Sunny Sides Turn Red


 Warning: This story contains derogatory terms and frequent examples of racism. While I do not agree with the ideals that are expressed in this story, to leave racism out would be the equivalent of saying that it never happened.

I would like to preface this by mentioning that I was not yet born when the 1992 L.A. Riots took place, and this story is the product of hours of research on the subject. This is also one of many perspectives on the L.A. Riots and I do not intend to speak for anyone who was present at the time it happened.
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When I was eleven, my cousin Bo went to go live in the states. This was in the summer of 1984. I remember how it happened. When he walked into the house that day, I felt my lungs collapsing for some odd reason. Bo was the best thing the world had to offer (aside from Grandma’s hot noodles after a long day), and suddenly, he was gone. My uncle drove him out to the airport that night, and when the sun came up, Bo was somewhere over the big blue ocean next door.

I lived with my grandparents at the time, so it was always early mornings and daily walks to the market. I liked to think that I was on top of the world back then, but I had better years to come. I just didn’t know it yet. I didn’t anticipate them coming so soon, though.

Exactly one year after Bo left, when I was twelve, Grandma sat me down after dinner, and I felt my lungs collapse the same way they did when Bo told us he was leaving. I was 13 at the time. I didn’t get why my grandparents wanted me to leave so badly, but I get it now. They were running out of time, and they didn’t want me to be there when the bombs went off.

I was gone before morning, with a suitcase that only carried the things that mattered. With a heavy heart, I said goodbye to humid Shanghai summers and was greeted by sunny Los Angeles. The first thing Bo told me when he picked me up was that Los Angeles was always sunny. I didn’t believe him back then, but he was right. Bo had lots to say that day, but I don’t think I paid much attention. I remember looking at all the people of Los Angeles out the window of Bo’s car. It was all so colorful. Shanghai was all foggy yellow.

I don’t know what I expected from it all, but the first few months in Los Angeles were the hardest. My broken English gave me unwanted looks in the grocery store. I tried my best, but I don’t think it mattered to the boy who called me “chink” on my first day of school in the states. Frankly, I don’t think it mattered to anyone else either.

We didn’t celebrate Christmas back in Shanghai, but Bo did. He called all his friends over, and for a moment, it seemed like maybe Los Angeles was going to be alright. That’s when Bo gave me a camera. I didn’t understand how much it cost, but I think it drained his wallet. The Christmas of 1985 was my first, and it was one of the best. On New Year's Eve, Bo and I went to go watch the fireworks from the hills. As they went off, I held my breath, put my finger on the shutter and captured the first memory of 1986.

When I met Emily Cheong, we were both 13. She was full of this passion and anger that I could never understand. Back then, I think she could have slapped me in the face, and I would have let her. Not because I liked getting slapped, but because Emily Cheong deserved to slap at least one person in her lifetime. Emily was a worn veteran of all things Los Angeles; she knew every inch like it was the back of her own hand.

We met in February of 1986, in the grocery store four blocks down from Bo’s place. Bo and I always went to the same grocery store. He said it was because it was close, but that day, I figured out we went there because they were people like us. Immigrants. No immigrant wanted to shop at a white person’s store. Emily had leaned across the counter and stared at me for a good minute before deciding we’d be friends. It happened just like that.

I found out that her family was from Korea, she only liked blue candy, she only drank Coke out of the glass bottles, and she only ever hung out with Adelae Brown... that is, until she met me. From then on, it was us three against the world.

I should tell you about Adelae Brown. She was nearly six feet tall, full of rage, and for some reason, she was always in trouble at school. I didn’t figure out why until the day I saw it happen.

Adelae always said she hated the white boys. Emily and I agreed (with the exception of Ryan, Bo’s boyfriend or something). On March 3, 1986, we all developed an even stronger disgust for them. As we walked out of school that day, a group of them surrounded us, and then one of them called Adelae something I can’t repeat. And then she punched him. She caught him off guard with a solid left hook is what she did. She did that. I couldn’t do that. That was the day I found out that Adelae Brown was a force to be reckoned with.

That summer was the most golden of summers. I turned 14 in June. June 18th, to be precise. The smell of popcorn and movie theaters, the sound of Ryan and Bo laughing when Emily burped her way through "Happy Birthday" and the feeling of being okay. The sound of my camera shutter and the way Adelae smiled for the first time. It was a good day, I thought back then. I still think it was the best day.

Bo said we were nearly inseparable, and he was right. Bo and Ryan and Emily and Adelae and I. We were taking on the world. Over the years we grew closer and closer. Those years were good times, sprinkled with a little bit of bittersweet and a few sad moments. There were sad times, but those were the good years.

Grandpa died in the fall of 1987 when I was 15, and shortly after, so did Grandma. Bo and I flew back to Shanghai for the funeral, but whatever pain we felt didn’t last as long as we thought it would. Later, in the spring of 1988, Ryan proposed to Bo. I'd never seen Bo so happy. They spent a long time figuring out what to do, and it was rough for all of us. Ryan lived on the other side of Los Angeles, the side with all the big houses and long driveways.

In the end, Ryan left whatever familiarity he had at home and figured he’d brave the waters of the life that Bo and I lived. It stayed like that for a while. Times were good. They stayed good.

When I turned 17, Ryan bought me a new camera - I think it was a DSLR fresh off the line, and I think his uncle ran a factory somewhere out there. I never figured it out. Ryan had his connections.

The spring of 1991 was when everything started to get worse. I was seventeen going on eighteen. It started in March when we found out what happened at a grocery store a little less than a mile away. A Korean store owner had shot a black girl in the back of the head.

I couldn’t tell you how bad it was when Adelae, Emily, and I hung out after that. Nobody said anything, but it was there. I knew it was there. You could tell from the small things, and you didn’t even need to look too hard. Adelae would always walk behind Emily, and whenever we stepped inside Emily’s store, Adelae would hang outside.

It got bad pretty quick. It all happened over the course of one week. If there was a word that summed it all up . . . it was gook. Adelae called Emily a gook, and that was all it took to tear apart what Bo and Ryan called the three musketeers. I don’t have the heart to tell you the whole thing, but it happened, and I wish it didn’t, but it did.

A little over a year later, I saw what I like to call the near-end-of-the-world. Less than an hour after the Rodney King trial, the Cheong family’s store was vandalized, and I wish “vandalize” was a word that could do what happened justice. When the first brick came flying through the window, Emily found a real reason to really hate Adelae. The Cheongs couldn’t live above their trashed grocery store, so Bo sent Ryan out to get a few sleeping bags and enough food to feed an army. Our home became everyone’s home that night.

Bo wouldn’t let Emily and I leave the house, but before it was morning, he’d leave with Emily’s dad, leaving her mom and Ryan behind to watch us. I was too busy thinking about the next broken window to care about it.

The next day, Bo came back with a bullet in his leg. We watched as Emily’s mom pulled it out with the hands of a doctor who couldn’t go to work. Those were the darkest of days.


But I still remember the bright ones. I still look at the people of Los Angeles with awe. It’s all so colorful. Shanghai was all foggy yellow.

By Cath Lei

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