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An illustration showing an older man talking with a young woman in one corner, and a "thought bubble" filled with people carrying a South Korean flag, soldiers, men with guns, a pregnant woman, and a palm tree. The image is flanked by an illustration of a man on one side, and a child in Korean traditional dress on the other.
Artist Rosalyn Yoon's depiction of her father's immigrant experience as he's told it to her, including 1980s protests in South Korea and the 1992 unrest in L.A.
(Illustrations by Rosalyn Yoon/Montage by Dan Carino, LAist)
A Family’s Search For ’Some Kind Of Haven’
Not long after fleeing unrest in their own country, they encountered it again in L.A.
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In 1986, my dad left South Korea, the only home he ever knew.

During the early 1980s, pro-democracy civilians fought against the military regime and corrupt dictatorship of the Korean government and president at the time.

In 1980, not long after soldiers killed possibly hundreds of protesters in the city of Gwangju, my dad was among the throngs of protesters in Seoul calling for human rights. As he has told me the story, that turned violent and deadly, too. He witnessed innocent people shot on the streets while he was pelted with pepper spray and surrounded by mobs of police.

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The Korean government at the time seized my family’s assets, including the successful publishing business my grandfather had started and the childhood home my dad grew up in.

A group of 10 young men standing on a brown field, nine of them with graphic black stripes blocking out parts of their faces. They are dressed in clothing from the 1980s.
(Photo and illustration courtesy of Rosalyn Yoon)

After everything was taken from them, my family decided to move to America. Their intent was to escape the violence they had experienced in South Korea and build new lives with the help of family members in Los Angeles, who agreed to sponsor them for green cards.

They had no idea that some of what they’d hoped to escape back home, they would also encounter here.

Heart Of Koreatown, 1992

My dad was 24 when they arrived in L.A.

In the heart of Koreatown, my grandparents, my dad, and three of his siblings lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment.

My mom, whom my dad had already planned to marry before he left, joined them in 1988 after my dad sponsored her as his spouse.

It was a stark contrast to the five-bedroom house they’d lived in before in Cha Gyung Kim, a suburb on the outskirts of Seoul. My great-uncle, who was an architect, had personally designed and built the family’s home.

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Here, they had nothing. Because of his financial hardship, my dad applied for aid so he could finish his schooling at Los Angeles City College.

Initially, my dad had imagined he could receive a better education in America, but he was quickly disillusioned by the high cost of living and of higher education.

About This Series
  • This story is part of a new LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.

Dad had earned enough credits to transfer and had been accepted to UC Santa Barbara when I unexpectedly came along, followed soon after by my brother. He ended up not going.

Once I was born, my parents suddenly had medical bills, too: I was born with spina bifida, and immediately had to have surgery.

To support us, my dad took a job at a Korean grocery store. This was not the American dream my family had aspired to, but they made do and adjusted.

But on April 29, 1992, after having escaped the riots and unrest in Korea, they endured a painfully similar experience here in Los Angeles.

As new immigrants, my parents had little awareness of the killing of Latasha Harlins by a local Korean store owner, or of the beating of Rodney King by police, and the racial tensions these incidents had stirred up by the time the unrest began.

The supermarket where my dad worked was at Olympic and Harvard boulevards, directly in the middle of where much of the destruction and violence occurred.

On one side of the street, hundreds of people scoured the streets, looting everything in sight from televisions to large pieces of furniture. On the opposite side, as my dad tells the story, a crowd moved toward the supermarket where my dad worked. People threw Molotov cocktails, destroying several family storefronts whose owners had no relation to either of the tragic events that had happened.

When my dad became aware of what was happening, after the store employees heard from other Korean markets on the same street, he urgently tried to notify his boss on the phone of what was happening. His boss, who had taken the day off, was at a Dodgers game; he only responded when the game was stopped.

My dad stayed at the store, afraid to lose his job if he left.

A black and white photo shows a woman with dark hair, at left, with two young children.
(Photo and illustration courtesy of Rosalyn Yoon)

Meanwhile, my mom, my brother, and I took shelter in our apartment near First Street and Western Avenue, while my dad and his co-workers barricaded the market’s perimeter with shopping carts. They kept watch on the rooftop. Some men were armed.

My dad didn’t own a gun, but some men had rifles. I imagine it must have been terrifying for both my parents, having moved to America after escaping violent unrest back home.

‘The Greatest Nation On Earth’

My dad was a believer in America as the land of opportunities. At the time, even with hardship and traumatic events the family experienced here, he felt the need to earn his place. He wasn’t above starting over from the bottom, but like most people, he expected to reap the benefits of his strong work ethic.

Witnessing America’s broken system through decades of living here, his perspective has changed. America may have more resources, but it all comes with so many hurdles.

So much of American culture is based on being “the greatest nation on earth,” yet this nation persistently cultivates racism, alienation, and greed. I’ve seen how America has a way of swaying foreigners to do as much as possible to integrate into American society, while at the same time reminding them that they will never truly belong. They are betrayed by its lack of loyalty.

My dad risked his life for the welfare of a supermarket, staying put at work through the worst of the violence in April 1992. Yet after decades of labor there the owner, a fellow immigrant from Korea, abruptly laid him off to save money.

America is also the first place my family experienced racism, and that continues to this day. My dad continues to be addressed as a foreigner, even though he’s a hard-working U.S. legal resident who can fluently speak English. He tells me he has experienced so much racism that he’s used to it by now.

My dad’s immigration story has made me question the American dream, and wonder if my family went chasing after a fantasy.

American ‘Foreigner’

As for me, I only know life in America. I was born and raised here.

But even though I am second-generation, thoroughly American, I’m also treated like a foreigner for the way I look. I never learned much of Korean history and culture during my childhood, yet I still occasionally get asked by Americans with deep-seated ignorance where I’m from, or how I learned to speak English.

When I was younger, there was hardly any Asian representation in the media. At school, friends would make jokes about Asian stereotypes, and I’d pass it off as them trying to be funny. Looking back, I wish I’d stood up for myself, but I didn’t, because if I confronted it, it would mean my friends were racist.

I acknowledge there are people who don’t have any racist intent, but sometimes, when people try too hard to look unprejudiced, it creates a different type of alienation for me. When people go out of their way to seem more inclusive, I find it disingenuous. Even now, I sometimes feel like the token Asian friend.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a change in popular media, where there’s more of an effort toward inclusivity. But when I see exaggerated attempts to not be racist on TV, in movies or in advertisements, it feels like it’s done more for the sake of looking good. It doesn’t feel like much of an effort toward truly ending racism.

And even though I was born here, my feelings about the American experience are similar to those of my father, who has struggled here as an immigrant.

The surgery I had as a baby was a success, but around a decade later, I started having trouble walking. Another spinal surgery affected the lower half of my body. I’m now 33 and since then, I’ve had around 30 back and foot surgeries. It’s still an ongoing issue.

This definitely made for a hard time for my parents, especially with the added financial burden of all the medical costs. And as an adult, I’m still having to fight to keep my health insurance.

I’m eligible for MediCal, but there’s a cap on what I can earn every year — if I exceed it, I’ll lose my coverage. If I were to transition to private insurance, I fear being burdened with medical debt since I see so many specialists. I work as a freelance illustrator, and gig work is not reliable.

A photo of a teenage boy in khakis and a white shirt, with illustrations of books, notebooks, pencils and pens above his head.
(Photo and illustration courtesy of Rosalyn Yoon.)

When I ask my dad why he continues to stay in America, he tells me his main reason is so he can keep his Social Security benefits, which he earnestly worked for.

He works as a truck driver these days, and he offers no thoughts on the dreams he came here with.

What even is the American dream when foreigners and Americans who don’t fit neatly into a box are never fully welcomed? Some foreigners have this idea of America being some sort of haven. And for some, it has been that. But America is also just another country that struggles with its own advantages and drawbacks.

Knowing what I know about life in America, as both a citizen and from my family’s immigrant perspective, what I would like is for America to own up to its flaws, not just the nation’s achievements. I wish for Americans to work towards kindness and inclusivity that is genuine.

  • Rosalyn Yoon is a Korean American artist living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She lives with her husband, three cats and one dog, who are great inspirations for her work. 

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