The damage went deep
Twenty years ago, they came to Dr. Man Chul Cho suffering from symptoms of hwa-byung, the “anger sickness” of Korean folklore: They couldn’t sleep, felt anxious and depressed, had muscle aches and stomach pains.
They had survived the riots, but couldn’t forget. Some were considered fierce defenders -- they’d battled looters in public shootouts. Others had been all but invisible, pleading vainly for help from police while their shops burned.
They were so angry, bewildered and frightened that they were willing to buck custom and culture and trust a stranger for therapy.
The 1992 riots have a name in their community: sa-i-gu, Korean for 4/29, the same sort of shorthand as 9/11.
Koreans suffered outsized losses: More than 2,000 Korean-run businesses were damaged or destroyed, with an estimated $400 million in losses. Two-thirds were not insured.
But the cost went deeper. Many Koreans lost their bearings in the L.A. riots.
“They felt betrayed. It was overwhelming,” said Cho, who coordinated counseling for thousands. “They said, ‘I can tolerate that my business burns.’ But their psychological anger toward this society -- that was more intolerable.”
Most were immigrants with little money or education. “They looked at America like heaven,” Cho said.
They did not know whom to blame in the riots’ messy tableau of racial violence and class warfare.
The looters? The police who failed to protect their shops? The Simi Valley jury that acquitted the officers of beating Rodney King?
Like their black customers, many Koreans thought the verdict was unjust. “They were sympathetic,” Cho said. “Then they were destroyed.”
And 20 years later, he said, no one seems to think about them anymore.
Cho spent decades counseling trauma victims, with two stints as a military doctor and 20 years running mental health programs for Asians and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles.
Still, he was surprised by the response when he conducted an American-style outreach to Korean victims in the aftermath of the riots.
“We are not really familiar with this kind of counseling,” he said. “But when I announced there were services available, 2,000 people signed up.”
He had to enlist nine more doctors as counselors. More than 500 patients were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some were paranoid, delusional, depressed; so fearful or angry they could not leave home.
“Some wound up broke, homeless,” Cho said. “They got divorced, the family scattered, they disappeared.”
Most were suffering from hwa-byung, recognized as “suppressed anger” in the American Psychiatric Assn.'s diagnostic manual.
Its source is often mundane: An employee seething silently at a lousy boss. A wife required to defer to a wicked mother-in-law. But its outcome can be disabling.
Some Korean riot victims turned their anger inward and became addicts. Others displaced it and became mean and short-tempered. The counselors encouraged them to talk it out. Sometimes they took them instead to a basketball court or a swimming pool.
“Some could not rationally think straight,” Cho said. “They had anger they had to physically discharge.”
The tension was high and contagious. Even the doctors squabbled over patient loads.
The recovery process was hindered because “no one was held accountable,” Cho said. “No apology from anyone. People want to hear ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s the Oriental way,” he said. “If this happened in Korea or Japan, someone would resign in shame, say ‘We acknowledge your pain.’
“But that’s not the American way. Because once you say you’re sorry here, you have to pay all these damages.”
Money was never the point, Cho said.
“My patients acknowledged that it’s all gone; the properties, the businesses.
“They just hope that they can recover their honor, that society will recognize the unfairness and the pain of what was done to them.”
There were a flurry of anniversary commemorations in Koreatown last month, with glossy programs and newspaper inserts.
Cho has his own memorial: a fading pile of patient records that he has carted around for 20 years.
He’s lost touch with those old clients; he tried to organize a reunion last month, but no one showed up. He will provide counseling for free, he said, if any of them call him.
But that does not relieve the doctor of his responsibility. “I promised them when I treated them that ‘I will be your witness.’ That this will not be lost to history.”
So he emailed me last week, asking that I listen:
“I have been carrying this burden for 20 years. Now I hope somebody listens, and records this as part of the record. And that somebody, at some point in the future, will address what happened. And we will all be free of this.”
I dutifully took it down -- all the while amazed somehow that Dr. Cho chose me to listen, trusted my voice to tell his story.
We all have our riot memories. Here is one of mine:
My daughter was in first grade. Her new friend was Korean. Her father was to bring her over for a play date. We were four days into the riots.
I worried that they wouldn’t show; that he wouldn’t trust me with his 6-year-old. That our daughters’ budding friendship would suffer from an enmity that they couldn’t understand.
But they came. Mr. Choi walked his daughter to my front door, said something to her in Korean and waved her into my daughter’s arms. There was an awkward moment. Then he bowed slightly -- and I extended my hand. He clasped it. I bowed toward him.
We never spoke. But I always hoped that Mr. Choi felt what I saw that day: a glimmer of hope in the tinkling laugh of two little girls playing with Barbie dolls.