Mandalay Mornings

A familiar chime wakes me early as the sun prepares to rise. The mornings are refreshing-- and the brisk cool air intermixed with the smoke that billows through my windows is a humble reminder of where I am. The most generous country in the world: Myanmar. 

Early in the morning, I'd walk out to chase the sounds of ringing bells. Residents set outside along the path of their neighborhood, as they prepared to give and receive their blessings. The monks were collecting their food for the day. 

One of the days I got to visit an orphanage with my friends family. Heartbreaking to see so many children abandoned, but it was also encouraging to see a community come around these children and donate as much as they could. More on that a little later-- but the spirit of giving in Myanmar is refreshing and encouraging, especially when trying to escape the savagery of capitalist ideologies. Coming to a 3rd world country-- and being eased of work-mentality, driven by a need to survive and succeed is ironic. But someone once said that the poor give the most. This place humbles me. 

Lessons From My Childhood

When I was 17 years-old, my high school pastor did something that I haven’t been able to live past and forgive, he deleted me from Facebook. Sounds petty I know, but it was the underlying principle of the act that wounded me. That a man that I looked up to, followed, admired, and truly respected for almost a decade of my teenage life, would go as far and as little to do that was both shocking and heartbreaking. I remember I added him back to scorn him, to let him know that I knew, to which he accepted and blocked me once more. I was so angry.

But the most hurtful thing was the outcome of that event. Older men and women, people that I looked up to as legitimate brothers and sisters, being micro-managed out of my life as they sheepishly followed the words of a narrow-minded minister without question, that broke my heart. The betrayal felt real.

Thoughts still linger. How can a grown ass man delete a teenage kid, in his church and ministry, off of Facebook? How can a pastor be so petty? How can men and women that I’ve grown with, learned with, fasted with, cried with, be so quick to fall into judgment without assessing both sides? Were Christians actually this sheepish?

A Mother’s Love

If my father taught me grace, my mother taught me forgiveness. At the time that this drama was happening, my mom had been gone to Korea for 6 months in preparations to move back to the motherland. It was difficult for me, my church community was everything, I invested as much time throughout my week there. I had the luxury of never having to complain about much to my mom, I never got bullied in school, I never got beat up. But I did have an older grown pastor that I was having drama with.

And as any Korean Christian mother would do, she prayed. She prayed every morning for me, and for him, and for the community, messaging me bible verses every morning at 5am to encourage me and to challenge me to keep my heart soft. I tried.

He had gotten married recently, I celebrated as did the rest of the church. I was happy for him, his new wife was beautiful, and so absolutely caring. Funny thing is, I kind of became really close with her. The relationship grew naturally, and she had felt like an older sister to me. Maybe this was my in, maybe this was how I won favor with him, by winning favor with his wife. Sadly that wasn’t the case, since I was deleted from his friends list shortly thereafter.

My mom came back; I had told her the things that had happened. Nobody was willing to confront me, tensions were high, things got awkward, leaders were shunning me outright. I began to look into other churches to transition to. It was my time to leave. She was fuming. And one day when she returned, she had gone back to the church to attend a service and see some of her old friends. She saw the pastor from across the cafeteria and the craziest shit happened.

Life & It’s Complexities

Fast forward 4 years, I was 21. My friends and I had found a local Korean Tofu shop to eat at after a long day of snowboarding. Something hot, spicy, soupy, and comforting after a day in the cold was the perfect remedy. Upon ordering I heard the door open, and a family walked in behind me, and sat at the table across from me. Wataya fking know? My spiritual nemesis from my childhood.

Tensions shot in the room, and my friend decided to ice it by saying hi which led a forced conversation between the two tables. His wife was as vibrant and joyful as ever, and they had two beautiful kids. Also joining them was her parents. I was happy for them. Three generations eating together at a table, I was jealous, it was awesome. But he was still being petty, even after 4 years, hardly acknowledging me and being cold and distant.

Then the strangest thing happened. She turned to her parents, both very old within their 70s and 80s, and told them my name. Their eyes shot towards me, and tears began to fill their eyes. I watched them stand up, walk over to my table, and bow completely 90 degrees.

“Your mother and father helped us in a very difficult time when we lived in Alaska. They gave us so much. Thank you, and please tell your parents we’re so grateful.”

I was shocked. You see, turns out that day when my mom saw my pastor at the church, she recognized his wife. Before I was born in Alaska (fun fact), our parents were close to hers, and my dad had given them a car and money when they were having financial difficulties. While her parents worked to support, my mother used to nanny and take care of her like she was her own daughter. It was the first time she had seen her since.

My Letting Go

A few weeks ago, I ran into a few old church sisters and brothers throughout the week. It felt so awkward-- almost a decade had past and the tension that I left almost 10 years ago still sat in the air. I acted candidly and unapologetically friendly, responding to every awkward answer with deep interest and happiness to see them again. Yet still, it hurts me to hear rumors that my name is associated with something negative in the context of that community. I left because I was pushed out, not because I became disenchanted or disillusioned. Many think that my bitterness is what led me to leave the institutional church. I’d be lying if I said that had nothing to do with it. But the truth is I left because I felt like I was being unjustly attacked.

I remember I asked questions like: “How come we do church on Sundays when the Sabbath is on Friday night to Saturday night? Why is the pastor the leader of the church, when clearly in the bible it’s the prophet and apostle? How come we send missionaries to countries, but we don’t even steward our own communities?”

One time; our Friday service was canceled. So I rallied some of the church members to go and attend an event at different church. It was amazing, everyone was so blessed and encouraged, and we made a ton of new friends. I went to church on Sunday, and got chewed out so hard. I was so confused. When the church becomes larger than the Kingdom it serves, when the ego of a pastor becomes greater than the people he serves. 

I was a young man, with an earnest hunger to know who God was, I was searching for answers beyond an institutionalized version of Christianity. I was tired of reading the bible, all these amazing and great acts of love, acts of love from a God that seemed so completely real and present, and not seeing them lived out in the present. I felt that the greatest days of the church were in our past, and not in our present nor our future. I didn’t agree with that, and it cost me relationships and trust.

I turn 26 in a few weeks. And being in Myanmar, I’ve been thinking about this event a lot. I guess all this time, my resentment and hurt blinded me from being able to see this story for what it meant. I’ve been thinking about my mom, who’s loved greatly, and unconditionally forgives the men and women that have continually betrayed and hurt her. A mother who prayed early morning for the man who emotionally abused her own flesh and blood, only to see that he’s loved by a beautiful wife that she too had a chance in loving and raising.

How can I hate a man, greeted every morning by the love of his lover, a woman who was raised by the hands of the same mother that loved me? The same back that I was carried upon, carried the mother of his children.

He is my brother.

And so I tell this story to let it go. It’s cost me hatred and bias towards Christians and the institutional church. Perhaps relationships will remain awkward, rumors will continue to float, and my reputation as some rogue anti-authority radical loose-mouthed kid will continue. But the resentment will stop. I didn’t have my justice, and that’s okay. People are ignorant, and that’s okay. It’s not my job to justify myself, and it’s not my job to educate them. My job is to love and love well.

Just like my mother.

The real mf MVP's

My Retreat

Have you ever worked so fucking much, and slept so little, that you thought you were literally going to lose your shit and your sanity? A few years ago, I remember reading an article about the Invisible Children’s co-founder stripping naked in public and running up and down the street. To be honest, I had no empathy at the time, but I understand a little now where he was coming from.

My decision to fly back out to Myanmar and South East Asia was spontaneity and irresponsibility at it’s finest. The outcome of this trip was a culmination of two year’s worth of hard-work and dedication towards a dream, only to find frustration and disappointment. I needed to save my heart. I needed a reminder and a refresher as to why I chose to pursue any of this. But above all, I just needed a private conversation with God, away from all the political and American Christianity bullshit, away from all the over-bearing responsibilities that I was juggling. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I’ve been pursuing my dreams but in the wrong way. I reached the end of myself again. So I decided to send my ass back to the most uncomfortable place I’ve ever traveled. Myanmar was where it all started for me. It’s where I took a breath and found courage to start a new chapter. It’s a place where worlds collide, where the purest essence of humanity is reflected in its simplicity, in its violence, in its architecture, and in its survival. This place makes me feel every breath of air, every fucking mosquito, and every emotion from heartbreak to awe. 

I came here with the hopes of filming a documentary and working on a photography project that I’ve been contemplating for three years since I visited. All of those plans fell through. And that’s okay. I plan on frequenting this place for the rest of my life-- exploring every facet, nook, and cranny of this country. But for now, I just want to rest and enjoy every moment, holding everything with open hands and stewarding this opportunity with excellence.

I abandoned a lot of responsibilities in order to go on this trip. And I want to thank the people that were supportive of me doing this. I walked onto the plane with immense anxiety knowing that I might be letting people down, but I hope you understand that I really needed to do this.

I’ll be back early March (in time for Isaiah Rashad woo woo), right before my 26th birthday. But I’ll be doing my best to continually update, edit, and share about my trip as it continues.

With love from Mandalay,

Yohan

STUBBORN™ Stories; The End

In September of 2017, I was approached by Ray Lin (@mybrotherray) from The Great Company, about the possibility of doing some video work for Pepsi. I very candidly said yes, brushed the idea off to someone else more qualified, and forgot about the inquiry altogether. To my surprise, I received a phone call from Ray that following month, while driving home after the first day of my contract at The Wonderful Agency. I was one of the 3 artists selected for Pepsi Co's artists residency program, and was hired as a brand curator for Pepsi's new craft soda line: STUBBORN™ Soda. 

The project, like any media project, was stressful and high anxiety pressure. This was my second big commercial project, or rather my second project overall since my NBC Web Series: Beyond Belief. And like any commercial production related work, there are always frustrations and aspects that can be better improved. And this being my real second video project, this meant a lot of self-doubt and anxiety moving forward. I'm just grateful that I was able to go through this process and all its bumps with the amazing people at The Great Company. Here's an overview of the project, and the growth I experienced in part of it. 

i bit the apple ---

Everything happened pretty quickly. The following week, after the phone-call, was the dinner and briefing where I'd meet my clients who flew in from New York to meet me. A long dinner and discussion eventually gave way to premise of their needs: three 60-90 second videos, highlighting three cultural influencers that fit the STUBBORN™ brand. I was surprised three times during the briefing/dinner: when they showed me what they wanted, when they told me how much they'd be paying me, and when they told me I was flying to New York in a few days for NYC Comic Con.

Not much to say about this without getting off subject. My first time in NYC, it was amazing, I loved it. I was however confused a lot of the time as to why STUBBORN™ wanted us to be there... Then the other curators that were selected and I figured it out: we're here to be filmed and interviewed because we're being highlighted as the artists. Duh. Above is a picture of my good-looking friend James (@jamespettvision), who recently moved to NYC and is a freelance videographer there, filming us. 

the breakdown ---

The first person we shot was Joe Penna, aka MysteryGuitarMan, who is an OG YouTuber and now acclaimed filmmaker and storyteller. The second was Jason Markk, an entrepreneur and owner of THE premium shoe cleaning company: Jason Markk. Last but not least, the final influencer was a local rapper by the name of Stix, from Watts, CA., who happens to be touring with Snoop and opening for his show. 

I was given about two hours with each two interview and shoot b-roll, which meant about a 3-4 hour shoot day for me in regards to preparations and wrap. Needless to say, this shit was hard! Never underestimate the benefit of a helping hand-- having or not having one person can make or break the flow of production. I didn't have any help on the Jason Markk shoot, which was a bummer because that one was the one I really wanted to execute on a higher level just because the brand and culture hit closer to home with me.

I'm not going to go into detail on what could've been better and what went wrong, because there's always things that can improve in production. But I will say that my development as a storyteller and filmmaker is evident throughout the process of each video. The first two shoots with Joe Penna and Jason Markk felt heavily underprepared, and I was unprepared. To be honest, a lot of times I have no idea how to even properly get ready since I haven't had any formal training. I'm used to working with budgets nearing quarter-millions, not self-directed and self-shot no budget run-and-guns. 

Stix's shoot was fucking dope though. It was my final shoot for the contract, frustrations were hitting an all time high, but I felt like this one had ample time to prep mentally and emotionally, because I'm soft af right now and I need that. I took the time to shot-list and wrote down whatever abstract visualization I had for the video overall. Needless to say, it's the one I'm proudest about. We burned through that shot-list at lightning speeds and had more footage than we could possibly use. 

what i learned ---

90% of the time, bad work is the byproduct of self-doubt and fear. I've learned that the moment you're comfortable in your work and position is the moment you're not growing. I strive for a day of peace of mind, but am coming to terms with the fact that my life isn't suited for comfort. Hence, fake it 'til you make it. It's always better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. 

Say no. It doesn't matter how bad you feel, how much they feed you, or how much they talk you up. If they really respect you, they'll pay you for your time. Learn to say no, love yourself, don't let people and corporations take advantage of you, your time, your work, and your creativity. 

Always stay positive, always maintain growth-mindset. No matter how shitty the situation, always push the limits of yourself without allowing yourself to lose dignity. Every situation and context is different, I understand that, and I try to meet the needs of every client and/or person I'm working with or for. But you'd be surprised just how much of a difference you can make in terms of your work and life, just by caring.

Just give a shit dude. Don't be so passive and indifferent. If you're mad, good. At least it indicates it matters enough for you to be mad. In the end, no one gives a shit about you and how you feel, only what you make.

As Chance & Kanye put it: "Music is all we got. So we might as well give it all we got."

Lastly, you only get better. Not everybody hears the narrative process of creating, they only see the byproduct of what's finished and done. That's fine. But I find that starting is always the hardest part, the part that requires me to overcome my own social anxieties, my own insecurities, and force myself to step out and be wholeheartedly me. With every project there's vulnerability, and I have to create from that place of vulnerability and ask to get paid for it. It's the most humbling and growing process ever. So do it, and get better. 

Top your old shit.

gear used ---

  • Sony A7r II

  • Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8

  • Sony 28mm F2

  • Ikan Beholder EC-1 Gimbal Stabilizer

special thanks to Enoch Ku (@eeeeeeenoch) for the BTS photos

Get Better, Give More

Finishing 2016 felt like the closure of this year and the year prior, a two-year long journey of trials and self-discovery. Lots of words and emotions as I enter the new year, but I'll save the deeper sentiments for my own personal keepings.

Every year, I pray and search for a title for the upcoming year. This year's is: Get Better, Give More

Get better at managing my finances, get better at taking photos, get better at editing and turn-around time, get better at filming, get better with cameras, get better with writing and writing routinely, get better at everything.

Give more to the people around me, give more of my time, give more of my attention rather than my words and insight, give more to relationships, give more to my work, give everything.

If there's one thing that this year has taught me, it's that I've grown really tired of talking about my dreams. I've grown really sick of talking about how hard things are, and thinking that my life is the only drama that the world is living. I know now that humility and self-pity aren't the same thing, and one often disguises itself as the other. But I realize time and time again that it's the community of believers around me that have encouraged, pushed, called me out, and challenged me to be wholeheartedly me. Believers of God, believers of prayer, believers of people, I'm grateful to surround myself with men and women who carry hope when I don't have hope for myself.

Lastly... God.

You've been faithful. Time and time again, even when I'm not, You've been faithful. I've always fought to be the most genuine version of myself, in anger, in fear, in anxiety, and in joy alike.

Someone asked me if what I'm doing and pursuing with my career is in alignment with what God wants for me. I was completely unprepared to answer that question because I never once considered anything I was doing was apart from Him. 

I remember I used to dream and write about living excellently. I've discovered that theres cost for such a lifestyle. I remember the idea of sacrifice was such an easy concept, giving up a few months to do missions, letting go of privileges, laying yourself down for someone else. I've learned now how difficult it is to give in the midst of taking for yourself in pursuit of goals.

In times of hardship, in times of failure, and within my fears and anxiety, you gave me strength and dignity to realize that I've always had strength and dignity. You showed me that a life of excellence isn't a high and lofty hope, but that it's truth designed within my making. With every ending You were there, with every beginning You pushed me.

This journey of self-discovery, this exploration of my humanity, and being able to share it with You, with my friends and family both new and old, in both suffering and joy, has been the greatest reward. 

2017.

Beyond Belief; The End

I imagined at the beginning of this project, that at the end of it, I'd hit that send button and find a solemn moment where all the emotions came flooding in like a storm. Last week I sent in my last and final episode for Beyond Belief, this morning it aired. What a journey.

I've been wrestling a lot with this idea of creation and art, how the mission of the artist is to create and give a part of themselves away. Lately, I've been feeling as selfish and self-centered as ever, struggling to find ways to express myself in my own life process, and pushing whatever comes out into the world. I've been relentless in my pursuit of discovering myself and learning this medium.

A few months ago, I would've never given myself permission to do something like this. A 5-episode series, 5-7 minutes long, on such a dense topic. This was my first project. And I say this with every bit of seriousness and pent up emotion that I've bottled for the last 3 months: this shit was so, so, so, hard.

Hours, days, nights, weeks, and months with little to no sleep. An editor that ran off with my money and wasted a months of my time. Picked up poor methods of coping with stress (like chain-smoking for two months). God I'm a mess.

I found an old journal entry the other day from when I was 18, a reminder from the days I was zealously involved in ministry. Days when the only prayer that compelled me was the dream of seeing God being properly represented. Jesus without all the religious facade and politics, no white-imperialism Christianity, no blind church leaders carelessly over-spiritualizing Donald Trump as some God-given prophet, no radicalism, no picket signs, no hate speech, no self-righteous preaching, no conversion-motivated fake relationship bullshit. 

Beyond Belief was something that I incubated in my heart for years. It's something I fought to understand and realize in my own journey to understand myself and to know who God is. These episodes, the interviews, the artists, and my friends, gave me more affirmation and revelation than any service or prayer meeting has given me in years. 

In the end, I realize that our ability to create is what makes us like God. I'm blessed to be surrounded by men and women that create to give life, life that I needed for so long to resurrect the art I, myself, had killed. In my interview with Christianity Daily, I mentioned that our goal was to build bridges through this series-- bridges between faith and art, religion and culture, generations to generations...

Beyond Belief was my own bridge as well. A cross-over and hybrid of my own journey as I stand in the node between my past and future. For most of my life, I dreamt from a place of brokenness searching for identity. Ministry and religion was my crutch for that, a blindly self-serving season of my life. So many times throughout this series, I would catch myself thinking of ways to escape back to familiarity. I was good at ministry, missions was easier than filmmaking.

But fuck the easy route and familiarity. I've crossed my bridges, choose to let it all go. I've learned much from this opportunity, on a skill level and on a personal level. I'm grateful for my friends and family who've given me permission above and beyond to succeed in finishing this show. In moments when insecurity and fear of failure crippled me to try, in times when I passed off the work to someone else because I tried to avoid the responsibility of stewarding it. This project wouldn't allow itself to leave my hands.

From this point on it's a different game. When dreams start becoming goals, when cool ideas start becoming plans. I was 17 when this whole call to media and story-telling crawled into my life. I always thought it'd be cool to tell stories for a living. Now I tell stories for a living. 

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/rapper-g-yamazawa-art-spiritual-process-n660571?cid=sm_fb

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/dj-mark-redito-building-community-through-music-faith-n665176

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/artist-activist-taz-ahmed-creating-spaces-south-asian-muslim-community-n669096

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/classical-music-hotline-bling-meet-sikh-american-violinist-creating-universal-n672696

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/twins-artists-share-how-faith-has-shaped-their-work-life-n676651

October Already

Monday morning, day 1 of 2 for the Wonderful Agency spot we're shooting for Teleflora. It's a pretty cool feeling arriving on set and not being an on-set production assistant but being on the agency side. It was about two years ago, this time, that I walked onto my first set ever and experienced the world of production. I slept at midnight last night, woke up at 4:30 this morning to get some early edits and work in before I headed out to set.

I've been looking for breaks. A moment to pause and escape from all the craziness of work and stress. I realized this weekend that break might not be coming, that vacation is a luxury that I won't be able to afford until I properly pay my dues. I was hoping things would wind down, but I find that life is handing me a bit of the opposite.

Again, this year was tough. But I survived. And there's a sobering sense of reality that brought me back to center as I come to see that this next chapter will probably push me even further. A sobering sense as I come to understand that these next few months and years may define much of my life. I'm discovering that the anxiety that I deal with increasingly replaced with something familiarly unfamiliar. It's not anger, but a furiousness, a drive that's almost laser-like and heartless. 

Yet... It's October already. Set life is always crazy. But this is the my pause for the day and for the week as I prep to fly out to New York, finish my 4th episode edits, and posture myself in gratitude, take a deep breath, and run the next lap. I emailed my producer today. I forgot that my show premieres this week.  

What a journey. Lots of emotions. But no time for emotions, only time to finish well and to finish strong.Go for a walk, take a breath, say my prayer, wipe my eyes. I got off the phone with mom and dad last night. They're proud. 

I am too. 

New Season New Job

I've been spending this entire summer preparing, shooting, and editing my show for NBC Asian-America. It's been a tumultuous and turbulent season for me. Most mornings, I'm greeted by overwhelming levels of anxiety, so much so that it pushes me outside my door and onto these aimless walks around the neighborhood or drives around Los Angeles. Up until this summer, I've never taken on a task that's consumed so much of me. It's a sacrifice, pouring myself out every single day, finding the courage and strength to finish well. 

Long hours, sleepless nights, juggling three or four different projects. I find refuge and comfort in cafes, surrounding myself with people and coffee so that I don't lose my sanity. Going through this season and process, it's been the most exhausting and tiring months of my life. My balance is completely whack, my priorities are completely out of order, and my values have been challenged daily. 

Yet... Working on this project has been rewarding on so many levels. I scrub through these 1-2 hour interviews probably 50+ times, each bit of wisdom and language breathing life to a decayed and neglected artistic soul, each sentence rooting itself deeper.

Currently, I'm editing my 3rd episode. The subject is Taz Ahmed, an activist, politico, writer, podcaster, poet, visual artist, etc.-- Jason, my host, just refers to her as an all-around "creative." I don't want to get too much into the details of what she discusses, but one of the things she mentions is how she began her career as an artist through blogging and writing. She shares that the publicizing of her process and journey was such an essential part of her solidifying her identity as an artist. At times she hesitated and thought whether publicly confessing her thoughts and allowing people in was healthy, but in the long-run, thats what art is: the outward expression of one's story.  

I haven't been writing and blogging lately. And it's hurt me in more ways than I recognized. Truth is, writing has always been the most honest expression of myself. I've often thought about what I would say when all this is over. I realize that's stupid. I realize that the journey and the process has always been just as important as the end result. Thus, I've decided to take the words that Taz fought to gain through her own journey, words that inspire me, and bring them into action by committing to publicly expressing my journey through this period, and the future to come. 

Also, I'm tired of having to explain myself to people. I'm tired of catering to people, having to muster up a front in order to accommodate social etiquette. I've always been more eloquent and honest through words, through letters, and by the poetry I kept locked away since I was 12.

This is my first intentional step, an effort to be earnest in my journey to find my voice.

++++++

Today, somebody asked me what steps I took to get to where I'm at in my career, how I got to where I am. I hesitated, because I couldn't give a clear or confident answer. Truth is, I don't believe in my work-ethic. Often times, I really shit on myself because I don't think I have enough discipline or excellence in the things that I do. 

As of now, I have all of these really crazy opportunities, opportunities with huge clients, huge names, huge execs, and huge possibilities waiting on the other side of this chapter. It's exciting, everyones happy, I'm happy, I'm stoked.

But truth is, I'm scared. Breathing breaks in my car, searching for God somewhere underneath all the panic as I realize that I have so much more at stake. Everyday I have more to lose, everyday I risk failing even more. 

Truth is, I feel lucky more than I do successful. The only answer I confidently gave was that it was my community that brought me here. The love, the support, the accountability to remind me who I am and what I'm called to. They poured themselves out and went out of their way to believe in me, and the opportunities that I gained were a result of their faith. That's the most honest answer I could give.

Truth is, this was just a dream, that became an idea, that became a hobby, that somehow worked out. Everything I thought about, everything I imagined with God and prayed for is starting to manifest itself. And what was once a dream is starting to become more real. And maybe it's spoiled to say, but I fear it. It's everything I wanted, but now I'm scared of it.

I was driving home today thinking about this. Having repetitive conversations with God in the car about self, about faith, about life. I remembered this Bill Johnson quote I scribbled in my journal when I was 19 and in Korea. He spoke about how God withheld promises in our lives sometimes because we didn't have the character and integrity to steward that promise. Around this time last year, I quit my full-time job and went full-force freelance. It was an experiment and a test to see the limits of my growth and character. I look back on this year, one of the most difficult years of my life, so much so that I still get emotional as I write and think about it now. 

When it comes down to it, when I look back in hindsight... I'm grateful. I realize that quote I scribbled in my journal for when I was 19, and the lesson that I learned then, has nothing to do with God and myself right now. I've earned everything that I've fought for. Even throwing weak-ass hands is still fighting, compared to laying dead and getting beat. I'm in this position because I have strength to steward success, because the task at hand isn't too large that I'd be set to fail. 

Pressure builds more and more. It's almost 1am right now. I have to wake up at 6 to drive to West LA for my temp job as a Jr. Producer at Wonderful Agency. I also have a dinner with my new client Pepsi. I think about running away a lot. Like... It'd be really nice to go to Vietnam and just backpack. It's totally affordable.

But I'm locked into a promise that rests in the eternal. And I'm locked into the hope and love of the people that have fought for me to get here. So I choose to have faith today. Not in myself, because all I have right now is a vessel filled with self-doubt and fear. But faith in God, faith in my friends, faith in my family-- I choose to believe your word over my insecurity, your trust over my doubt. 

"As long as someone was listening, I knew it was a start." -Wyclef

So here's my start. I'll make you all proud.

@jonathanhchoi

Kanka; Blood Brother

Exactly two years ago, on this day, I took a bus leaving Olympos, and jumped on a dolmus for Selcuk, to meet a Turkish local that I had exchanged a few messages with via Reddit. Now I know what all of you guys are thinking... What the hell is a dolmus? See below.

The olden glory of thy selfie-stick. I was the only one in that dolmus, and the Turkish man was the nicest driver I met the entire trip. 

It was in this time, I was a week into my first solo backpacking trip. By this time, I had couch-surfed with a Turkish local nicknamed Jesus (he looked like Jesus), crashed on a scooter, drove a jeep into a Turkish mountain village filled with goats, and lost my debit card. Also within this week, was the first time I had EVER GONE CLUBBING, I had become friends with and partied with literally EVERY local young person in Kas, and it was the first time in my life that a white-girl showed interest in a little ol' "azn-boi" like me. To top it off, I stayed in Olympos, a small hippie town along the coast of Turkey, and slept in an air-conditioned treehouse hostel, which was also a 2 minute walk from the Mediterranean waters.

HI-LIFE. The adrenaline was strong, and I never felt so alive.

And then I met Ozgur Varol, aka "kanguen."

Here's the truth. I only planned on staying 1 or 2 days in Selcuk, because hell-- I didn't know who this guy was, or what he was about. He messaged me on Reddit after I uploaded my travel itinerary in /r/Turkey for feedback, and he pretty much said, "Hey dude, I love Koreans, Let's hang out." I'm pretty sure that's how the conversation went, so no need to fact-check by asking him yourself. 

Pretty weird. 

But hell, Ozgur was literally the coolest guy and the biggest blessing of my trip. He gave me a tour of Ephesus, one of the early churches in the bible (think Ephesians), along with my Thai friends, Foamy and Atit (who I met up again with in my recent trip to Bangkok). And still remains to be one of the very few people that I still try to regularly keep in contact with thru my travels.

We went wine tasting

We made new friends together and drank at Alsancak in Izmir

I met his freaking sister and his sisters fiancé!

I ended up canceling my plans again, and spent the remainder of my entire trip hanging out with this guy.

At the end of the trip, I met his childhood best friends, and it literally felt like family. So much so that it was one of the most emotional goodbyes I ever had when they dropped me off at the bus-stop and sent me off back to Istanbul. 

Anyways... Happy Birthday Ozgur. I really, really, fking miss you. And I haven't forgotten my promise to bring you out to Los Angeles one day. That trip to Turkey, literally changed my life, and you're such a huge part of who I am now, and who I want to become. I miss you man. 

Kanka. 

Chapter 3: Mae Sot

Go West Young Man -- Chapter 3: Mae Sot

The hardest thing to confront is always yourself. And for me, traveling is a mirror that holds me accountable to my humanity-- it is the reminder of my privilege, and the champion of my dreams. 

Mae Sot, Thailand. I dig deep for words that justify my connection to this place. 

Mae Sot is a completely foreign place that feels oddly like home. It reminds me LA in some ways in the sense that it's a city bustling with immigrants, culture, all sects of religion and faith. Despite the chaos and the craziness here (and mind you, there's SO much craziness here), it works. Situated on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, it's a gateway for trade, immigration, and unfortunately crime/sex-trafficking/drugs. There's this sense of harmonious balance and tolerance that comes with the difference in subcultures, despite it being a 2nd transitioning into 1st world city. 

My reason for coming to this city was to reconnect with some old friends from when I visited last year. Outpour Movement, led by the famous Ray, is a full-time missionary and for-profit business owner in Mae Sot. Running a burger shop, a bike shop, refugee homes, art schools, and currently in the process of building an orphanage-- he understands the importance of stewarding a city, and not just preaching a message. 

My time was short, but memorable. I rented a scooter and biked EVERYWHERE. And dude, gotta break out of my blog voice for a second, I went to this weird black/grey market on the border and found an old camera lens for $50. I kind-of-not-so-legally crossed the border into Myanmar and had a beer. So much epic. So much awesum. I hope to go back and do a piece on it all when I work for Vice one day. 

But really, despite it all. It was all about friends, family, and God. I needed a getaway, something for myself. There's this huge Burmese market in the middle of Mae Sot that comes to life at sunrise. I woke up at 5am and made my way out. I remember walking through the streets and alleys, snapchatting that "I live for moments like this." 

The 85mm is amazing for street photography. I can't even imagine what I could grab with a 135mm, but I prefer the 85mm over the 50mm just because of the distance it allows me to have between my subjects and I. 

I spent the entire day interacting with the men and women that immigrated here to build lives for themselves. Following subjects that I thought looked interesting, I stumbled on this one lady, or rather she stumbled onto me. I think I waited a solid 4 minutes, waiting for her to turn around...

I still get a bit of that rush I felt when I look at this picture. I remember the adrenaline and the joy that jolted me awake. the moment I clicked the shutter, I knew this was my favorite.

I remember standing there looking down in my viewfinder, smiling my ass off and trying to keep my cool. I zoomed into her face to ensure she was in focus, and for some reason I immediately remembered my mom.

I don't think this woman knows how much she saved me that day. 

It occurred to me. Her joy wasn't in pushing a heavy cart of vegetables and fruits early in the morning. She pushed that cart because of family. 

One of first things I learned on this trip is the value of self-value. For example, after a lot of reflecting for the first few weeks abroad, I realized how much I've been neglecting my own personal needs and how I failed to stay true to myself. My number one goal had been to build a career. I understand now that building a career isn't as deep a rooted value as building a home, earning a home. Now the goal and vision is shifted, and I can allow the concept of family to motivate me and keep me disciplined. 

Complacency is always a foothold for deception. I asked myself, when did I allowed external things to change me and shift my focus? When did I forget that I've always been motivated by the ideal of family? I realized it doesn't matter. What matters now is going forward, and building the strategy to fit the call. 

So forward I go, and this gem I stored away... Because this is week 2 out of 8, and I'm still on vacation. 

Next stop was Cambodia. And it was mind-blowing.

Chapter 2: Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls

Go West Young Man -- Chapter 2: Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls

It is every backpackers dream to discover the local secret, to trek off the beaten path, eat a home-cooked meal by the hands of a mother or a grandma. After the rain settled, we had found a waterfall on one of the many map apps we downloaded on our smartphones. It was located outside of the city, off the main roads and in a random area of Chiangmai that I knew many foreigners wouldn't travel to. 

About 30 minutes in the hills south of Chiangmai, we drove up these windy roads with some beautiful temples perched on the peaks of the mountains. We passed the road to the waterfall twice, and had to keep pulling over to look at the map and coordinate where this place was. We found a dirt path tucked on the side of this small bridge, and...

... A small hike ensued! We were a bit lost in the woods, but we knew we were on the right trail because there were a few other scooters parked. We started to hear voices and rushing waters, and all the energy we had spent finding this place came rushing back as we climbed onto the rocks and feasted our eyes upon this little gem. 

ROCK SLIDES.

A solid two hours were spent here. There was this huge drop off with a pool about two-three stories down that we were unsure of, because it looked a bit shallow. Scott and I cuddled in that small little bowl, sliding up and down, having the time of our lives, until a local walked over to that cliff and did a backflip off the edge. We screamed, conquered our fear of heights, and jumped also. 

To climb back up, there was a sketchy wooden plank that you had to scale up like a monkey. So awesome.

We ended our waterfall adventure by saying our goodbyes to the local who showed us the best parts of that waterfall. In total, there were only 8 of us there. To top it off, we found this small restaurant perched on the side of the mountain, over this beautiful valley. It is, to this day, the best Thai food I had, and one of the best sunset views I've ever experienced while eating dinner. 

Man, writing travel blogs are weird. Thoughtful, insightful, and reflective blog post coming up with Mae Sot next~

Stay tuned

Chapter 1: Hot, Really Hot, and F***ing Hot

Go West Young Man -- Chapter 1: Hot, Really Hot, and F***ing Hot

To be honest-- traveling for a year, coming back to figure out and start a career, then leaving for a 2 month trip again within 9 months, wasn't a very reassuring decision, let alone a responsible one. I bought this plane ticket when I was at one of the lowest points physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially back in the beginning of 2016. $350 flash deal for a round trip to Bangkok + Korea? My parents and my community raised me better than to pass something like that up. 

As much anxiety and hesitation the idea of this trip gave me, it also gave me incentive to work my ass off and earn it. More importantly however, I convincingly persuaded my childhood best friends to finally come backpacking with me. 

I've known these guys for more than half of my life. They've seen and witnessed me in my worst, dealt with my shit, and seen me fail and grow. We've hated each other, screamed at each other, cussed each other out, met God together, etc. Brotherhood. It's crazy how far we've come since 7th grade, 9th grade, through college, and now.

We departed LAX separately, me and Scott on the 24th of April, the day after he took his MCATs. The boys would join the fray and adventure on the 17th of May. 

Traveling with Dr. Scotty has been balls to the walls. It's the first time he's really left the country, and sadly for him, he gets the rough introduction by having his first backpacking introduction with me :D. I always say that backpacking is always traveling, but traveling isn't always backpacking. There are times when things REALLY suck, Scott and I look at each other, lower our heads and sigh, then just have a good laugh about the crappiness that's about to ensue.

First place we hit was BKK and Chiangmai. It's been really difficult to pick up my camera, even after a month of being overseas. Part of it is just my laziness and the heat. My local friends who live in Bangkok once said this: "Thailand only has 3 seasons: hot, really hot, and fucking hell!" 

It's fucking hell here. 

But really, the problem is that anytime I pick up my camera, I'd get a sinking feeling in my chest because it's been a love-hate thing because it feels like work and not a joy. I'm coming to terms though. Although I suck at charging my batteries.

After a brief introduction in Bangkok, and a poorly planned/failed attempt to go to Vietnam. We ate $40 by skipping our flight to the 'Nam and followed our hearts to Chiangmai. 

I love CMX. I plan on buying a home here when I'm successful enough. It's a beautiful city filled with artists, expats, locals, and amazing architecture and culture. I'll be going through again so I promise to provide proper pictures the next time through.

Our second day in Chiangmai-- Scott and I, along with our British traveling mate Jack, rented scooters and decided to take a tour around the city. I hit all my old spots from last year, and also took the boys to a secret off-the-grid boat noodle spot that I had found about 20-30 minutes outside of the main city, in some back road neighborhood. The dude got so stoked and confused, he asked us in his broken English how we knew about this place, then took a picture of us because I guess he rarely has foreigners come through. Again, I'll take pictures next time.

Anyone that's properly experienced Thailand, which is the backpacking Thailand, knows that Thailand, primarily Bangkok, is straight up The Hangover 2. I'm not much of a tourist, turns out Scotty isn't either, I guess thats why we've been friends so long. We don't spend our times walking around temples and taking selfies with the Thai Ronald McDonald. I prefer the unbeaten trail, or creating my own. And to my delight, as does Scotty. 

After lunch, we found a cafe to shelter us from the flash thunderstorm. The next two hours we stared at maps on our phones, studying routes and regions. I followed a few back routes, tracing the forks and clicked on a blue icon: Tat Yoi Waterfall. 

"You guys want to go find a waterfall?"

Stay tuned.

Chapter 0: An Introduction; Burning Season

Go West Young Man -- Chapter 0: An Introduction, Burning Season.

Finally found some time to sit down at a cafe. Slamming through some edits, drafting some journal entries/blogs, and working on the NBC Asian American project that's coming up. But work is work, and this small little adventure of mine was compelled by a need for some mental and emotional recovery. 

Leave it to illnesses and physical handicaps to force me into a state of weakness where it compels me search deeper. I got food poisoning the other day, and spent an entire day in Cambodia bed-ridden, and strutting about the dusty streets of Siem Reap to stretch my legs. I look back and realize it was therapeutic... I guess. The chaos of Siem Reap gave me this strange mixture of comfort and anxiety, maybe it reflected and resonated with the chaos within. However, as glamorous and exotic as it may seem, this isn't and state of wholeheartedness I fight so vigilantly for.

======

Language. It's always been the most elusive thing to me. When I close my eyes and sift through thoughts, I always imagine myself drifting through clouds and floating aimlessly, language is always the lifeboat that pulls me to shore. Ironically enough, language comes easy in places where I literally can't speak the dialect.

It's burning season here in Thailand. Fascinating. Huge acres of land are lit up in flames in preparation for the up and coming rainy season. There's been a huge drought in Thailand this year, the worst it's had in decades. I spent the first leg of my journey in Mae Sot, splitting up from my best friend Scotty (who I'll be writing about more in future posts), to go and work with my friends at Outpour Movement (who I also will be writing about more in future posts). 

I rented a scooter and spent the short time I had revisiting places I had been, and exploring streets and alleys I never went to. It's one of my favorite cities in the world.

Mae Sot is located on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, and serves as a gateway for migrants, refugees, orphans, sex-trafficked victims, drugs, black-market goods, and all the craziness you can dream of. It's a melting pot of misfits and bandits, men and women from all cultures, backgrounds, and religions, struggling to find voice and to live life. More to come in future posts.

Flash forward to the 3-4 weeks to the present, and I find myself sitting in Cambodia. Things are slowing down temporarily and I wanted to take advantage of this small moment and run some things through my heart, and take some things up with God. Language is the lifeboat, and He's has always been the captain of the ship.

Taking sips of my cold-brew in Cambodia and starting the dialogue, it hit me like a train. I realized how emotionally callous I had become this past year in the name of survival. I remember sleeping out of a sleeping bag on the floor for 3 months, not owning a single piece of furniture, and folding all my clothes out on the floor. Meanwhile, I left the security of a full-time job and literally followed my gut and leapt into free-lance. Flash forward a few months, and I got so sick that I was out of commission for 3 weeks. It was only then when I understood the panic and sleepless nights of being so-absolutely-fucking-broke. I envied the kids and peers who still had the luxury of supportive parents, and took it personally when I saw people living more privileged than I. 

But I made it. And I survived. And I'm still pushing forward.

I take a day once a week to talk with God and ask if He's proud. The answers always rhetorical, but lately I've been asking why that's so important to me. My dad turned 70 a few weeks ago, and I consider how things would've turned out if I stuck to law school. I left for this trip contemplating life and death-- who I am, who I've been, and who I want to be. I left for this trip hearing a lot of ugly rumors circulating around the block about me. I look at the people I surround myself, and I'm proud to say I have amazing, successful, honest and good men and women in my life. And I wonder what I'm doing wrong that allows this shit to stand. 

Probably wasn't the best idea to drive up to a bunch of spooked out farmers holding machetes and flame-throwers, hang out with them in a pitch black field of ash-- but I did it anyway. I sat there for a while, spacing out and wondering what would grow in the next few months. I sit and wonder now what this trip means to me. 

It's been fun. Being young and twenty. I'm glad I'm not religious anymore, and I'm glad I've learned the liberty of being free. Moreover, my travels have given me something I think a lot of Christians miss, the reward of humanity, the greatest gift of God.

I get a huge grin when I think of the word 'contrarian." It suits me so well, always rocking the damn boat. Jesus was a contrarian. The difference is that I have to learn not to be a dick when I challenge norms. But those that have known me know that I've gotten better. At the end of the day, people are people, and society today runs on pretense and assumptions. Always shooting the messenger with the message. I choose to live better than that, and to surround myself with people that have an earnest heart to see optimism in humanity. 

When I go home, things are going to be different. I've decided I'm finally closing a chapter of my life and am choosing to open something else. I've always set the man I've wanted to be as an end goal and marker, and I realize life doesn't work that way. I look back and don't regret anything, but I do realize that I've spent a few years being someone that I'm not, and investing value in areas and relationships in my life that do me harm. It's the little things that count. 

Lastly, my mom turned 68 last night. And I realize both she and dad deserve more. I think about their legacy and how I can preserve it. The ashes blew up across my face as I stared out into the fields, and I asked "why story-telling?" And as softly as the wind blew, I heard it:

Family.

Stay-tuned

Huge ups to my sister Tiffany Yoon for some of these pictures of me. I love and miss her very much, and I'm sorry I couldn't' be there for your birthday! Please support her by following her cake business @cremeanddough

Also please check out Outpour Movement. I'll be writing more about Mae Sot and their org in future posts! 

Turning 25

There's such a deep satisfaction and rush of peace whenever I see the tarmac disappear from inside the window of an airplane. The turbulence, the pot holes, and the shifting of body weight-- white noise that comes with traveling has always given me a sense of clarity and peace of mind. 

I confess. Turning 25 for me was neither exciting or underwhelming. It was, to say the least, a sobering realization that I've made excuses out of my circumstances and lack of privilege. 

No birthday cake or candles, no presents, no happy birthday from the parents overseas. I guess as I write this, I reflect and recollect what hopes I may have had about turning 25 a few years ago. "Where will I be? Who will I be? Who will I love? What will I do?" 

Needless to say, I hate to be one that overdramatizes aging and growing older. I think I recognize more than most people my age, that I have a lifetime of experiences still ahead of me, but I can't help to feel so dissatisfied.

.....

I never realized that chasing your dreams was so fucking lonely.

And I never realized how much faith and hope becomes so much harder as you grow older, coming to grips with the fact that some things are completely out of your control. 

I never realized how strong I was as a child and a boy, and how frail and addictive I became as a man. When did letting go become so hard, and when did apathy become so easy? 

I had the blessing of ushering in my 25th birthday with my best friends of 10+ years, since jr. high and high school. And as I sat in the backseat driving home, after a long night of peer pressure and obligatory birthday shots, I fought for a moment of sobriety. And like every year on my birthday, I thought of a question or something to say to God. 

I guess what I want to share is... Now that I'm older, I don't think that there's anything more that I want than to hear that my parents are proud of me. Never take the support of your parents or family for granted. Never discount privilege and never undermine it because it's so much easier to succeed when you start at a higher place. But above all, never make excuses out of your circumstances, because whatever cards the universe may have dealt you, God intends for you to win regardless. 

I just want to be proud of myself now. Work hard, travel a lot, explore as much of my humanity as possible, and find God within all of it. And despite my brokenness and my broke-ness, these past few months I've been wrestling and digging really deep, and I think I finally found it:

Contentment.

But contentment can't be an excuse to stagnate.

Let's go.

Love Is Transcendent

"I am someone who proudly and humbly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries, that a man is... a miraculously whole human being... whose only happiness is to transcend himself. "

E.E. Cummings

Love is Transcendent.

Jack Ma Once Said...

"The worst people to serve are the poor people. Give them free, they think it's a trap. Tell them it's a small investment, they'll say can't earn much. Tell them to come in big, they'll say no money. Tell them to try new things, they'll say no experience. Tell them it's traditional business, they'll say hard to do. Tell them it's a new business model, they'll say it's MLM. Tell them to run a shop, they'll say no freedom. Tell them to run a new business, they'll say no expertise.

They do have some things in common:

They love to ask Google, listen to friends who are as hopeless as them, they think more than a university professor and do less than a blind man.

Just ask them, what can they do. They won't be able to answer you.

My conclusion:

Instead of your heart beats faster, why not you just act faster a bit; instead of just thinking about it, why not do something about it. Poor people fail because of one common behavior:

Their whole life is about waiting."

 

 

Travel Montage '14 - '15

In 2014, I came to the sudden realization that my life and decisions were completely motivated and perpetuated by fear. After much wrestling, I decided to take a leap of faith; I packed my bags, and left the country.

My goals were simple: find god, find myself, and do everything that I'm afraid of. I made life-long friends in Turkey, slept in strangers homes, jumped off cliffs, hiked in jungles, crapped in holes, slept in bamboo huts, got bit by hundreds of mosquitos, hitch-hiked in the desert, crashed on a scooter, and took bucket showers. Don't talk to me about food poisoning.

I've discovered the secret of life, and found that it's this thing called time. I found that as we scurry and fear for our securities, whether it be financial or emotional, we lose our ability to take ownership of our own life.

I learned to not forsake my youth, and that the best stories have a whole lot of bad, and a whole lot of redemption.

Here's a year of life-defining, nostalgic memories, packed into 15-seconds.

I look back and I laugh at the illnesses, laugh at the puking, and laugh at the fact that I may have almost died once or twice. These things gave me a story and an experience. But most importantly, it reminded me of my humanity.