by the burglar/pimp, hoping for a little dough, but instead finding you, potential prostitute.
He sees the potential prostitute in your eyes.
And now that I have college degrees and various kinds of insurance, now that I don’t know quite how to live without a dishwasher, I’m scared.
I don’t want to lose my dishwasher.
I use crime maps on the internet to determine where I will or will not live.
I’m comfortable with a certain amount of crime (petty theft, the occasional break-in), but what I cannot deal with are drive-bys and prostitution in daylight.
I know that sounds like a duh statement, but when you are looking at a crime map of Oakland that runs on a spectrum of green to red (green being the least amount of crime), and you see very large patches that look like a terrible allergic reaction, like Jesus just dragged a bunch of poison sumac over the city, you begin to wonder how close to those areas you are willing to live and for how much money.
In the center of the map is a fever, like a fire, and from that red, it turns orange, then yellow, then off into the north and the northeast it becomes green, just green.
How much crime can you really handle? How much fear do you want to live with? I already know that I won’t be able to leave my doors unlocked like I do in our current airbnb rental, up in the hills where the stop sign has been vandalized beneath the STOP with a scribble of “stealing money, 1%”
I appreciate the comma.
I know that I’d like to be able to walk around during the day, freely, in shorts. (Not like the super hoochie shorts, but like regular, young lady shorts from Target.) I also want to be able to walk around at night. (Not necessarily night-night like midnight, but night like 8-10 p.m.)
And then there are the crimes that perhaps wouldn’t affect me directly that I just don’t want to see.
I don’t want to see the prostitutes. I want to live where I’m, quite frankly, not confronted with my own freedom. The fact that even here in 21st-century America, women, men and children continue in a multitude of forms to not be free.
So, my threshold is yellow. A little neighboring orange. Preferably green. Yellow.
And absolutely no red.
My mother owned a women’s clothing store in the city of Huntington Park, which to this day, despite a few vibrant commercial areas and neighborhoods of aspirational single-family homes, feels mostly dehydrated—a landscape punctuated by walls of corrugated metal, unfortunate structures made out of the pieces of even less-fortunate structures and limping dogs of various blends baring teeth behind chain-link fences. To be precise, half hyena, quarter German Shepherd and a quarter tin can.
Post-apocalyptic. A place where Arnold Schwarzenegger could ride out in his leather chaps to pump piñatas that look like deformed Mickey Mouses full of bullets or fire a bazooka into a pushcart of Mexican ice cream.
Here, as in many places in America, remain the bones of a manufacturing industry that once existed, created jobs in LA. After its collapse, white residents left the area, replaced by mostly Latino and Mexican immigrants.
My mother’s first store was in a swap meet, Plaza de la Fiesta—a strip-mall-style building painted the dull, pinkish beige of resigned-looking buildings everywhere. Inside existed an entire network of small shops that provided everything anyone in the neighborhood could need—from clothes to toys to car stereos. People bartered and bantered in Spanish. Paper signs with Sharpied prices declared SALE all year long.
Occasionally people were stabbed in the bathrooms or gang members with tears tattooed beneath their eyes knifed each other next to someone’s shop but there were rarely shootings, at least around the plaza; perhaps in the surrounding residential neighborhoods, there were.
We wouldn’t know.
Yes, we knew the neighborhood; we walked those streets and ate at the same taquerias and would buy the same tamales from the one openly gay man Hector who sold them out of the trunk of his Toyota Cressida while wearing a Santa hat at Christmas. He had beautiful eyebrows.
My mother spent most of her waking hours at the store, amongst Spanish-speaking customers who would often become her friends. They’d hug and smile when they saw each other. Ask about each other’s families.
But still, we spoke different languages—my mother (Korean and a little Spanish), us second-generation kids (English and a little Korean and Spanish), and the customers (Spanish and a little English and Korean).
We went to different schools and churches. Before we fell asleep, we heard different sounds at night. The differences in our backgrounds made each other’s lives, although partially understood, mostly unfathomable.
For instance, much later on, after the Riots, after my mother moved her store to another swap meet in the same city, people didn’t understand why, when I turned thirty, I didn’t have a baby.
I think they thought I was a lesbian. Or a Chinese person.
Actually, I know they thought I was a Chinese person.
I don’t know what that has to do with not having babies, but it did. And our food stank.
And my mother seemed to think of her customers as kind barbarians (“Mexicans are so nice!”), who ate the taco and had salsa, which was “their kimchi,” but still believed in God.
Although “educated,” she believed that a dwarf became pregnant with a full-size man because she was Latina.
I know it sounds crazy, but I swear, it’s true. THE DWARF BECAME PREGNANT WITH THE FULL-SIZE MAN BECAUSE SHE WAS LATINA.
When I was eight or nine, a friend and I once stood outside the swap meet where my mother worked, feeling bored. Seeing a truck full of men drive by, we shouted “beaners,” and laughed. The car turned around with all the men, maybe five or six of them, pointing rifles at us.
We screamed and ran as fast as we could inside.
Just another lesson in the Escuela de Hard Knocks.
That was it, I think, boredom. Can you imagine that kind of boredom?
I could’ve taken up a sport or picked up an instrument, whining my young racism across the strings like a bow. But my mother didn’t have the money to put us through lessons or classes; it was hard enough just paying the bills, keeping food in the fridge.
So, instead we just said or thought terrible things.
This is what you do when the world feels mean, when it works so hard to kill your feelings. Sometimes, it is successful. And when it is not, you find ways to help it; you find ways to destroy your emotions because they hurt too much or they can get you in trouble.
Hence, you find ways to destroy yourself.
I’d always been sensitive and shy, and when you grow up in a world like this, when vulnerability just makes you look weak and stupid, you get angry.
People, at least, respect anger. They’re even often afraid of it. And when you cannot laugh or cry, what else can you do but pack your fists tightly and have a scowl, the “I could kill someone” face?
In photographs from my youth, I am often seen with this hard, determined look in my eyes, like a 19th-century Irish railroad worker, although, in real life, I was just a blossoming, passionate collector of all things koala—t-shirts, stuffed animals, stickers, those little fuzzy clip-ons that hug your pens.
I am a woman of contradiction.
Anyway, there was in the area of my mother’s store a kind of economy of racism that was mostly peaceful unless provoked. Latino customers and Korean storeowners, we were neither black nor white, but we had inherited the stories, the currency for those transactions.
People would often make fun of our small eyes or our language, going off in some Chinesey dialect they had borrowed from television or just heard around town or invented in their heads.
We learned to laugh at each other and ourselves.
I thought it was kind of funny when they would make the ching-chongy noises at us. I thought Chinese people made that sound, too; and wasn’t it hilarious that they thought we were Chinese?
Deep down inside, all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, as immigrants and as the children of immigrants, knew that we were outside and, perhaps, always would be. We existed in this collapsed space, working hard for a better life, not understanding each other, with our different languages, looks, and definitions of success and failure. Yet with so little access to anyone else, we found only each other to hate.
Although we had spent so many hours in the neighborhood of my mother’s store, what did we really know about life there?
How could we know anything about our customers, really? How could we even begin to imagine? And where does the capacity to imagine as an attempt to access it become impossible?
And when does it not just become impossible, but even less neutral, more dangerous than that? When does it just become another project of ours—another thought project, that yes, have some kind of impact, but ultimately just becomes another object on which we build ourselves, our own egos, our own destinies and desires?
When does empathy become self-righteous? When does empathy become rude?
I click the crime maps to see police data on incidents, the aggregate of which create the heat—the red to orange to yellow: ATTEMPTED ROBBERY-STRONG-ARM; MISDEMEANOR ASSAULT BATTERY; VANDALISM; THEFT; BURGLARY FORCIBLE ENTRY; NARCOTICS POSSESS MARIJUANA/HASHISH; FELONY ASSAULT.
This is how I learn about a city. By trying very hard to avoid the color red.
When I am very honest with myself, so honest that a pain rises within me to my eyes and mouth, I admit that the color red is not only the color of crime, but the color of what scares me most.
The tiniest flinching reaction, followed by the stiffness I try very hard to control, disguise every time I walk alone by a hoodied kid on the street, who in Oakland often happens to be black. I see the kid and, for a second, regret holding my iPhone so blatantly, imagining it being snatched out of my hand.
I’m scared of the child, but what I hate is my reaction, my own fear.
If the kid were white, milling around with baggy pants and a half-concealed face, I would feel the same thing. But because he’s black, and most likely going to be black, I’m particularly ashamed of my response.
I know that the physical reaction, my nerves, is something that, no matter how hard I’ve tried, no matter how much I’ve read and felt and experienced, no matter how many Ethnic Studies classes I’ve taken, or how many times I’ve read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, says something about me, something about my own weaknesses. Despite how much I can rationalize and try to teach myself out of it, I am still left with the undeniable fact of my body—the sweat, the thumping heart.
And I don’t want to be one of those people.
What does that mean?
One of those people who sees a black kid on the street and assumes he’s up to no good.
But for at least a split second, I fear him. I suspect that he’s bored and that the boredom will lead to violence. I suspect that he is in a near parentless situation and that he commits petty crime, not because he is a bad person, but because he wants a little thrill like we all do or he wants money which he knows already does not come easily.
It’s strange—a mix of empathy and fear that rattles inside of you, makes your heart leap not just a little but a lot. It’s condescending, terribly so—naïve and stupid—yet what happens when you see the kid in the hoodie just casually sitting on a railing and you are walking down the sidewalk, a woman, feeling exposed, not sure if you should acknowledge him and smile or if that smiling is an act of liberal superiority—like, “Hey, I get it, I’m not one of you, but I get it. I’m one of us. And I’m not one of them. I’m one of us.”
But I grip my phone harder. I smile (because I typically do so anyway) and yet, as I walk by, I suspect he notices that I take maybe half a little step away from him, almost circling him in the tiniest way possible.
Either to get away from him or to make way for him. I don’t know.
And honestly, he doesn’t even care. He probably doesn’t give a shit and all he can think about is his stupid brother, or the girl he’s in love with, and this is all in my head. My guilty, liberal, supergreen-eating head.
I run home. I turn on msnbc.
It’s Reverend Al Sharpton—his suits, his outspokenness tempered by the wise, matter-of-fact, somewhat dead look in his eyes.
I breathe. I whisper to myself, “I am not a racist.”
On the corner of Florence and Normandie, four black men pulled Reginald Denny, a white man, out of his truck and didn’t just beat him in front of helicopter cameras, but hit him with a brick on the head. (An almost carnival mirror image of the grainy black and white video we had seen over and over again of Rodney King being brutally kicked and beaten with metal batons by white police officers after a high-speed chase.)
But there is a particular horror when the worst of our nightmares occurs right before our eyes, in color, on television, live. We feel helpless, vulnerable, yet at the same time tremendously safe, even powerful. The camera gives us that closeness and distance at the same time.
Watching a recording feels more archival—“strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.” In that black and white video of the police officers gathered around Rodney King as he, on the ground being clubbed, struggled to get up and then fell down to be hit over and over again, he looked like a man being punished, not just for being Rodney King, but because of the role he had in our story. Our American story. Even if he was a criminal, one could not help but see the narrative of a taming. The narrative of slavery, of human ownership.
(Rodney King even said that while being beaten, the police officers chillingly yelled the familiar, “We are going to kill you, nigger.” King described the attack: “It was like being raped, stripped of everything, being beaten near to death there on the concrete, on the asphalt…I just knew how it felt to be a slave. I felt like I was in another world.”)
In both instances, live or recorded, we cannot look away. It’s as if our minds must hold onto the image to play it over and over again until it makes sense.
But it never does.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” begins Joan Didion’s “The White Album.” “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images…”
It was 1992. I was 10. I remember sitting shocked, transfixed watching this, the beating of a white man, Reginald Denny, who happened to be at the wrong place and time, unfold.
As a child, I had been driven through those streets in South Central LA, riding beside my mother in her car. They had seemed so ordinary in their sadness and stagnation—just another corner like all the other corners in that part of the city.
But now, it was as if the streets had transformed into a theatre, a grand stage where we could see undeniably all that rage and hopelessness shuttered inside.
People flooded the streets, burning and breaking glass, as if they could no longer be contained in their houses, as if they demanded to not only be released but heard and seen as volatile, yes, but also disastrously human. As if they could no longer live that story, the story of gang violence, the story of addiction, the story of schools with no books or money, the story of no jobs, the story of getting pulled over and killed or beaten within an inch of your life, or shot dead, the spectacle of the body remaining in the street for four hours.
That body is the entire story.
This was not the story they had written for themselves.
Now, they wanted their own.
In 1992, I remember my mother sitting in front of the television, unable to move.
She could not take her eyes off the screen. I remember the light from the images of looting and destruction flickering on her face, off her eyes.
I remember her receiving a phone call.
My mother wept in this awful, quiet way that I could not bear. As a single mother, she worked so hard that she had rarely showed any emotion other than rage and sometimes laughter. So, when my mother cried, I cried. It was so unfathomable to me, to see this woman, who was the center of my universe (a universe that I both loved and hated immensely) collapse.
She represented everything I hated about myself—my foreignness, my poverty. But at the same time, she had given everything to me, and I knew this. I knew this so well that I hated her even more. I lost respect for what I interpreted to be her weakness, her inability to conform and to create for us what we saw on television, real lives.
Her business had been looted. Her business had been destroyed.
It was so ironic to think that the people who had supported us, our customers, had finally destroyed us. Finally, what we had was theirs.
I remember looking outside the window of our living room through its bars, watching the stacks of black smoke rising. It appeared as if the world was on fire, an eruption, a war zone. It felt like it would never end. That the rest of our lives would just be this way. That there’d always be violence, rage. That my mother, my sister and I would always be poor. That there’d always be racism and beatings. That the story would never change. Just its players.
As the Riots spread from the south, closer and closer to Koreatown, storeowners began arming themselves, crouching and standing on tops of buildings like snipers with rifles. I remember the acuteness of my embarrassment seeing this. There we were again, the crazy Koreans, who with soap opera flare took justice into our own hands. The crazies who cared more about their stores, their money than anything else, including human lives.
And the news media loved the image of the immigrant vigilante protecting his own, his private property, just ate it up. Not only did we go to school and work hard but we also could bear arms, earning us an A+ in Model Minority because of extra credit.
(We just couldn’t play basketball. But that was okay.)
Before the Riots could spread too far, way before it hit the middle- and upper-class areas of the city, the National Guard came in with their Desert Storm camo and big boots and guns and stood outside on street corners, patrolling a frozen yogurt shop, a billiards hall, Korean restaurants, a bookstore full of Bibles.
It was as if we were under siege, yet it was difficult to tell who was seizing whom.
After the Riots and the fires and the looting ended, we finally visited my mother’s store.
Glass was everywhere and metal bars over doors and windows had been bent and twisted to get inside. People broke absolutely everything. Overhead light fixtures had been pulled to the ground. The cash register lay on the floor, smashed open and empty.
It was easy to believe that the only reason why the Riots happened was because a group of white police officers brutally assaulted a black man and got away with it (again), and that the looting and vandalism represented the black community’s revenge on exploitative institutions and their local stand-ins (again)— Korean storeowners.
That is the story we choose to tell (again and again).
What was harder still was to realize that many of the people who had actually destroyed our livelihoods, mostly working-class, Latino immigrants, didn’t even really care about Rodney King.
If they didn’t loot our stores, someone else would. There was an end-of-world pandemonium and people grabbed as if they were going back to their bomb shelters with all those cartons of milk and stretchy leggings stolen from my mom’s store. It was hard to blame them.
People were hungry for this.
“…Harlem needed something to smash. To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need. Most of the time it is the members of the ghetto who smash each other, and themselves.”
I’m not sure why or how this happened, but that same day, when we visited my mom’s store, there had been a police raid in a local apartment building. Inside they had found an entire unit full of loot. As storeowners, we were invited to go inside and pick through everything to see if any of it belonged to us.
Looking back on this now, how did that even happen? How was it legal for us to go inside this person’s house? Wasn’t this one of those situations where you couldn’t touch anything and everything had to be meticulously reported?
It had been reduced to that, people just coming and going inside of stores to take and then people just coming and going inside of people’s homes, to take back what was theirs, locked in a game of endless retaliation.
I remember walking through a living room door, ajar, as if going into the estate sale of a hoarder or a messed-up version of an open house. Stacks of electronics and toys and clothes made it difficult to get around. I remember feeling as if we were now breaking in, as if we were now the “criminals.”
I remember looking through the clothes, my mother and I, and her just shaking her head no, not recognizing anything that actually belonged to her.
The rental market is so competitive that people show up to open houses an hour early with pre-filled rental applications, credit reports printed, dog resumes.
Yes, DOG resumes.
Some of these resumes put my own to shame. It’s like these dogs have more experiences and vaccinations than I do. And I wonder what’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with my lazy dog?
When viewing an apartment, my husband and I have this unspoken code to convey how much we really like the place, a language that consists of raised eyebrows, smirks and a tiny nod of the head undetectable to the human eye.
It’s that thing you do when you’re looking over something, maybe even criticizing it, but you don’t want to hurt the manager or owner’s feelings. Or you’re so crazy about it, you start calculating what kind of tenant this person might want, and then you’re willing to modify yourself to meet that criteria.
And things sneak up on you, bad things. It even occurred to me that I could bribe someone to let us rent her apartment. You know, just sneak her a couple bucks in a goodbye shake like in the movies. As I’d reach out and make contact with the hand, I’d say, “Nice to meet you,” and look at her hard in her eyes, telepathically transmitting, “Yes, this is really happening. I’m bribing you. I know, weird, huh? Yeah, this is happening. Yeah.”
And you realize how low that would really be.
And when you are this reduced, when you feel so desperate, that your body literally seems hungry, you begin to really ask yourself, “Where do I want to live?”
And, “What will I do to get there?”
After the Riots, we lived for weeks on government food, which included boxes of dried milk and cans of pork with black-and-white labels that had the minimalist outline of a pig on them, as if they had been created by the same designer who made the universal instructions to build a Billy bookcase from IKEA.
I remember very embarrassingly going to the Korean church to pick up toiletries from the Salvation Army—a generic toothbrush with a large rectangular head and stiff bristles, bars of white soap that smelled like the stereotype of white soap, and garishly floral shampoos.
When I had returned to school after the Riots, finally, I remember feeling mortified to be greeted by a grocery bag full of food.
The school had collected pantry items for children from families that lost their stores. The large brown paper bag was like a scarlet letter that I tried to tuck away under my desk. I didn’t want anyone to acknowledge that we had been “victimized.” I just wanted to be a normal kid with a dishwasher and boxes of crayons and chicken dinners. Not the kid with the canned pork and the nameless toothbrush.
On an existential level, I wanted Colgate or Crest.
My post-Riots humiliation continued to deepen when I found myself, months later in the summer, protesting outside of City Hall with my mother and a group of Korean Americans in mostly khaki and white.
I was carrying a sign that some old person from the local Korean radio station (which organized the protest) told me to hold. I walked in this large circle in front of City Hall, terrified that the news camera might catch my face. (Who wants to get caught by her schoolmates with her unhappy face shining in a protest? Who wants to get caught with a bunch of chump immigrant victims? Chumps!)
And together, we chanted RE-PAH-RAY-SHIONS, RE-PAH-RAY-SHIONS, over and over again for about two hours, sometimes taking breaks until we were shuttled off in vans crammed with our bodies—old ladies, grandfathers, parents, and a few of the unfortunate children who, instead of watching television at home or talking on the phone with friends, had to go to a protest.
I sat on a box in the back of a gutted van which had no seats, probably a car used to transport merchandise to one of our stores, one of our stores that had been looted or destroyed.
Later that night after dinner, I asked my mother, “What does ‘reparations’ mean?”
My mother, who doesn’t speak much English, laughed. “I don’t know.”
All riots begin somewhere. They are part of a long string of uprisings triggered by singular events, traumas that help us define ourselves. They become touchstones. Momentarily, they open the floodgates. We talk about race and class. We find room for these conversations somewhere between commercials.
Yet, it’s the same conversation. And it’s the same commercials.
It’s about injustice, wrongdoing, crime and punishment.
Who is wrong and who is right and how do we make that person, or those people pay?
When we hear those words, injustice and wrongdoing, we think of “Strange Fruit,” Klan members, sit-ins at fountain shops, the spraying of protesters with fire hoses as if to wash away the rage, as if to wash away the skin, Rodney King, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and then Michael Brown.
These incidents are disgusting, horrifying, yet easy for people like me, who don’t live in South Central LA, who don’t live in Ferguson, who don’t know a Rodney King, to get behind. We are not the front lines. These tragedies become apexes of a narrative that satisfy us more than they change anything. They become opportunities for us to define ourselves as (insert category here).
We pick a side. We stand by it.
We find our targets, we aim, we fire.
But what if there were no sides?
What if we were stripped of those binaries? Would we like what we see?
Or, would the threads snap, would our stories be broken?
And then would we have to write new ones?
“Can we all get along? Can we get along?”
When I go into these open houses, I am looking for more than a home. I am looking for me. Like my mother, who went into the apartment full of stolen objects but could not find herself.
We look at crime maps. We put bars on our windows. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, to protect what little we have left, what little we have to define ourselves, because the rest of it may be missing.
 James Baldwin, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” The New York Times (1967)
 Ice Cube, “Black Korea,” Death Certificate (1991)
 Joan Didion, “The White Album” (1968-78)
 James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)
Born and raised in LA, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, Seattle. She’s a former managing editor of The Seattle Review, blogger for The Kenyon Review and nonfiction editor of The James Franco Review. She now lives in the SF Bay Area, where she's working on a novel, as well as personal essays.