This is the first part of a group writing project for Gidra Media. I’m going to invite other writers to link to my story and write their own story of an Asian American experience. My daughter, who is a junior in college, will write a story about growing up half Korean. She grew up in a world that was much less racist to Koreans and she also experienced a great deal of positive feedback for being half Korean. The 2000s were very different for Korean Americans in Los Angeles than the 1970s and 1980s.
By Susan Park
I found out about East Wind, a progressive magazine published by young Chinese Americans from 1945-1948 on East Wind Ezine . The article I link to is worth reading. It’s written in two parts, the first was written by Eddie Wong and the second was written by Steve Louie. Both are what I call “OG Asian American student activists” from the 1960s.
There are multiple narrative threads in the article: 1) East Wind–the long forgotten magazine– and its creators; 2) Wong’s historical context where he imagines being a Chinese American in the 1940s; 3) Louie’s personal stories about his parents’ activism in the 1940s and beyond. He grew up calling the founders of East Wind uncles and aunt; 4) Louie’s family moving from Davis to Los Angeles, specifically La Canada (a suburb of Los Angeles) in the early 1960s; and 5) Excerpts from East Wind.
The entire article resonated deeply with me as a writer, historian, and Asian American. It’s a great example of Asian American writing. There are many stories in one story and many more stories that can be told. YT-Stream media tends to be linear and closed. I love that Wong imagines himself as if he had lived in Cleveland, Ohio circa 1945, in his 20s, writing and publishing East Wind magazine. In other words, his imagination and empathy slip into the shoes of young Chinese Americans from another era. I tried to do the same when I was writing about migrant children at the border, for example. I think about all the forces that descended upon the children. All the webs of historical and current events that ensnared them into cages. All the corporate vultures and government vultures (they are one in the same) that conspired to cage these children. YT-Stream media often treats people of color like lab rats and views events in historical vacuums.
Louie’s story of his father’s house hunt triggered long forgotten memories for me. I was born in 1969 in Seoul, South Korea. My family immigrated to Los Angeles in January 1975. My parents got approval to immigrate to America before I was born, but my father wanted all of his children to be born on Korean soil. Both my parents come from families that were the last generation of Korean aristocrats. I had a very strong sense of my place in society. I was part of the dominant class in a country where everyone was Korean. I loved the little neighborhood my family lived in in Seoul. I did not want to leave Korea and I resented my parents for making our family move to foreign country. When I faced racism, it made me indignant. At the time, I did not realize that my parents were fleeing a military dictatorship under president Park Chung Hee. My parents told me, but I was only 5 years old.
I further resented my parents for wanting to live in a white neighborhood. Koreatown was just forming back then. It had high crime rates and the worst public schools. The violent crime rate in Seoul was extremely low back then. It still is. Neighborhoods with high rates of violent crimes scared my parents. My parents believed that America would be our forever place and it was white dominated. They wanted my two brothers and me to assimilate and attend school with white children because “they had the best schools”. However, my parents always warned us about the perils of being adjacent to whiteness. My parents eventually realized the hidden violence in white neighborhoods and white spaces. There were many times when I have thought, “Why did you bring me to this god forsaken country?”
We stayed with my aunt in the San Fernando Valley for 3 months while my father looked for an apartment. It took 3 months to find an apartment manager who would rent to us. It was in Hollywood. From there it took my father a year to find a house to buy. White real estate agents refused to show my father houses in white neighborhoods and white home owners refused to sell to him. Although racially restrictive covenants were outlawed with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, they were still being practiced. In 1976, My father finally found a house to buy in Pacoima. It was a predominantly Chicano and Mexican neighborhood back then. 2 1/2 years later, in 1978, my parents bought a house in Northridge, when it almost all white. We were the only non-white family in a section of Northridge. For years, I got to be the first Asian child that a non-Asian child ever met. I was their discovery case. Eventually, another Korean family moved into the same block. Then a Filipino family moved in a couple of blocks away. My family was the first to desegregate the neighborhood.
Like Louie, I got into a lot of fights. I’ve long been curious why PoC writers don’t write in more detail about how they reacted to racist taunts and bullying. I wonder if these are YT editors’ choices. Yt people love stories of racial self hatred and calls for passivity as if violent racism can be loved away while our bodies are discarded. I also wonder if PoC authors don’t tell stories of retribution for fear of coming off as violent. I also understand that America has a racial hierarchy and that PoC have different individual and group experiences. I understand that the consequences for my reactions would have been different for other children of color. I never got detention, suspended, or expelled for fighting back.
Responding in self defense and self preservation doesn’t make someone violent. The racist acts and bullying are much more violent than reactions to them. All the incidents I describe happened in middle class and up, predominantly white neighborhoods and spaces.
If another child called me a racial slur, there would be a heated response from me. If another child tried to hit me or physically threaten me, I would respond in kind. Casual Anti-Asian violence was much more common in the 1970s and 1980s by all groups of people, even other people of color. It was unbearable for me to see people try to humiliate my parents because they didn’t speak English. It was unbearable to me to hear people tell my parents to go back to where they came from. My face would get red with anger and humiliation. I couldn’t wait to speak English well enough to talk smack back. I taught myself how to read, write, and speak English the summer before I started kindergarten. I was reading at 2nd or 3rd grade level by the end of summer.
Back then, a lot of Americans thought they could literally push Asians around and get away with it. Television shows often depicted Asians as subservient or as servants. Asian women were depicted as passive flowers or whores. Racist cartoons about Asians were still widely played on television. Asian cartoon characters were based on Yellow Peril propaganda with buck teeth, slits for eyes, and jaundiced skin tones. We were inscrutable, spoke in cryptic ways, never knowable, and forever foreign.
I only lost one fight. I was ambushed after school in 4th grade by a girl that I had never even talked to. She was in 6th grade and weighed at least twice as much as me. She was extremely fat and for all my self defense skills, I just couldn’t put a dent in her. She pinned me down and literally sat on me. My older brother and his friends finally found me at the end of the playground. They were in 6th grade and they struggled to get the girl off me. The next week, my father enrolled me and my brothers in Tae Kwon Do classes. I was the only girl and the youngest member. I had to practice sparring with boys who were older and much bigger than me.
In 4th grade I had to sit next to a white boy who hated my guts because I was smarter than him. He was the smartest kid in school until I came along and he was livid. He would share his father’s theories about Orientals having larger brains because we supposedly had larger heads. It’s the late 1970s and this backwards ass fool is teaching his son phrenology. This boy would scream into my face at least a couple of times a week about how much he hated me because I got better test scores and grades than him.
Our teacher, Mrs. Taylor was a racist cunt, so she did nothing about the verbal attacks. I called her a racist to her face. I also told her that I hated how she smelled like stale cigarettes and I that I knew she was an alcoholic, because she smelled like cheap whiskey. Then one day the boy who sat next to me took his tantrums to another level. He punched me in the arm really hard because I got a 100% on a test and he got 98%. I punched him in the nose and his nose started bleeding. I told my teacher that I hated her and I was going to the office to transfer myself to a different school.
My 2nd grade class had a Japanese American teacher’s aide who attended UCLA. She insisted that I be tested for my I.Q. and she told me that I qualified to attend highly gifted magnet schools that were going to be started in a year or two. I remembered this when I went to the office that day. I asked the school secretary for a magnet school application. She lied to me and said she had never heard of such a thing. She taunted me and said that highly gifted magnets don’t exist. I held my ground. I kept explaining what magnet schools were and I kept asking her different questions while scanning the office looking for papers that looked like applications. When I pointed to a packet behind the counter, the secretary told me those weren’t magnet school applications. I insisted. She gave me a packet. I asked her why she wasted so much time lying to me. She replied, “I know you won’t be accepted at a highly gifted magnet.” I had acted as a translator for my parents since I was 5 years old. I knew how to talk to adults, even lying ones. I hissed, “You’re a liar and it’s none of your business. You’re a secretary and you have no way of knowing what I’m qualified for. I’m getting into the magnet school of my choice. I’m never coming back to this school.” I filled out the application and had my parents sign it. The school secretary and principal called my parents, “We’re sorry. We apologize. Your daughter is so smart and she is a force. We were stunned that a young child had so much composure and will.”
I transferred to a highly gifted magnet school in the middle of 4th grade. I had a Korean American teacher. Her name was Mrs. Oh. Out of the blue one day, she tells me that she will never speak in Korean to me and that she will distance herself from me. She was afraid that she would get accused of favoritism by the other students. She was very cold to me. I hated her. I had done nothing to ingratiate myself with her and I wasn’t the type of child who tried to play teacher’s pet. Quite the contrary. I could be a surly asshole to adults and talk smack at them for being unfair. I hated racism and unfairness so much. Mrs. Oh was my first lesson in racial self-hatred.
In 6th grade a girl named Laurel started taunting to me with racial slurs. As usual, I told her to shut the fuck up. Then one day, she got physical with me. I kicked her on her leg pretty lightly. She fake fell to the ground like I had mortally wounded her. She was wearing knee high socks and it turned out I kicked a scab she already had. She rolled down her sock and pulled the scab off in front of me and squeezed her pre-existing wound to get it to bleed. She looked up at me with a “I got you now, bitch” look in her eyes. She turned around to the other kids and started to cry. She claimed that I kicked her so hard that I cut into a her skin. I cannot fucking believe the bullshit that happened before my eyes. Of course, the other kids believed her because they were mostly white.
Laurel’s mother, a stay at home evangelical Christian, came to school the next day to confront me. I didn’t know about this until it started happening. Besides, my parents had to work and they didn’t speak enough English to advocate for me. Laurel’s mom was really upset that I hurt her daughter. At first, I calmly explained what happened. That Laurel is faking her injury and that she had called me “Chink, Jap, Gook, and Nip” repeatedly for weeks while pulling her eyes back tight. Laurel pushed me first and tried to hit me when I told her to stop. Laurel’s mom told me that she sees nothing wrong with the slurs and the physical bullying. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I expressed my outrage. I called her a racist. She said she doesn’t care. I finally told her that Laurel also said “fuck you” to me. This is the one thing that made Laurel’s mother furious at her and apologize to me. Laurel never bothered me again.
Racism, bullying, and the inability to fight ran in Laurel’s family. Her brother and my 2nd oldest brother (jageun oppa), Tom, went to the same school. Laurel’s brother used to taunt my brother at school with the usual slurs and references to the TV show “Kung Fu”. One day, he pushed my brother and challenged him to a fight. My brother pretended to walk away, but he came back with a jumping roundhouse kick to his jaw and knocked him out. He never bothered my brother again. My brother didn’t get suspended or expelled. He had a Japanese American school counselor who constantly advocated for him. I think his name was Mr. Iguchi. Mr. Iguchi would explain to the other counselors and administrators that Tom was struggling to adjust. Mr. Iguchi reached out to my parents a lot too. He explained cultural differences to them. He explained that racism makes children angry. I met Laurel’s brother when I was in high school. He told me about the incident with my brother. He said he was sorry and that he understands how wrong he was.
Attending magnet schools meant very long bus rides to and from school. Magnet school students generally expressed less racism than other kids and the teachers tried to be more aware of racism. But it was still the 1970s and early 1980s. The school bus was also a safer space for bullies and their audiences. In 6th grade, two boys who had the same bus stop as me relentlessly taunted me with racial slurs, racist characterizations of my features, and misogynistic comments about my features and body. White boys and men think they have the right to comment on Asian girls and womens bodies as if we exist for their consumption. Of course I told them to shut the fuck up. The bus driver refused to do anything. My teachers and school administrators refused to do anything claiming they had to see the boys doing this. They refused to take my word for it and none of the other kids on the bus would bear witness for me. One day, Yuri and Howard started making physical threats. To be clear, Yuri was a Russian Jewish boy, not a Japanese girl. They told me that it was two of them against one of me. They knew that I waited for my brother Tom after I got off the bus. He was in junior high and he got out of school later than me. I usually had to wait about 15 minutes for my brother. Yuri said, “There’s a lot that the two of us can do to you in 15 minutes.” My parents just didn’t take these things seriously. They thought the boys were kidding. I was outraged. Yuri and Howard kept threatening me with physical abuse.
One day, they started circling me after we got off the bus. They were treating me like prey. I was more angry than afraid. At this point, I had taken tae kwon do for a few years and had sparred with boys who were much bigger than Yuri or Howard. I knew that I could beat them both at the same time if I had to. I already had many incidents when a group of kids tried to corner me when adults weren’t around. I was fuming that they were treating me like an animal. I was shaking with outrage at how they tried to fuck with my mind. I shut down on the bus. I stopped responding to Howard and Yuri. They kept sneering that they won. They bragged about how they scared me into silence.
Martial arts taught me to fight like a tiger and a dragon. Tigers react and lunge. Dragons pretend to walk away. They pretend to lose interest. They pretend to go dormant. Dragons use the force and weight of their opponents against them. If I had fought like a dragon against that big girl in 4th grade, I could have won.
I waited for either Howard or Yuri to be absent. Howard didn’t come to school one day. I followed Yuri off the bus. Yuri usually wore a zippered hoodie tied to his waist or around his neck. I grabbed his hoodie and tied it around him like a strait jacket. I punched him, slapped him, and kicked him. He started to cry. He sobbed hysterically. He begged me to let him go and promised not to fight me. I untied his hoodie. Of course, Yuri lied. He started to punch me. I grabbed his shirt by the neck and started twisting it. Yuri was a terrible fighter and he was weak. I told Yuri, “Hit me as hard as you can. I’m not going to cry like you. I’m Korean, I don’t cry when someone hits me.” Yuri hit me as hard as he could for a few minutes. I let him. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t cry. Yuri had another breakdown. He could not bear being humiliated like he and Howard tried to humiliate me. I left Yuri sobbing. Yuri and Howard never bothered me again. I only recently learned that Korean parents hit their kids harder if they cry because it’s a holdover from Japanese occupation. When Japanese soldiers and civilians hit Koreans, we would not cry. No matter how hard they hit us, we would not cry. It was a psychological weapon. We had no other weapons to use other than mind fuck.
Then Yuri was absent one day. I followed Howard off the bus. I started following him. I could see Howard shaking and tensing up. He finally turned around sobbing. Howard was smaller than Yuri. He knew that if I could pummel Yuri, I could obliterate him. He pleaded with me to not hurt him. He was sorry for everything. He begged for mercy. I didn’t say a word. I just let him squirm. I finally told him to get down on his knees and rub his hands together for forgiveness. He complied. This is a Korean thing. Fuck you, Howard.
I have more stories like these. A racist and bully has never stopped the racist taunts and physical threats through peaceful means or measured words. Words don’t stop them. Fighting back stops them. It’s the same with misogynistic, predatory men. Sexual harassment was much more common at schools, in the workplace, and social settings in the 1970s and 1980s. So was physically threatening posturing. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers were much more hostile and violent people than Millennials and Generation Z. Even till the early 1990s it wasn’t uncommon to advise women to not fight back when a man tries to harm them. The idea was that women are too feeble to successfully fight off a man. Nonsense.
When I was 17 years old, two very large white men started taunting my father in front of our house. They were at least 6′ 4″ and weighed over 250 lbs. They were drunk and trying to leave a party. They hit my father’s car lightly. My father told them to be careful. They called him a fucking chink and jap and said they would kick his ass. My father yelled back at them. One of them started punching my dad. I ran into the house and got two iron fireplace pokers. When I went back outside, they were both punching my dad. I struck one of the men in the back of his legs and then his lower back. The other man raised his arms to grab me. I struck him right under his armpit. Tae kwon do taught me weak spots. The both fell like old hardwood trees. Their girlfriends yelled, “Get into the car. We have to leave now. That little girl is going to kill you both.” They left. You see why I will always think about that girl I lost to in 4th grade.
There was no time for me to call the police. The police wouldn’t have come in time. The LAPD didn’t have Korean speaking officers. Besides, my parents were suspicious of the police and state violence since they had lived under a military dictatorship in South Korea. They believed that the police more often escalated situations, rather than diffuse them. This was also about 5 years after the murder of Vincent Chin, which I knew about. Two white autoworkers beat Chin to death because they thought he was Japanese. He was Chinese. Chin looked like one of my cousins. All I could think about was these two big white men beating my father and that my father could die at their hands. The men listened to their girlfriends and left. I doubt that they ever underestimated an Asian woman again.
There was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1970s and 1980s when I was coming of age. Japanese industries were booming. America’s industries weren’t. Vincent Chin was attacked and murdered by two auto workers who thought that he was Japanese. I worked at Union bank from 1988-1990. Every once in awhile an older white customer would say to me, “I know why you work here. It’s because you’re a Jap. The Japs bought this bank. The Japs are buying up America.” There is a special sting for a Korean person to be mistaken for Japanese and called racial slurs. Instead of reverting to nationalism, these sorts of events formed my Asian American identity. There is no escaping “All rook same” for Asians in America. I started reading more Asian American history. Divided, we lose. United, we won in the sugar plantations of Hawaii and the farms of California. I read about Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese American activists. who helped make life in America more just for me than it was for them. America’s race policies are like musical chairs. Racists and oppressors don’t care about the fine print. “All rook same”.
I learned about Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps. It was extremely difficult for me to look at more than a few photos because the parents and children looked like my family. I learned about the rise of Japanese American political activism and advocacy for Asian Americans. It made sense to me why the Japanese American teacher’s aide in my second grade class advocated for me and why Mr. Iguchi did the same for my brother in junior high. I would have similar experiences again and again with Japanese Americans. I am not claiming that I absorbed all this at a young age. I introduced myself to these events and ideas. There was a long arc to resolving the tension between honoring my parents and grandparents’ experiences and memories; and standing in solidarity with Japanese Americans. There were times when I argued with my parents to put the past behind them. They eventually realized that they were making false choices. It’s not either or. You can do both. I understand why my parents can never completely forget the past.
Other Asians had issues with different Asian groups too. Nationalism and gripes from the old countries often spilled over into intra-Asian American relations. My mother’s half Korean and half Taiwanese friend opened a small Pan-Asian supermarket in the San Fernando Valley. Her Korean customers constantly complained that she favored her Taiwanese customers and had more Taiwanese goods. Her Taiwanese customers complained that she favored her Korean customers and had more Korean goods. Almost every single day, a customer would tell her to choose one side over the other.
My Japanese American friends were told by their parents to not tan, otherwise they will “look Cambodian”. Korean parents told their kids that if they tanned, they will “look Filipino”. East Asians can be racist against Southeast Asians. My oldest brother has naturally curly hair and tans very deeply. People assumed he was a Mexican child towards the tail end of every summer. My Mexican friends often had a relative or friend they called “Chinito” or “Chinita”. I overheard my Filipino friends tease another Filipino child for having “Chinky” eyes. Sometimes the Mexican kids at school would chase me and my brothers singing, “Chino, chino, japonés: come caca y no me des.” My brothers and I would respond, “So so, Mexico. You go first, I’ll go last. I’ll be there to kick your ass.” A boy on the bus was teased for being “high yellow”, “You think you’re better than us.”
Growing up, most of the schools I went to had some measure of diversity. My parents always told me that everyone is created equal but that the laws aren’t fair. They used the word 인간, human being, often to describe a person. They often said things like, “No matter what the surface differences are, you must remember that we are the same 인간. When you see someone suffering, you must see their humanity first.”
My father in particular constantly reminded me that nobody can own my mind. Koreans had survived 43 years of genocidal conditions, whether it was the cultural genocide of Japanese occupation (death estimates vary widely, it was as high as 1 million) or the actual genocide of the Korean Civil war (a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia) that left almost 5 million Koreans dead. The entire peninsula was decimated. My father passionately stressed that when the world saw nothing but poverty and destruction, Koreans still owned their minds. My mind is my most cherished family heirloom. My dad was also great at the art of insults, trash talking, and talking shit back to assholes. He loved Muhammad Ali.
In diverse classrooms, I benefited from the model minority myth as a light East Asian girl. While my teachers didn’t help me when I was taunted with racial slurs and bullying, they also didn’t punish me when I fought back. I could see that my friends who were darker, even darker Asian, were punished more frequently and more severely. The most I got was a stern talking to. Unfairness always bothered me, even when I benefited from it. I hated school for many reasons. The work was too easy and I had a lot of idle time. I also hated the white supremacy that was woven into textbooks, social interactions, and almost everything else in school. In early elementary school, my teachers let me blow through school work at my own pace. I sometimes asked to go to the school library on my own because I had finished all my school work for the week, the month, or even the rest of the year.
Whether it was in a predominately Mexican or White school, the tail end of diversity was usually me and a couple of black kids. The friendships typically started because neither one of us were part of any majority. I didn’t know that Phil and Michael were black. I just knew that they weren’t Mexican or Asian. Other kids whispered it to me when they saw us playing handball together. Why did they whisper? I noticed that my teachers preferred lighter complected or biracial black children. I noticed they were colder to darker black children. Johan was my foursquare buddy. My parents never taught me American racial constructs, because they were entirely educated in Korea and they never learned them. To this day, my parents don’t understand American racial constructs completely.
I was also curious why Hispanic children were like white children in sorting and categorizing other children by race. They were the most on top of this shit. They were the most sure of themselves when it came to telling other children what their racial characteristic were. I later learned about Spanish Colonial caste systems.
South Korea was a very poor country when my family left. Koreans always helped other Koreans. It was shocking to me that American children teased other children for looking poor or accused them of being poor. Later on as an adult, I learned that American racial constructs were created during slavery and perpetuated to racialize all PoC labor. There is contempt for poor people in the Anglo-American traditions. It’s written into laws.
It was in the school library where I hunted for books written by non-white authors and books written about non-white people. In 2nd grade, I found a book about Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who was a poet. The positive tone of the book disturbed me. First of all, she was a slave. Why did America have enslave people? Why was it such a big deal that an enslaved woman was “allowed” to read and write? Why was her nominally better life such a grand event? To me, this meant that the lives of other enslaved people must have been terrible. Who were they? I hated doing chores with a passion. I hated adults telling me what to do. I knew there were a lot of very stupid adults. I despised corporal punishment. I could never believe there were happy slaves. This was also when Koreans had a big gripe about our history not being known by others. My parents always said, “The winners write history and Koreans weren’t the winners.” It was natural for me to look for the hidden histories of others. I understood the pain of being invisibilized very well. Johan was my friend. I wondered how his family came to America.
Since I was attending a predominantly Chicano and Mexican school at the time, I had a few friends who told me they were “illegal”. It shocked and scared me that my friend Martin and his family, who had lived in Los Angeles since he was 2 years old, could be deported. I found out in my 20s that he was deported. Martin didn’t speak Spanish. I started reading about the history of Mexico, California, and about PoC movements. I realized that I had benefited from so man POC and Black activists who lived before me. I read about the Chicano student walkouts in Los Angeles and the Black Civil Rights Movement.
Fighting back had many positive outcomes for me. First of all, there were times when children and adults threatened me with great physical harm, even death threats. I saved my own life many times and my father’s once. Secondly, I have reformed people. Some of the people I reacted to came back to me later as profoundly changed and even happier people. Thirdly, it makes them think twice about perpetuating their nasty and harmful behavior against others. Sometimes they stop completely.