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 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! 

Dusting Off My Feet

I recently had the honor of seeing one of my favorite bands perform at a small Sunday gathering hosted by The Great Company. Between songs, Alex Hwang of Run River North stopped to share his thoughts on music and artistry. I've spent the last few weeks and months chewing and wrestling, only to discover now, as I write this post, why his words made such an impact on me.

Artistry is such a unique thing of the world, one that I'm still completely unfamiliar with. The frustrating thing is that I'm beginning to realize that this may be the eternal struggle. An artist never finds the end to his or her problems or concerns, and it's in the process within that plight that results in our best coming forward.

But what I learned from Run River North that night is that as an artist, you have no control over what happens to your creation once it leaves your mouth and/or your hands. How it's interpreted, how it's received, and how it impacts and affects a person isn't completely within your hands. More importantly, it shouldn't be the focus.

That lesson however, as serving and thoughtful as it was and has been, wasn't what impacted me. What I realized today is that I never considered myself an artist. I've only considered myself a fan. 

As most young adults in their mid-twenties. I've been spending a lot of time exploring and reconciling past memories. I've been searching, asking questions, looking for language to help me understand who I've become and perhaps shape who I'm becoming. And throughout moments in my life, I recall humble memories of childhood bravery. Glimmers of unapologetic expression of honest vulnerability, then overshadowed by pressures of society.

I've been wrestling a lot. Days have been stressful and anxious as I struggle to find where I fit and belong in this world. I realized I never committed myself in identity to being an artist. I always allowed the voices of those braver to speak on behalf of me. I look back into my childhood: scribbling poems on my xanga, singing on guitars, replaying my audio journals on my brothers tape recorder. I ask myself if I'm half the man I was as a child.

More recently, I returned from a year-long adventure around the world. I look back and I realize that I spent whatever I had, raised all I needed, and drove myself as deep into debt as I could in regards to my credit limits (which isn't a lot) just to find a moment. 

The image above is the picture that changed my life. I look back and I know now, this image was that moment.

It's the photo I keep coming back to, and it's the one that means the most to me. 

Despite the lack of story or drama behind it, I realize it doesn't matter. And like most things in life, it's better to preserve joy in simplicity. This moment changed me, and I was fortunate enough to have captured it perfectly and technically. And every time I press down on the shutter, I compare that millisecond to the happiness and anticipation that I felt when I snapped this.

Sifting through these old raws, I realized I only shared a fraction of what I had because I focused on the reception of them. Thinking through my past, I find deep and provoking words unspoken, words and moments subjugated under the courage of other men and women. I hid, and found refuge and comfort in their journey to express the best parts of themselves: their humanity.

2016 is the year dedicated to the child I neglected for so long. It's the year of middle fingers to public perception, and social acceptance. I feel as though that the only way that I can progress forward is by giving a voice to my past, and shedding light on places I was ashamed.

I'll start with what's in front of me: my travels. I hope you like the images. I hope they move you and take you somewhere like they take me back to mosquitos, humidity, food-poisoning. 

And if you don't... Well, it's practice for me not to give a damn. 

Cheers to closing off chapters, finishing well even if it's finishing late, and dusting off your feet and continuing this journey through life.

The shoes you wear through life won't always be the same, but neither will the paths you take.

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. 

Myo_Tribute (6 of 7).jpg

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