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Creating a better life for children of saigu

Korean American academics discuss the effects of the L.A. riots, Korea's division and Virginia Tech rampage.

June 10, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Korean Americans have two expressions that reflect the ongoing, often visceral forces unleashed during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

One is saigu, which stands for April 29, 1992, the day thousands of Korean Americans -- many of them uninsured or underinsured -- lost their life savings in the looting and fires.

The other is han, a word that has no English counterpart but suggests the suffering caused by tragedies, such as the Japanese occupation of Korea, the division of the country into north and south, and the murderous rampage by Seung-hui Cho at Virginia Tech.

On Saturday, about 60 Korean American scholars and students gathered in a UCLA auditorium to take stock of the lingering effects of those events, and how lessons learned can be used to adapt the academic mission of Korean American studies for, as one student put it, the "children of saigu."

Among the conferees was UCLA graduate student Christine N. Lee, who was 9 years old in 1992 and the only Korean American in an Orange County elementary school classroom of mostly Latino and Vietnamese students.

"I remember how my Italian American teacher called on me to give the Korean American perspective," Lee said. "I don't remember what I said in class. But I do remember the hushed, fearful conversations of my parents, the frantic cries on the Korean radio stations, the boxes of ramen dropped off at a donation center in Garden Grove."

She continued: "The fiery images, the anguished voices, the tearful faces and hopeful chants of 'We want peace' still burn and reverberate in my mind's eye. It's hard to believe that so much time has gone by, and how much Koreatown has recovered since then."

But like many others at the event sponsored by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Lee also said that "if you look closely" at the Koreatown district just west of downtown Los Angeles, "you might also notice" the charred remains of buildings that were never rebuilt, the continuing loss of affordable housing and the undocumented Korean immigrants "living in the shadows."

Saigu revealed clashing ethnic interests in Los Angeles. Now, han -- its emotional wounds -- may be why more Korean immigrants are choosing to settle outside of California, according to UC Santa Barbara immigration scholar John Park, a panelist at the event.

Also, some Korean Americans are leaving Southern California for other states, including Texas, North Carolina and Georgia.

"California still has the largest population of Koreans -- at least 350,000 people as of 2000," Park said, "but Georgia's population of Koreans grew by 88% between 1990 and 2000 to about 30,000 persons."

Changing immigration patterns are not the only trends opening potential new channels of academic exploration for Korean American studies programs.

People of Korean ancestry -- a demographic category of 1.3 million people, or about 10% of the Asian population in the United States -- are becoming increasingly poor.

Korean Americans have among the highest poverty rates among Asian Americans, and relatively low rates of home ownership, Park said.

Also grist for study: Increasing numbers of second-generation Korean Americans are moving to Korea and pursuing teaching careers, business opportunities and missionary work.

"Why is this happening?" Park asked. "We need to find out."

Lee agreed.

"Many of us were too young to comprehend the implications of saigu," she said. "Now is a pivotal time to apply the lessons learned over the past 15 years to produce a new generation of leaders."

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