This morning on our walk across the High Bridge into the Bronx, Dante and I passed a man practicing martial arts-like exercises next to the nineteenth-century water tower that overlooks both the historic bridge and the majestic Harlem River. It’s quite common to see groups of people engaged in similar exercises on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but rare up here in Washington Heights (at least to my experience), so I couldn’t help but notice. Immediately my mind traveled back to a period of my life that I had largely forgotten: the two years or so in my childhood that I practiced the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do, which entailed exercises not unlike the ones I saw this morning. Along with the exercises, I had to memorize certain call-and-response sequences (which I’ve forgotten entirely) and also the numbers one through ten in Korean (which I still remember somehow).
A couple of years ago while visiting family in Dubuque, Iowa, my uncle recounted his experience during the Korean War. He served as a cook on a US Navy ship and consequently never engaged in direct fighting. He was thankful for this. Korea is a country of sophisticated, ancient culture that has seen more than its share of suffering. The “mighty” of the world have often assailed and oppressed the Korean people, and yet somehow Koreans have maintained their dignity.
Over the past two years Dante and I have spent a fair bit of time in Manhattan’s East Village, and as we’ve taken our walking meditations through Alphabet City, particularly Avenue D, a very important reality has come home to me. The residents of Avenue D are mostly African American and Caribbean American, and it has been Korean immigrants who have opened businesses like corner shops (bodegas) and laundromats. In recent years, Arab Americans have joined in. For the past 50 years, Korean Americans were often the only people willing to provide necessary services in Black neighborhoods in New York City. In a sense, they stood alone in solidarity with other people who have known more than their share of suffering.
Those of us who have known only comfort and privilege do well to remember this reality and perhaps even meditate on it.
March 16, 2016