Rebel With a Cause?
In the summer of 2011, UCLA student Chris Jeon left his $9,000-a-month internship at a San Francisco financial firm to fight with the rebels in Libya. What was he thinking? For the 21-year-old from Orange County, it all made perfect sense—which is why he went back again.
by JOSHUA DAVIS
It’s midnight in Libya, and the math major from UCLA is standing on an overturned pickup truck screaming, “Libya is great!” He has just survived an amateur “drifting” accident—the pickup he was in tipped over on its side, skidding across Benghazi’s Keish Square at 40 miles an hour—and he is jubilant. With his carefully tousled hair and goofy T-shirt (featuring a cartoon bomb that’s crying while it explodes), he looks like a stoner undergrad on spring break, which, remarkably, he is.
“This is wild,” he says.
There are a thousand or so Libyans standing in the overheated square, watching a 21-year-old Korean American kid from Orange County pledge his allegiance to their country. Not all of them are amused.
A year before, Chris Jeon knew next to nothing about Libya. In the spring of 2011, as Libyans were rallying in Benghazi, igniting a revolution against Muammar Qaddafi, Jeon was a business-minded junior, angling for a high-paying summer internship at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset-management firm. The pay was good, and the internship was a steppingstone to a career path he’d spent his life gunning for, but it disappointed Jeon almost instantly. Each monotonous day in his cubicle at BlackRock’s San Francisco headquarters showed him how boring his life could be.
So that August, with the rebels advancing on Qaddafi, Chris Jeon flew to Cairo, hitchhiked across the Libyan border and joined a rebel battalion. From the outside, it was an inexplicable departure: One week he was a finance trainee in a slick San Francisco office tower; the next he was in the stifling desert, dodging mortar fire and going by the name Ahmed Mugrabi Saidi Barga. To Jeon, however, it made perfect sense. Now, five months after the end of the war, Jeon is back in Libya for spring break. He’s abandoned the idea of a career in banking and says he wants to return to Libya to help his friends rebuild their country. But as he stands on the overturned truck, he seems a little dazed. His eyes are wide with adrenaline. He starts chanting in rudimentary Arabic, trying to lead the crowd in a call and response. They’re not going for it. Continue Reading »
Award-winning filmmaker Kim Ki-duk urges American audiences to see the evil in us all.
story by STEVE HAN
photograph by INKI CHO
JUST A FEW MINUTES into my interview with Kim Ki-duk, it’s clear this conversation with South Korea’s revolutionary filmmaker is going to get deeply philosophical.
“Competition is an inevitable element of human life,” Kim says at one point. “But it becomes dangerous when we compete solely for money and power. We can’t continue to have competitions where losing mires you in a sense of inferiority. The purposes of competing have to be based on positive will. I want us to compete for the purposes of living in a horizontal society.”
Though he is recognized in the international film world as a critically acclaimed—and sometimes controversial—director, Kim is also well known in Korea for coining the term supyeongsahwae, which means “horizontal society.” Such a society, according to Kim, is a world where everyone strives for understanding, rather than judging. Promoting the horizontal society is also the ultimate motto of his films, including his latest, Pieta, which became the first Korean film to receive the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Kim was in Los Angeles last month for the American Film Institute’s festival, where the award-winning movie was being screened. Barbaric and bloody, the story of Pieta centers on a ruthless debt collector, Lee Kang-do (played by Lee Jung-jin), who employs violence reaching dehumanizing levels to collect his dues. The story then takes a strange turn when Kang-do encounters a debtor who claims to be his mother. Continue Reading »
Pro soccer player James Riley of Chivas USA reveals the secret of his success.
story by STEVE HAN
photographs by KYUSUNG GONG
In 2002, JAMES RILEY was a freshman student-athlete at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, still getting attuned to a new life far away from his mother in Colorado Springs, Colo. One day, he received a call from his mother that turned his life upside down.
“James,” she said, “I have breast cancer.”
Riley felt like someone plunged a knife in his heart. His mother, Korean immigrant Chong Horton, raised Riley on her own. She was all he had growing up.
“It was tough,” Riley told KoreAm. “I definitely broke down.”
He wanted to drop his athletic and academic aspirations to return home to care for his mother, but she convinced him to stay put. Meanwhile, despite her diagnosis, she continued to put in long hours as a hotel housekeeper to support Riley and his sister.
Mothers are wired to be that way. They’re immune to pain and fear. Those were the toughest days of his life, Riley admits. But his Wake Forest teammates, including fellow Korean American Ryan Caugherty, an adoptee, helped him persevere.
“We had a 6 o’clock practice the morning [after I spoke to my mom],” Riley said. “There was no way I wanted to go, so I told my roommate [Caugherty] to go ahead. But he just said, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving without you. We’re doing it together.’ So I went, and being with the guys really helped. That’s why soccer became so important to me.” Continue Reading »
by RANDALL PARK
When I was growing up, every New Year’s Day, my entire family would gather to perform the yearly ritual of saebae. It’s basically a way to honor ancestors and the older generations with a deep bow to the floor and the wish for many blessings in the coming year. We children would approach each elder, proclaim “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo!,” bow to the floor, and then, for some reason, they would hand us cash. As a kid, I didn’t understand the meaning of it all. I just knew that at the start of every New Year, I’d have a buttload of money to spend on comic books and candy. It was awesome.
There’s nothing cuter than seeing a little Korean toddler perform a sacred ritual. I distinctly remember when my awkward bows would elicit an “awww” from the room full of delighted adults. I was frickin’ adorable. Continue Reading »
Pretty in Plastic
As K-pop continues its rise across the globe, some Koreans worry that the industry’s “pretty” idols are encouraging the rise of another phenomenon: teen plastic surgery.
story by SEUNGHWA MADELEINE HAN
illustration by INKI CHO
IT’S NO SECRET K-pop has spiked in popularity in recent years. According to Korea JoongAng Daily USA, by 2010, over 900 K-pop videos on YouTube by South Korea’s top three media companies had received over 500 million hits from Asia alone. (This was long before Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” of course.) Money Today reported that the four top-paid Korean male celebrities are in the music industry. And, thanks to hallyu, or the Korean wave, referring to the increasing international popularity of Korean culture, K-pop has gained a considerable fanbase abroad, too. A reporter for Monocle on Bloomberg Television dubbed K-pop South Korea’s “most potent weapon,” and YouTube has officially added K-pop as a genre to its “Music” page.
However, even as countries around the world are reveling in the music of girl and boy bands like Girls’ Generation, 2NE1 and Big Bang, some Koreans internally are worried that K-pop may be encouraging the growth of another trend: teen plastic surgery.
Commonplace today on numerous K-pop fan websites are speculative stories about whether pop idols with picture-perfect facial features are natural or the work of a talented plastic surgeon. Sample headlines from fan sites include: “Chocolat denies plastic surgery rumors: ‘We are 100% natural beauties’”; “Did SNSD’s Taeyeon & Tiffany recently undergo cosmetic surgery?”; “Brown Eyed Girls’ Miryo addresses plastic surgery rumor; “IU denies that she went under the knife”; “ZE:A’s Kwanghee hasn’t been able to drink alcohol since he got plastic surgery.”
Often accompanying such stories are recent photos of the K-pop star alongside his or her childhood photos, so that netizens can draw their own conclusions.
Certainly, plastic surgery in South Korea, in general, has made headlines over the years. Last April, The Economist reported that the Asian country emerged as the most-cosmetically enhanced population in the world. The report was based on data from a 2010 Survey by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, which found that, while the total number of aesthetic surgical procedures was highest in the U.S., when adjusted for population size, Korea topped the list. (To be fair, some Korean media pointed out that nearly half of those procedures were non-invasive, such as Botox injections.) Continue Reading »