“No. NO. There’s no way I’m staying behind. I’ll be fine. I’m coming too. Period. So let’s go already. We’re wasting time!”
Never before in my 17 relatively normal years of existence did I imagine my world could be threatened so alarmingly, without warning, and in such a defenseless way.
The backdrop: My folks had finally achieved their version of “the American dream.” Quiet, meek, university-educated Dad had come to America 20 years prior with no connections, no money and very little grasp of the English language, to juggle three menial jobs a day and save up enough to send for his wife and firstborn in Korea a year later. A few years after that Dad saved up enough to move the family (which now included me) cross-country by car and open a children’s clothing shop. The shop later became a Footlocker-type business, expanded to add a second and third store, all in the commercial district of Huntington Park, Los Angeles County, serving the city’s mostly working-class Latino residents. Eventually, he was even able to buy a house in the quiet suburbs of Orange County. But as it goes with small businesses, there were no planned benefits, pensions, or insurance. The store profits were it. Dad, my unspoken hero, had worked 365 days a year, for too many years to count, to provide for us.
And now, after three days of watching the nonstop news coverage of the ’92 riots, which began in angry protest of the Rodney King decision (the acquittal of four LAPD officers who’d severely beaten King after a high-speed police pursuit) but somehow morphed into a savage, irrational excuse for people to vandalize and loot businesses across county, it became all too real and personal. A telephone call to the police confirmed that our store blocks were hit hard but the cops had no manpower to check individual shops. No one could help us. It was live or die, our livelihood rested in our hands (and thank God, His), and we were going to have to take action. We could lose everything. So Mom, Dad and older (then 18) Brother would each drive to the stores separately, fill the cars up with whatever merchandise was left, and bring it home.
I offered to drive a fourth car. At first, they objected vehemently in fear for my safety. And in retrospect, it probably wasn’t safe for a teenaged Korean girl to be driving and walking through the middle of the riots. Why? We were in a sad period of Los Angeles’ history marked by heated racial tensions among some black and Korean communities, stemming largely from a growing presence of Korean merchants in South Central L.A. (at least half an hour’s drive from my parents’ stores), cultural differences, language barriers, and the recent, infamous probation sentencing of a female Korean storekeeper who shot and killed 9th grader Latasha Harlins over the theft of a stupid bottle of OJ.
Camouflaging myself as best I could, I tucked my long hair up in a tight bun, wrapped it in a bandana and hid it under a baseball cap, threw on an oversized flannel shirt, baggy jeans and some sneakers, and drove one car to our closest store. Sure enough, the storefront window glass was shattered and most of the storefront sneakers and sports apparel gone. Auspiciously, however, our stockroom was large, pitch black, had high ceilings and light switches that were impossible to find without prior knowledge of their location. So the looters couldn’t find their way to the most prized and pricey items. We quickly filled the largest car, a Cadillac, to near-bursting with merchandise, and my parents shoved me into the car and commanded me to drive straight home and wait. This time, I wasn’t feeling so dauntless, so I didn’t object.
Driving alone towards the oblivious, untouched suburbs of Orange County, I heard sirens. Loud sirens. Police sirens. Close sirens. Behind me. And now the flashing lights. I pulled over very slowly. Now, every inch of the passenger compartment was stuffed. So I had no view of my right-side rearview mirror, I had no view in my central rearview mirror, and all I could see of what may be behind me was the limited view thru my left-side rear view mirror. In it, I saw a squad car, one squad car. Then I heard a loud, authoritative male voice coming through an amplifier.
“ROLL YOUR WINDOWS DOWN SLOWLY. PLACE BOTH HANDS OUTSIDE THE WINDOW. OPEN THE VEHICLE DOOR FROM THE OUTSIDE AND STEP OUT SLOWLY.”
(deep breath) Ok, ok, it’s cool. But then I step out. And lo and behold, not one, not two, not even three or four, but five squad cars are encircling me from behind. And each with its front two doors wide open and a cop kneeling behind each door with his gun pointed straight at me. ME. That’s ten guns…pointed at me…in the middle of a loud, busy city street. I started to walk towards them, blubbering my explanation…
“SHUT UP!! Don’t move! Keep your f*cking hands in the air!”
“No, get down! Down on the ground! NOW! Face DOWN!”
So there I was, trembling, laying face down on the filthy asphalt, spread eagle, with my hands still up behind my head. I wanted to cry. I started to tell the cops that Dad’s business card was in my pocket but the second my hand moved a millimeter in that direction, their cursing and shouting resumed. (Note to self: Don’t reach for your pant pockets when cops have ten guns on you.) Understandably, the cops were on edge. It was a scary time. They didn’t know who I was. They couldn’t see a young Asian girl from the suburbs. They saw what looked like a l’il punk looter driving a big Caddy loaded with more brand-new Nikes than anyone had any business (or so it would seem) driving around.
Finally, they listened. They corroborated my story with Dad over the phone, and let me go with a warning that “this may happen to you again on your drive home.” (gulp) Fantastic.
I made it home bullet-free and in one piece. As did Mom, Dad and Brother. And we dealt with the aftermath of the vandalism and temporary store closing as a family. We got through it. And by the time the storm calmed, we had learned a thing or two – about survival, strength, courage, and tolerance. Upon returning home that day, young, upset and scared Brother started spewing out racial slurs against Latinos (for looting us), but Dad got mad.
“Don’t ever say that! Those people are our customers. Some are our longtime, trusted employees and friends. Their purchases sustain us. Their money pays for our food, our clothes, our home.”
And of course, Dad was right. It’s so easy, especially in grim moments like that, to make judgments, universalize and stereotype. But if you think about it, that’s part of the problem, the very circular, self-perpetuating problem. Misplaced fear and anger can breed such irrational judgments and stereotypes, which only provoke fear and anger in “the other”, breeding irrational judgments and stereotypes in them….and so on and so on. Let’s not perpetuate the cycle, people.
Only in my adulthood have I come to fully appreciate my past, my parents’ struggles as immigrants or small business owners, and my unglamorous roots. All these things gave me, without my realizing it, a broader perspective about reality, taught me the value of a strong work ethic, of courage, and of relatability to and forgiveness of “others.” After all, we are all “others” to someone.