Lately, I have been reading background material “ books, blogs, news articles “ on the Korean American experience. I am working on a novel that involves the 1992 Rodney King Riots (sa-i-gu, in Korean: the April 29th Incident) as background, and more specifically, the experience of Korean Americans during and after the Riots. Though I thought I had some understanding, I wanted to fill out my picture. This is especially important for Yong Soo Bok, a character in the novel who has since become the subject of a short story (tentatively titled, “Fire Illness”).
I have never studied Korean or Korean American culture before. As I learn more, I am somewhat embarrassed by how much I let mainstream media tell me what I should think. Everything I’ve read, especially works published after the Riots, seems aimed to dispel stereotypes and replace them with a fuller picture of Korean Americans as (displaced) individuals.
One of the misconceptions is that Korean Americans are more or less natural entrepreneurs, which is why they’ve thrived as such in America. Nothing seems to be further from the truth. One book in particular put this in perspective for me: Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965-1982 (Light and Bonacich). After a long, exhaustive, largely dry (but engaging) work of research, the book ends with an almost poetic plea for understanding the difficulties endured by Korean immigrants. In many ways, the book is summed up in one sentence:
Being an immigrant entrepreneur is a joyless existence.
Now, my job as a writer is somehow to relate that simple declarative sentence to readers in a way that is accurate (because it’s an important story) and entertaining (so the reader will read to the end), but without being exploitative (seeing as I have no connection to the Korean American experience).