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Weathering Katrina:

Insights From A Second Generation Korean American

By Patrick Bilder
(with special thanks to Jimmy Kim for recounting his experiences)

ith the exception of one small child, intently bouncing a rubber ball against the faded brickwork lining the entrance walkway, Jimmy Kim was alone on the grounds of his former elementary school: a microcosmic sliver of acutely personal, post-Katrina landscape situated less than one mile below the ravaged southern shores of Lake Ponchartrain. While venturing along the tattered, exterior edge of the schoolhouse, whereupon paneless windows and hollow doorframes revealed the dimly-lit contents of individual classrooms, there appeared a rare semblance of order which he thought to be somehow misplaced. All of the desks, chairs, and textbooks that had been scattered, drenched, rotted, and desiccated with the storm’s passage were now confined to discrete stacks in the center of each room. Although Jimmy felt consoled that human spirit had defiantly imposed an element of order to the wasting premises, if only briefly, in Katrina’s wake, he was disquieted in his failure to identify a lasting, fruitful purpose behind the reorganization. And still, in his gaze, the raw interior of the schoolhouse was dissolved and reformed into a vivid collection of childhood memories, many of which encompassed one integral, evolving feature of his personal development: the definition of his identity as a second generation Korean American.

It was on these sullied grounds that Jimmy, the eldest son in a working class family from South Korea, was first introduced and consumed by American language and culture, a necessity that contradicted the unspoken wishes of his parents, both of whom had departed from their homeland during the late 1970s in the face of economic instability, political turmoil, and growing concerns over United States military occupation and influence. In contrast to their native country, in which they were subjected to de facto indentured servitude at the hands of the few, government-sponsored, elite conglomerates and labored uncompensated under the guise of an exploitative, Confucian morality, they envisioned the opportunity to obtain wealth, status and ownership in the United States, of a form that many Korean immigrants had already achieved. An extensive Korean expatriate network, founded upon traditional values of mutual respect, collectivism, social harmony, and formidable work ethic, already existed upon entry and provided immediate access to financial resources, first-hand business training by their established colleagues, and abiding moral support. They nonetheless encountered significant setbacks and obstacles in their efforts to establish a stable, family-run business in the United States. Their early trials were assumed in Jimmy’s birthplace of Philadelphia, and ironically sparked by tensions between his Jimmy’s father and his father’s elder sisters, whose presence in the city had initially solidified his decision to undertake this unfamiliar foreign venture with a larger, more cohesive family unit. The source of conflict was a fundamental cultural rift that had gradually widened over the extensive period that Jimmy’s aunts lived in the United States prior to their brother’s arrival. Although Jimmy’s father rapidly established a successful supermarket enterprise in Philadelphia, both sisters had amassed significant material wealth through careers in medicine or dentistry and had far surpassed their brother’s educational status, which concluded at the high school level. Jimmy’s father, who was resolute in the traditional Confucian heritage of Korea, felt perpetually disgraced in their presence, particularly when his sisters suggested that he would be wise to complete his education in the United States. In his eyes, this utter reversal in social standing, most markedly with respect to wealth and gender, ran so contrary to his native values that he felt it prudent to reestablish the family business in New Orleans during the early 1980s. This move accompanied the inception of Jimmy’s earliest, salient childhood recollections of his family’s humble corner market on Dauphine St., built with split living quarters in a ethnically-diverse, crime-ridden neighborhood of New Orleans’s historic, bohemian Bywater District.

Jimmy lived here with his parents and younger brother until junior high school, during which time he began to sense an intermingling between a uniquely Korean identity spun from the corner market home and the uniquely American identity forged through his developing relationships with elementary school classmates and faculty; at one moment, engrossed in a playground kickball game, and at another, taking liquor inventories or discussing business finances with his family. At home, he spoke Korean and labored in the store, striving to unselfishly honor his parents in a fashion to which the first generation was accustomed; with traditional greetings that signified respect not only to immediate family but to his elders in general, by refraining from the expression of discontent over personal crises that threatened to disturb the internal harmony and efficient execution of mutual business goals, and in fulfilling his duty to family in both his hard work and strong moral character. At school, he learned the American language and social expectations, many of which were considerably more flexible than those, which he encountered at home. Despite numerous responsibilities at the market, Jimmy also strove for academic excellence so that he might further please his parents. In the context of the Confucian system, his achievement in the classroom bestows additional parental honor since the ultimate employment of this acquired knowledge is anticipated to effect positive social change.

In the late 1990s, the Kim family business relocated again to a burgeoning downtown venue on St. Charles Avenue and reopened as a profitable dry-cleaning operation. As Jimmy grew increasing more conscious of the American/Korean duality present in his cultural upbringing, he became more sensitive to the flaws in the oft-conflicting social and business models. Nonetheless, he would never critically confront his parents with subjects that might score their dignity and chose instead to internalize his concerns and frustrations. Why, for example, were they so inadaptable, adamantly employing 1970s technology when Jimmy had suggested, and was capable of installing, significantly more efficient, cost effective equipment directed at simple, yet critical, elements of the business, to include systems for clothing tagging, security, and inventory management? And why were they so unwilling to gain proficiency in English, the language of the customer, or to initiate friendship with Americans outside of the workplace? And why was there so much emphasis placed upon material wealth and its display within the Korean community? Jimmy knew the cultural explanation for these behaviors, which included the nationalistic desire of his parents to limit sellers to fellow Koreans, a sense that true friendship within the heterogeneous American society was difficult to achieve as neither cultural nor language equivalences existed to express that all people coexisted as a family unit, and the enormous pride that Koreans felt in demonstrating their success, in part as it related to the success of the Korean community as a whole. Even so, Jimmy perceived these approaches as ridiculous from his American viewpoint. But then again, was the family business, or the family for that matter, with all of the positive and negative aspects he knew so intimately, ever truly tested?

And then Katrina unmercilessly ravaged the Gulf Coast overnight. Unlike many others who escaped the New Orleans city limits prior to the hurricane’s landfall, Jimmy’s parents stood firm until the entire family, including one of Jimmy’s aunts and her two children, were gathered together for an evacuation to the port city of Baton Rouge. Their survival was dictated by chance, as they lived in an elevated region of New Orleans that was spared from the ensuing floods. Until weeks later, as FEMA-managed hotel rooms became available, they lived in Jimmy’s cramped and already over-crowded dorm room at Louisiana State University. Over their two-month stay in Baton Rouge, they relied upon the local Korean church community to support their medical needs and purchased food with the money that they raised from sporadic shifts with local cleaning crews. As soon as the city reopened, the family quickly returned to find that the core of their laundry service was mostly intact, excepting minimal wind damage. Their formerly vast customer base, however, had utterly disappeared. They looked out upon toppled oak trees, deserted streets, and listless streetcars. And still they stayed, hanging advertisements, soliciting curtain cleaning business from the lingering hotels, working daily twenty hour shifts with critical delivery services for their clients, and waiting for their regular customers to return. Although it took more than one month before anyone arrived for business and more of their former, loyal customers had since taken residence elsewhere, they managed to survive most of their immediate competition, as many of these shops were long since abandoned. To this day, they remain a profitable dry-cleaning enterprise in New Orleans. Their unique story of survival after the onslaught of Katrina provides Jimmy with renewed spirit in the ability of his family to overcome enormous obstacles.

Here's a pic of the ceiling in the
business that was leaking due to roof damage.

After the hurricane, we end up making a huge pile of trash. We lost alot of supplies that were just dirty or was wet from the leaking ceiling. So here's a pic of the pile that we made just outside our business so that someone could come by and pick it up.

Here is another pic of the business sign and part of the roof side being damaged from the storm. The business next to us is a subway.

This is a pic of a street that my house is on, you can see that we threw out our fridge and alot of other stuff. We made a pile outside our house too to throw out the trash. You can see the neighbors next door to us also threw out some stuff .

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