Triple Jeopardy and the Struggle

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie

[The following is excerpted from the author’s essay “It’s Never Ever Boring! Triple Jeopardy from the Korean Side” in Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2006). The author employs the term “Bi-“ with the explicit meaning of her multiple Korean-Chinese ethnic and political identities, with the implicit connotation of solidarity across boundaries of gender and sexuality — ed.]

BEING BI- AND female in the Asian movement also means putting in double, triple, quadruple time. The Third World Women’s Alliance, an offshoot of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, dubbed this our “triple jeopardy” dilemma as women of color who have our hands, heads, hearts in multiple movements because of our race, gender and class status.

As a wide-eyed 17-year-old Educational Opportunity Program freshman admitted the year of the Third World Liberation Front strike, being bi- meant consciousness and activism that rapidly ricocheted between Asian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Black, Chicano, Native American, Vietnamese and Korean influences. This was because during the flow of the mass movements of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s we were all knee-deep in “each other’s Kool-Aid.”

Being bi- meant the “On strike! Shut it down!” adrenaline rush of running for your life from baton-wielding cops while engulfed in lung-searing tear gas, just because you believed there was more to history than the stories of “great white men.” It meant tutoring immigrant kids in Chinatown getting mangled in the public school system. It meant learning construction skills to rebuild the International Hotel and organizing programs for the elderly about to be evicted by “redevelopment” — now-they-call-it “gentrification” — in San Francisco’s Manilatown/Chinatown…

It meant spreading the gospel of the grape boycott of the United Farm Workers Union. It meant hotroding down to Delano to help build the union’s medical clinic and Agabayani retirement village for Manongs who had spent their lives living in cold water shacks, getting poisoned by pesticides, and enabling California’s agribusiness to grow fat. It meant driving university vehicles — odometer cables disconnected — to hot as blazes Coachella/Indio, the self-proclaimed “date capital of the world,” to attend a summit of Chicano Movement heavies.

It meant marching for striking seamstresses and restaurant workers. It meant bum-rushing the stage of a giant antiwar rally in Golden Gate Park when white radicals failed to call out the racist genocidal character of the Vietnam War. It meant staying up late with cohorts to mimeograph a student ‘ine on Asian liberation movements under the pen-name “The East Is Red The West Is Ready” Collective. It meant submitting the only “Korean contribution” to the Asian Women’s Journal.

Later being bi- and female meant working in projects like Asian Manpower Services, Korean Community Center of the East Bay, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, and Women of Color Resource Center. It meant clocking late night and weekend hours with the Third World Women’s Alliance and Alliance Against Women’s Oppression. It meant dragging the kids to anti-Bakke, U.S. out of Here, There, and Everywhere!, Gay Pride demos, International Women’s Day celebrations, reproductive rights pickets, and Rainbow Coalition conferences until Nguyen and Lung San got big enough to do the “bi-thing” their own way.

Partying With “The Enemy”

Back in 1969 some of us who were active in the Third World strike, Asian American Political Alliance, Third World Board, and formation of Asian Studies at Berkeley decided to go on the first Venceremos! (“We will win!”) Brigade.

We cut Cuban sugar cane to break the U.S. government blockade and show our solidarity with those cheeky brown folks who had the nerve to make a revolution right under Uncle Sam’s nose. All power to our Asian immigrant ancestors who worked Hawaii’s plantations and to poor people everywhere who cut cane for a living! Ugh! Talk about the most hellish work you could imagine doing in the tropics.

But in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Watts, rebellions burning across the face of urban America and Indian Country and full-scale U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, the Brigade enabled us to hook up with young bloods from communities of color across the U.S., or “belly of the beast” as it used to be called back in the day. We met Roy Whang, a Korean American from Detroit who was working with Black auto workers in the Dodge Revolutionary Workers Movement; George Singh, a Vietnam vet and “Bi” with Indian and Mexican parents; and Leo Hamaji, a local Buddha-head.

We also met and partied with “the enemy” revolutionaries from national liberation movements around the world, including Vietnam, Korea, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. On my 19th birthday the Cubanos brought me a big pink cake from Havana: yum! We ate a lot of black beans and rice, called moros y cristianos, or “Moors and Christians” — for the colors of Spain’s racial history — sipped super sweet pitch black coffee, guzzled rum, and swayed to Afro-Cuban rhythms under the palm trees: sabroso/delicious!

After Kwangju

[Kwangju, South Korea was the scene of a mass popular movement which was massacred by U.S.-supported South Korean paratroopers in May, 1980. Miriam writes: “Kwangju was the turning point for the movement in Korea and the U.S…The massacre exposed U.S. government complicity since the troops were dispatched with U.S. Military Command approval and Carter Administration officials’ prior knowledge.” She goes on to discuss how the events changed consciousness and spurred organizing by a new Korean-American generation. –ed.]

With the Kwangju movement came new generations of activists and influences. In the Bay Area a number of young folks, especially first-generation Korean students, gravitated towards Young Koreans United, a national organization linked to the radical student movement upsurge in South Korea. These young radicals produce a wealth of materials critical of Japanese and U.S. colonial practices in Korea.

The movement also focused on the minjung, or the common people, and elevated the struggles of workers, peasants, and “comfort” and sex trafficked women, and revived indigenous folk culture. Over time Korean radicals seeded off many other research, cultural and organizing initiatives, including those devoted not only to “homeland,” but also to those focused on issues of racism, settlement, interethnic conflict and fighting for workers’, immigrants’ and women’s rights in the U.S.

For example, 1.5ers [children of mixed-immigrant-generation parents] Roy Hong and Danny Park helped found Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA) in Los Angeles. Korean activists also launched groups like the National Korean American Services and Education Center, Korea Exposure and Education Program, and National Pungmul Network; Korean Resource Center, KIWA, and LA Korea Forum in Los Angeles; the Rainbow Center, Service and Education for Korean Americans, and Nodutol in New York; and Committee for Korean Studies and Korean Youth Cultural Center in Oakland to name a few.

The Kwangju generation validated and elaborated beyond imagination what earlier Korean and Asian activists had organized around during the movement’s infancy. Documentation and analysis of the post-Kwangju stage of the Korean movement remains to be done. Thank Hanul/Heavens, Korean rads are no longer a rarity. Now there’s even enough of us to merit national e-mail list serves in English and Korean!

When We Become “History”

I returned to Berkeley to get my bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies some 20 years after the strike. Since we were no longer getting gassed and bullied by the National Guard, completing school assignments was much easier the second time around. But when the stuff you did “back in the day” turns into “Asian American history” and your kids start leading their own organizations, you know you’re about ready to join the noh in hwe/ senior citizens’ association.

While studying in Korea for a year I got to catch up on what our movement “cousins” were up to, especially of radical women’s and workers’ movements who have journeyed through their own share of twists and turns. At the 1995 UN World Conference of Women and the 1996 migrant workers forum in Seoul, workers testified about the devastating impact of “2nd stage” globalization and footloose transnational corporations on women and migrant workers across Asia.
Like I learned as a teenager on the Venceremos Brigade, we need to keep in touch with our sisters and bros working both sides of oceans and borders to be better equipped to deal with what’s coming around the corner, especially with the ever quickening pace of globalization.

Through Jamae Sori/Sister Sound, a Korean women’s drumming group of kick-ass organizers, we transmit the beat from rice paddy rimmed Cholla-do villages, down Chirisan’s voluptuous slopes, up through Seoul City basements, above tear gas hazy demos, across turbulent ocean waves, out of inner-city diaspora storefronts, straight to your hood.

You’ll see us snaking down picket lines of seamstresses, restaurant, hotel and homecare workers, in street fairs of survivors of domestic violence. Catch us at the annual Lunar New Year Parade, right behind the Azteca dancers, African-American rhythm and blues band, Hmong family clans, Vietnamese martial artists, Filipino hip hoppers and lurching, eye-lash batting, crimson red Chinese lions dancing beneath a spray of exploding fire crackers.

No, it’s not easy being Bi-. But it’s never ever boring!

ATC 134, May-June 2008