Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The cultural mashup dictionary: Sa-i-Gu

Photo by TexasT/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A month from tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which began on April 29 that year after a jury acquitted four L.A. police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a black motorist pulled over after a pursuit. Over the next few days, parts of the city burned in arson fires as Angelenos rioted and businesses were looted. Fifty-three people died in the violence, thousands were injured, and property damage mounted close to $1 billion.

A large amount of the damage was sustained in Koreatown, one of the epicenters of the violence. As businesses went up in smoke, some Korean immigrant shop owners took up firearms. In the end, many of those who were uninsured or underinsured lost their life savings. To this day, the riots remain one of the defining events of the Korean American experience.

Out if this came Sai-i-Gu, often referred to as simply saigu, which translates to "April 29." It's a Korean American term derived from a Korean tradition, in which major events - typically, bad ones - are referred to by the date on which they occurred, much like "9/11."

In April 2002, veteran journalist K.W. Lee wrote in the journal KoreAm about saigu and its lingering effects on Korean Americans, then ten years later:

Their “seoul” remains deeply scarred; inside, the weight of pain, impotence and self-loathing is too much for them to bear. Korean Americans call it Sa-i-gu (literally 4-2-9 translated into Korean) to commemorate the darkest hours in their century-old American passage.

Sa-i-gu also represents America’s first multiethnic urban unrest, signaling a radical departure from the historical white-black paradigm. It exposed the widening ethnic, class and cultural chasms between the inner-city poor and the suburban middle class, immigrants and natives, English speaking and non-English speaking.

During the next month, expect to see much more on the 1992 riots from diverse perspectives, including the recollections of different Angelenos who were affected by them. That, and perspective on what has changed since - and the many things that haven't.