Swapping Lessons : In Black-Korean Conflict, Both Sides Gain a Better Understanding

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Michael Yoon, owner of the L. A. Slauson Swapmeet, saw members of the African-American community picketing his store and calling for a boycott of Korean-American merchants recently, his heart sank.

The pain was not because of lost sales. The hurt came from the realization that his good intentions and personal efforts to establish positive relations with the community were not enough. His sense of anguish mounted as he realized that the disaffected patrons were protesting more than alleged mistreatment by some Korean merchants, a phenomenon occurring in many major cities across the nation. As African-Americans, they were reacting to a lifetime of real and perceived injustice, disrespect--institutionalized discrimination.

He knew from his Army days with black servicemen that Korean-Americans and African-Americans had much in common: the negative experience of being an oppressed minority; the positive experience of devotion to family; deeply held Christian beliefs, and an emotional openness and zest for life.

That the differences in cultural style, the language barrier and, most important, the desperate competition to survive in the ghettos to which white America had relegated them now made potential allies seem like enemies weighed heavily on Yoon as he spoke one afternoon in his office at the swap meet.

"I have been in business for a long time," he says. "I had a hamburger stand in this area for 10 years before the swap meet and never had any problems. I made a lot of friends."

He knew that there had been conflicts between Korean-born merchants and black patrons in New York. But in Los Angeles, in his swap meet, "I really didn't think there was a big problem."

The pickets, organized by an embryonic grass-roots group named OMNI (Organization of Mutual Neighborhood Interest), called for a boycott of Korean-American merchants, who, they allege, have been rude to black customers and have conducted business without established exchange or refund policies.

But those concerns are only the "tip of the iceberg," says Jay Lee, general manager of the swap meet.

Many blacks perceive Korean-American merchants who do business in their neighborhoods as economic exploiters, he says, shopkeepers who take from but give nothing back to a black community. Further, many blacks complain that Asian-American merchants have become the new middlemen in their communities and regard black people as inferior.

"I thought I was doing a lot of good for the community," Yoon says between puffs of a cigarette and speaking, when he needs to clarify his thoughts, through an interpreter.

"I thought that, 'If I just do my part, I will be OK.' But after talking to the group OMNI, I realized that the entire Korean-American community should be notified" of the problems and steps needed to remedy them.

After meeting with OMNI representatives, the swap meet management met with its tenants, among whom "there was a lot of self-criticism on how they had treated customers and how it makes good business sense to make customers happy no matter what the circumstances are," Lee wrote to OMNI.

Further, the swap meet agreed to develop a customer service complaint system and hire a black customer representative; establish a clearly posted 72-hour return and exchange policy; have merchants indicate their name, location or booth number on all receipts, and provide English-as-a-second-language training for Korean merchants. The swap meet's management also agreed to recruit black youth for employment through the Urban League and Crenshaw High School.

As the responses to OMNI's concerns indicate, the group's complaints had "some justification," says Lee.

"Typical merchant-versus-customer" problems, but not racism, he stresses.

"Customers come here expecting us to be a department-store type of operation where one corporation handles all aspects of the business," Lee says. "But here I have 170 or so individual store owners. They all have different store policies," and when a misunderstanding occurred, it was exacerbated by the language barrier.

That, he says, is the biggest problem. "Communication is barred by lack of language skills. Koreans have a big problem learning English. Also, customers come in and have a tendency to use language that is not polite."

OMNI members have asserted that Korean merchants have yelled racial slurs at black customers and made other insensitive comments. "Slauson Swapmeet Inc. recognizes the problem," Lee wrote OMNI in a memo. "However, this mistreatment is also taking place by customers to tenants a lot more often."

Lee says the problem comes "especially from the younger generation. They tend to be more aggressive in using their language and lots of four-letter words, literally." On the Korean side of it, "they want to say something, they want to express themselves and it just doesn't come out."

Lee, 32, came to America from Seoul 10 years ago. He remembers his difficulty with the language: "I used to say 'You people, you people' " all the time. He didn't know how alienating and offensive the phrase sounded, especially to black people.

Many of the Korean-born store owners, who are actually tenants renting space from the swap meet, "know a few words like 'Go,' or 'Come back later,' " explains Lee. "That tends to be perceived as aggressiveness." But if you don't know the language, that's easier to say than "Please leave," or "Please come back later."

Again, he points out, this is how the problem between the two communities appears on the surface: "The iceberg is bigger."

He recalls his early life in Korea.

"We did not have much to eat. My brother and I fight, always, over food, or whatever. I perceive blacks and Koreans in the same way. So little given to us in this society, it's like sibling fighting. But there, I know that even if I fight with my brother, he is my brother. If somebody bothers him, I'm going to get on the other guy."

The problem, he acknowledges, is that blacks and Koreans don't see that they share common ground.

"Blacks and Koreans did not create this situation"--both scrambling for a piece of the social and economic pie thrown to them. "It is the social structure," he contends.

How can they become allies? "By the interchange of cultures and information," he says.

The Black-Korean Alliance, sponsored by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, "is talking about getting us involved in joint business ventures," says Lee. "But we have to be closer on a personal level before we start doing business."

On a December evening just before Christmas, and the same day Lee is calling for closer personal relations with African-Americans, Jan Ford Atkins of OMNI sits in the basement of Faith United Methodist Episcopal Church.

The "language barrier" is not the only problem, she says. Not when you have Korean business people yelling racial epithets at blacks, as OMNI members allege.

"It's something Korean merchants don't want to correct," she says. Even if the problem stems from their lack of fluency in English, "I don't feel that we should have to learn their rude ways and accept it because they are here."

Then she says in a flat, bitter tone: "I don't know what it's like to go into a foreign country and be free. I just know how it is to be raised the way I am here. I don't know how it is to take a culture somewhere and have to adjust because my culture was taken away. So there's a lot of that I don't understand," when it comes to Koreans.

Earlier that day, Yoon recalled what life had been like for him when he emigrated to America in 1973.

He joined the Army. After three years, his wife and daughter came. "I probably had 10 jobs at the beginning--dishwasher, busboy, janitor, cook, 7-Eleven cashier, lots of things."

Did his wife work? "Sure," he says, "waitress, sewing."

Much of the little they earned went to a baby-sitter for their daughter, Patty. Often, however, they'd take the child with them when they worked at night. She'd study in one corner of the building while they did the cleaning.

Patty Yoon is 19 now and a pre-law major at USC.

"When I was younger, I was one of those latch-key children," she says. "I always felt I was different from everyone else. My parents told me I could not think of myself as a typical kid from the States. They taught me to be an overachiever because that was the only way to get ahead."

Her parents worked "365 days a year," she recalls in a phone interview. And she resented it.

"I felt a lot of frustration that they had to work so hard, so long. I wondered why they just couldn't enjoy life for what it is. But I also felt really proud of them and wanted to be like them, too."

Like most immigrants, first-generation Korean-Americans are driven by "desperation" to survive in a hostile environment, says Lee.

"When I came here, I worked at a gas station." In Korea, he had been a financial adviser. "I was good with numbers." But when people approached him at the gas station and he couldn't speak English they would snap: "What's the problem with you? Can't you count to 10?"

When something like that happens, he says, it "shocks" you. "You realize you cannot leave this legacy to a second generation." That's why Korean immigrants work day and night. "They get this desperation, this urgency that they must prepare themselves and their children for the future."

When Patty Yoon saw the pickets outside her father's swap meet she felt "outraged," at first.

"They could have tried to contact us first before doing this," she says. "I attended a meeting we had with them and it was basically the language problem they were stressing. They have to understand that Koreans have only come here recently, most only know a couple of words in English. They should try to understand our point of view, too."

Like many Korean-Americans who have gotten to know African-Americans, Patty says there are many cultural similarities between the groups. Christianity is strong in both communities and the church an important social institution. Both groups share a deep attachment to family, as well.

"Asians and blacks have strong family ties from what I've seen," says Patty Yoon.

She says she knows that goes against the stereotype many hold of blacks.

"But from what I've seen among my friends, it's very important. More so than among Caucasians, who, when they talk about family, think that if you are 18 you are on your own. I don't see that with Asian or black families." And for both groups, family is more than mom, dad and siblings; they both believe in the extended family.

Further, compared with many other Asian-American groups, "Koreans are much more open," says Lee, much like African-Americans. And, among Koreans, as among blacks, "once you become friends, you become friends for good," he says. "It is really that simple."

The L.A. Slauson Swapmeet management is still looking for a black customer-relations person in response to OMNI's demands. But for the time being, they are using a man who seems to be an ideal bridge between the two communities: Jeff Park, African-American on his father's side, Korean on his mother's. He was born in Seoul, speaks Korean fluently and came to the United States five years ago.

He enters Yoon's office with a slight bow, then asks if he may speak Korean. Lee translates.

When black customers see him, they assume he is an African-American, he says. When he opens his mouth and speaks Korean, "they are not so much surprised as they are resentful," he says. "They really don't like it." They suspect that he will side with a Korean merchant in a dispute.

"But that's not so," he says. "If you think logically, it really doesn't matter that my mother is Korean and my father is black."

Actually, he says, many of the blacks who seem to resent him are people who "envy that I speak two languages."

Since the boycott, OMNI spokesman Ward Wesley says the group has been happy with the response of the L.A. Slauson Swapmeet management. Wesley says the group would like to resolve problems with other Korean-American merchants without picketing. Toward that end, OMNI plans to invite Korean-American swap meet owners throughout Los Angeles to a general meeting in February to discuss customer concerns and solutions.

In December, however, the group picketed the Inglewood department store owned by Paul Cho and managed by his brother David Cho, although the management has underwritten scholarships for black youth and has a black public relations representative, Victor Harris--to whom the Chos referred all questions.

OMNI members, however, say they want to see more blacks hired by the store.

The Chos have been happy to cooperate with OMNI, says Ford. "They are not angry with us. They understand and respect what we are doing."

In fact, her dealings with the Chos have altered her vision of tensions between African-Americans and Korean immigrants.

Weeks after her hostile comments in the basement of a church she says: "I had thought it was them against us. It's not. They are trying and willing to work with people in the community. . . . I think things can be worked out."

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