Everywhere I’ve traveled, every country I’ve visited, every city I’ve lived and stayed in outside of the States-- people ask me where I’m from. As an Asian American it’s hard to provide an honest answer that’s short and definitive. “I’m from Los Angeles, but my family is from Korea.” People get confused, some even misunderstood it as me being adopted by White Americans.
Anybody that knows me knows how proud I am to be from Los Angeles. But moving to another city, and spending so much time abroad... the “where I’m from” question compels me to search deeper and truly understand my roots. At a certain point, I understand that who I hope to be has to be reconciled with who I am. And who I am is a byproduct of where I’ve been.
For so long, I felt a need to explain myself and justify how I got to the present. Traveling has taught me to be proud my roots, it’s taught me to communicate where I come from, and it’s given me the courage to begin my journey to reach my goals.
My first experience traveling was through a faith-based nonprofit called Youth With a Mission in 2009. I was 17 years-old, had graduated high school a semester early, and left home to live in Switzerland for a few months where I’d enter a 3-4 month intensive discipleship course. Included within this course was a 2-3 month practicum field-study and outreach that allowed me to backpack thru China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. I snowboarded in the alps, endured cross-country Chinese train ride, and lived in a treehouse inside the Philippine slums. Every bit of the experience was humbling, thrilling, and exciting.
I learned from a young age that we interpret and process the world through the perceptions of what we grow up in. As I child, I grew up in the projects and Section 80 housing, I grew up in a deeply religious household, and the rest of my teenage experience took place surrounded by Asian-Americans in the suburbs of California. Being young and thrown into this global expedition challenged every ounce of my privilege. It opened me, grew me, broke me, and taught me gratitude-- it’s the foundation that has pushed me forward and pulled me back into accountability for the things that I remember to be true.
My entire adolescence, the only thing I was passionate about was serving. My father abandoned his medical license in Korea to live with us in pursuit of the American dream; I watched my mother wash feet at her nail salon to feed and clothe the family. The only thing that made sense to me growing up was to be a full-time minister or missionary, abandoning comfort and leaving home for the benefit of others.
But my first experience abroad led me deeper within myself. Capturing moments on a small point and shoot, telling stories in foreign languages, songs we didn’t know but we danced and clapped to-- only in hindsight do I realize the significance of art and how it gave me life during my time away from home. I grew 2 inches, gained 20 lbs, turned 18, and told myself that I’d pursue filmmaking when I returned home.
Fast forward to 2014, I had graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in Communications. I was prepping and studying for the LSATs. A few months had passed since graduating, I was living in an empty apartment in Los Angeles. The economic housing crisis had taken its toll, and forced my parents to move back to Korea when I started college. 23-years-old, I had smoked pot for the first time that year. And finding myself plunged into post-grad depression, I coped by being stoned for a solid straight 4 months.
At a certain point when enough was enough, I took the advice of my mentors, older brothers and sisters, and made the decision to travel for a year. I sold everything I could, left some valuables at a friends, and packed my life and all of it’s anxiety into a backpack. My first solo backpacking global expedition began in Turkey, and eventually made my way to Korea, Hawaii, Thailand, Myanmar, and back to Korea.
Somewhere between the time I was in Switzerland, to the time that I graduated college, I had completely lost the vision for filmmaking and let my heart harden. I wrestled with security, with paying my loans, with having a stable job, and being a contributing citizen of society.
So I told myself that I’d do every single thing that I was afraid of this year. I hitch-hiked in a desert, couch-surfed, stayed at random strangers houses, jumped off cliffs, slept on benches with only my belongings, and drove a motorcycle for the first time. I lost my debit card, had money stolen, broke my phone, walked into cities with no clue for accommodations/transportation, and got lost so many times.
But there was a dream that had died inside of me.
I returned to the same program that I was a student in Switzerland at, this time in Hawaii as a volunteer staff and teacher. I took my students to Myanmar and Thailand, working in refugee camps and prisons. The connections I made, the people I met, the places I traveled, and the photos I took-- it resurrected me, reminded me of something that I forgot and gave up. I sat on the temples of Bagan during sunrise and told myself that I’d come back home to pursue filmmaking seriously.
Since returning home from my year-long trip in 2014, I’ve taken at least 60+ days out of every year to travel, primarily in Asia. At the beginning of this year I revisited Myanmar, a country that I consider my first love in regards to backpacking. I visited the same temple that I sat on during sunrise where I told myself that I’d be a filmmaker, and renewed those vows for one final time.
Last month I moved to New York, another dream that I had dreamt, killed off, and had resurrected again. And as I sit in the same hostel lobby that I sat in during my first trip to Thailand, writing this blog, I understand more than ever that moments like this will become scarce as I continue the next chapter of my career and life.
A moment to reflect about the past, and remember gratitude.
I have this this crazy idea that I might able to change the world by the things I create and the communities I foster. Often times, I felt that those ideals conflict with who I am because there was an image that I wasn’t living up to. There was a man that I wanted to become that I couldn’t reach or manifest.
This year, 2017, it broke me and lifted me at the same time. Values and dreams that I thought were dualities were reconciled, dreams that I executed came back to life. I granted myself permission in things that I never allowed myself to pursue, I learned to love myself a little more. But most of all, I tried. I tried my fucking best, and I poured myself out on every single thing that I got involved in.
Not everything was victorious. I lost relationships, burned a few bridges, irresponsibly lost an expensive camera, and made some immature financial decisions. I had a lot of really dark moments this year, and it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I really invested in mental and emotional health with some life-coaching, therapy, and counseling with trusted mentors.
But despite it all, I finish with a full heart for the first time in my life. I finally understand with absolute assurance that where I come from, the families that fostered me, the friends that surrounded me, the experiences that changed me, and the love that compelled me… All of it holds me true, just as it has for years and years.
I recognize my roots now more than ever. My entire life, I’ve been surrounded by men and women that have fought greatly for love. I witnessed the love of God thru the people and places I come from, and where I come from has granted me permission to live wholeheartedly. It grants me permission to move forward without fear.
The beginning of this year, I wrote in my journal that I’d move to New York. I wrote that I’d produce a commercial. I wrote that I wanted to work with Nike. I wrote that I wanted to visit the Philippines, and travel with my parents. And although there were a few things that didn’t hold life, everything else passed and came to fruition, despite my doubts.
I’ve always been my worst critic. I’ve never been able to genuinely celebrate myself, held myself to unrealistic standards, and I constantly lived in a future that didn’t exist while foregoing the responsibility of stewarding the present. Every year I finish by prepping big goals for the next. This year is different. This time, I’m proud. This time, I’m just grateful.
Growth isn’t a seasonal thing, but a lifelong journey of keeping your heart soft.
So 2018... I devote myself to being kinder to myself. I’ll reassure myself that who I am is absolutely enough, and that who I want to be is overrated (although I’m sure I’ll get there someday.) I’ll build myself even more-- not out of criticism, but out of self-love. I’ll pursue the things that I want intentionally and responsibly. I won’t let anxiety and doubts dictate my decisions, in career and relationships. I give myself grace in the places I failed, realizing that not everything can be restored, and thats okay. Most importantly, with full and healthy heart, I’ll pour myself out time and time again, devoting myself to the hope of the 18 year-old kid in me that just wanted to love well and live fearlessly.
I’m thankful. I’m thankful that anywhere I go in the world I have friends. And that I can take my experiences and the testimony of their sacrifices with me along on the journey that I’m on.
With that said, I have a flight to catch to Korea for the New Years with my parents. 2017 still has a little bit of juice left, a little bit of travel left, and a little bit of home left.
2018, The future can wait.