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. 

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 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.

To Myo

February 24th, 2015.

In between a few dingy buildings and metal shacks, was a small dark storage room no bigger than 6x10ft. His leftover dinner hung on a string within a plastic bag from the ceiling, and his bed was a small bamboo mat. "Welcome to my home," he exclaimed with every bit of enthusiasm. I was invited into his home and into an opportunity in hearing the story of a man who's life was filled with tragedy and great hope.

I remember the day clearly. My students and I were brimming with excitement as we prepared to make that short trek over the bridge. With just a few steps, we'd be crossing the border from Thailand and into Burma. The agenda for the day kept us in eager expectation: we'd be working alongside and spending time with some locals at a nearby brick-making village. Afterwards, we'd make way to some other villages with the hopes of providing them some type of aid or comfort.

Upon entering Burma, I was greeted and introduced to a striking older Karen-Burmese gentlemen by the name of Myo. His english was impeccable, and his smile radiant. And like many of the people that have met and grown to know him, I was drawn to him and his charisma. 

Myo_Tribute (7 of 7).jpg

Fast forward to the latter part of the afternoon, our group had split up, and Myo had invited one of my hosts, Cole, on a tour around the neighborhood and offered to show him his home. I emphatically invited myself. As he navigated us through muddy alleys and dusty sidewalks, Myo greeted every neighbor along the way, reminding them of the love of God over their lives. I wandered a few paces ahead of him, wondering where is home was. He called for me, and I turned to see him unlocking the doors to a small cupboard.

Myo_Tribute (3 of 7).jpg
myo_burma
burma_portrait

Cole and I took a seat, as he began to share stories of his life in Burma. The horrors of a government committing decades of genocide, and what life was like living under government censorship. We laughed in shock and awe about his stories of Burmese imprisonment, what Yangon was like when he was a university student, and his crazy tales of coordinating underground government protests. My curiosity about his english was quenched when I learned that he had a PhD. in physics. Which then led to the deeper question, "why is he here?" 

burma

The word was that Myo was blacklisted by the government and exiled from his home. This was confirmed as the overall mood took a somber turn. The exuberant and bright persona shifted to something more contemplative and sorrowful, as his eyes shifted towards the past.  "I just want to see my mother." Our hearts broke. 

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This weekend, I received news that Myo had suddenly passed away. I spent the last few days trying to process and remember the time I got to spend with him. Myo was a Karen who proudly displayed his colors, and carried abounding hope for Myanmar and for his ethnic people. His optimism and joy was infectious. He spoke with tears in his eyes about the importance of his people receiving a proper education, a better Burma, a free Burma. I recall a stillness in the air, a soft moment of vulnerability passing through that tiny dark room that smelled like generations of toil and sorrow. 

This past week was particularly rough for me. Swings of depression and anxiety as I contemplated between getting a steady professional job versus pursuing this path as a photographer/filmmaker/writer. I received the news of Myo's passing, and I quickly dug into my hard-drive sorting through cluttered files for these images. 

Going through the raw files once more, I sorted and edited these images with tears in my eyes as I began to realize how much of an impact this short moment left on me. Better yet, I was reminded that this is the very reason why I chose to pick up a camera and pen in the first place. I look back at these pictures and feel a nostalgic love that I had forgotten about. A moment to capture, and a life to share-- I remembered I took this leap to pass along the seeds of stories untold.

"God be with us," etched on the back wall, I can't express how thankful I am for these experiences and pictures. I'm a middle-class Korean-American who grew up in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. But beyond the luxury and privilege, I was reminded of my humanity and the things that truly matter. 

So thank you Myo, and thank you Outpour Movement. Your legacy and your love lives on within the lives of millions. Your sacrifice made Burma a better nation, and your love and smile reminds me to take the courage to continue after these dreams. 

Thank you. And I can't wait to see you soon.

For more information about the region and the work we were involved in, please visit Outpour Movement