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Jeff Jeon

The Real Story Behind College Student Turned Libyan Freedom Fighter Chris Jeon

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
Photo by Mark Edward Harris/KoreAm

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.

“I think we should get out of here,” I say, but he ignores me. Somehow the formation of an angry mob doesn’t seem to bother him. Our translator, who’d been watching the rally from the far end of the square, pushes through the crowd to tell us that we need to leave immediately. Jeon doesn’t want to go—he’s taking pictures now—but the translator is insistent.  People are demanding to know who we are. We head to the translator’s car and get in. The crowd follows us. Someone shouts that we’re with the CIA. Dozens of men circle the vehicle. Fists start banging on the roof. “Ameriki go home,” someone screams. Jeon just waves.

“They’re so passionate,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”

The translator gets out to reason with the crowd, and someone puts a gun to his head, forcing him back into the car. A large man with a wide, flattened nose climbs into the passenger seat.

“What’s happening?” I yell, in a panic.

“You’re being kidnapped,” the translator says. I look over at Jeon.  He’s laughing.

“You gotta love Libya, right?” he says.

Ladera Ranch bills itself as “one of Orange County’s premier master-planned communities.” The development sprouted out of the brush-covered hills of Southern California in 1999 and offered a slice of sunny perfection to anyone who could afford it. The newly paved streets are lined with saplings, American flags hang from porches, and buyers can choose from a handful of elegant home models. The community of approximately 8,000 households has its own schools, freeways and shopping centers. Soon after Chris Jeon’s family moved there, the local branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers voted it Project of the Year.

The Jeons came to the U.S. from Korea in the 1980s. Chris’ father, Peter, studied at UCLA, racking up an impressive list of degrees: a bachelor’s, a master’s in mechanical engineering and a medical degree in dental science.  His wife, Jane, became a pharmacist, while Dr. Jeon ran his own orthodontics practice in Orange County. Chris was their eldest, a first-generation American, and his parents had high hopes for him.

He didn’t disappoint: National Honor Society, a 4.3 GPA, vice president of the Future Business Leaders of America. When other kids were shotgunning beers in the parking lot behind the cineplex, Jeon was home practicing piano and guitar. “My parents sacrificed a lot so their kids could have opportunities,” Jeon says. He had no intention of wasting them. “I wanted to be the perfect kid for him,” he says, referring to his father.

He wasn’t exactly perfect. In junior high, he assembled a large-enough collection of death metal—Slayer, In Flames, Cryptopsy—to alarm his Catholic parents, who threw it all out one day when he was at school. “I’ve never been so angry,” Jeon remembers. In one of his first acts of rebellion, he slept in his car in the family driveway for a week.

When Jeon arrived at UCLA in 2008, he had the résumé of a classic overachiever. He joined a frat, drinking his first beer in April of his freshman year. He got properly hammered a few times after that, but never lost focus on academics or his dream of eventually landing on Wall Street. “I wanted money, status, stock options, all of it,” he says. “To me, that was the pinnacle of achievement.”

But by junior year, he started to feel anxious, stifled—and not just by academics. At the fraternity, there was talk of going to Cancún for spring break. It would be awesome: They’d chase girls and get wasted just as they had the year before.

“Why don’t we do something different?” Jeon suggested.

Only one of his frat brothers took him seriously—Ross McCray. McCray had also grown up in Ladera Ranch, in a house with the same floor plan as Jeon’s. They were both math majors whose fathers were doctors. Somehow, they hadn’t met until UCLA.

Jeon, manning a 14.5-mm anti-aircraft gun meant to shoot down airplanes in the sky. “The bullets were over a foot long and sliced through people like butter,” he said. Photo courtesy of Chris Jeon.

Together they decided to fly to Seattle for a week and survive on only a dollar. It was something that kids like them would never consider doing.  “We were very, very on-track students,” McCray says. “This was like a release valve.”

McCray dubbed it the “one-dollar trip,” and within days, they were in downtown Seattle with nothing more than a single dollar, their driver’s licenses, and a book containing 400 investment banking interview questions. (Interviews were looming, and they needed to brush up.) They hadn’t counted on it being 40 degrees and were soon freezing and hungry. They started to beg.

For the next week, they slept in parking garages and homeless shelters, panhandling for food and struggling to stay warm. For Jeon, it was a revelation.  “Between Ladera Ranch and UCLA, I’d always lived in a bubble,” he says.  “It wasn’t the real world.”

A week later, they started interviewing for summer internships with investment banks. It was a hard transition.  One interviewer asked Jeon to estimate the number of golf balls that would fit inside a 747. “Who the f-ck cares?” Jeon thought. But his family had worked hard to get him to this point. He ran some numbers in his head and said that roughly 15.7 million golf balls would fit in a 747, assuming you didn’t fill the fuel tanks. A few days later, he was offered a job at Black-Rock, one of the world’s largestasset management firms.

That summer, Jeon sat in a cubicle for 12 to 18 hours a day in BlackRock’s San Francisco headquarters. He spent weeks preparing a report on the micro and macroeconomic potential of the medical-insurance industry and researched the balance sheets of Brazilian mining companies. Jeon’s mind wandered.  He’d Google things like “most interesting places in the world” and “unexplored frontiers.” He was ready to start living differently.

He went skydiving, but it wasn’t thrills he was looking for. One weekend, he did a dollar trip to Las Vegas, passing himself off as a bellhop at the MGM Grand even though he wasn’t dressed as one. He simply took bags out of open trunks and led guests on meandering, confused journeys through the massive hotel. Somehow he managed to make $20 in tips. He played craps with the money and drank complimentary cocktails on the pit floor. He returned to BlackRock on Monday, bleary-eyed and unshowered, wearing the same suit he’d left in on Friday. His supervisor warned him that his behavior was unprofessional. He didn’t care.

“Each day at BlackRock felt the same,” he says. “But every day on a one-dollar trip lasted so long. There was so much more substance—the emotions were so intense because I was living on nothing. In terms of experience, I felt like I was getting so much more bang for the buck.”

Interns were expected to keep up on how world affairs might influence oil prices and stock indexes—and Jeon became captivated by the scrappy rebels fighting in Libya. At the time, they were advancing on Tripoli with a ragtag army outfitted with Cold War-era rifles and pickup trucks jury-rigged with anti-aircraft guns. It’s like a one-dollar war, he thought.

This is the moment when the Western media found Jeon in Libya. “I was flanked by many of the rebels curious to see who I was and what I was about,” said Jeon. “Many of them turned out to be some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”

In early August, Jeon went out for sushi with two other interns, Astrid Fernandes and Letian Zhang. He told them that he was thinking of going to Libya to join the rebellion. It was a chance to see something historic before school started, and he wanted to feel what it was like to have different kinds of problems. “No more PowerPoints or crazy-ass spreadsheets,” he said.  Libya seemed like the obvious next step in his journey.

“Are you f-cking crazy?” Zhang asked.

Zhang took out a pen and started drawing on the place mat. He’d studied math at Stanford and was heading into a statistics-focused sociology Ph.D.  program at Harvard. He made a probability map for Jeon. There was a 25 percent chance Jeon would get shot before making it to the front lines. If he did make it, there was another 25 percent chance he’d be killed in the crossfire, since he didn’t speak any Arabic and had no idea what he was doing. He gave his friend a 50 percent chance of dying.

Jeon felt like he was dying already.

A week later, he and Astrid went to a liquor store, where he bought his first pack of cigarettes. He figured the rebels were heavy smokers, and so he wanted to practice. His friend watched him strike a match, take a drag and break into a fit of coughing.

CHRIS JEON LANDED in Cairo on August 23, 2011. School didn’t start again for another month, and he had told his parents he was going sightseeing in Egypt. He brought one pair of jeans, three shirts, a leather jacket, a pair of Converse and two condoms. He hopped a bus in Cairo and headed for Saloum on the Egyptian-Libyan border.

The rebels guarding the border were playing FIFA Soccer on a PlayStation when he arrived. Jeon waved at them. They glanced at his passport and went back to their video game. “OK, cool,” Jeon said, and simply walked into Libya.

It looked like the moon: empty, burnt-brown desert stretching for mile after mile. The front lines were 500 miles to the west. Jeon didn’t speak Arabic and hadn’t done much research on the region, but he’d read the Wikipedia page on Libya and watched a bunch of YouTube videos documenting the war. He particularly liked one that showed a group of rebels chanting in unison after a victory—he’d never felt that fired up about anything. The momentum had shifted, and Qaddafi’s grip on the country was weakening.  With the support of NATO airpower, the rebels were now attacking Tripoli.  Qaddafi was in hiding, but issued a statement saying the government was ready to “turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents.” Jeon wanted to find the fighting before it was all over.

“This is Sgt. Absulam Zawe on the left and General Absulam Reche in the center. Reche was the general of the brigade and was one of the highest-ranking officers in the rebels. I have an AK-47 and utility vest ready for the morning’s battle.” Photo courtesy of Chris Jeon.

At the border, Jeon caught a taxi for the rebel capital of Benghazi, where he planned to hitch a ride to the front.  But the taxi was stopped at a checkpoint about 10 miles outside the city.  Three rebels peered in and motioned the foreigner out of the car. They asked who he was, and Jeon struggled to explain that he was a UCLA student looking for the front lines. One of the rebels asked in broken English if he was a North Korean spy sent by Qaddafi. The taxi took off, stranding him there. The rebels grew impatient:

Who was he here to see? Could anybody in Libya vouch for him?

While at BlackRock, Jeon had emailed the only two people in Benghazi who had posted on CouchSurfing.org, a website that helps travelers find free places to stay. One guy had responded that Jeon should call him when he got to Benghazi. Jeon dug out his number and gave it to the rebels. It was the middle of the night, but someone picked up. Jeon could hear yelling on the other end. He figured that this was as far as his Libyan adventure was going to go. The rebel hung up.

“OK, your friend coming,” the rebel said.

A half hour later, a sleek BMW 7 Series sedan pulled up at the checkpoint, blasting Justin Bieber on the radio. A guy was sitting in another’s lap in the passenger seat, even though there was no one in the back. The passenger door flew open, and Ayman Amzain, Jeon’s couch-surfing contact, bounded out. He had long hair and no front teeth.

“Kreeez!” he said in a high-pitched voice and planted kisses on Jeon’s cheeks. He stepped back and took a good look at Jeon.

“I thought you’d be blond,” he said pouting. “And maybe taller.”

Amzain was a 31-year-old medical student who lived with his parents and dreamed of moving to San Francisco.  The appearance of a Californian in Libya was probably as close as he’d get to his dream, and he was thrilled that Jeon had come. In fact, he didn’t want him to leave. He tried convincing his new friend to forget going to the war.  But after four days of hookah bars and music videos, Jeon grew restless.

“I was living in a cloud of hairspray and Justin Bieber music,” he says. “It was like the revolution wasn’t even happening.”

Amzain reluctantly arranged for a friend to drive Jeon toward the fighting.  He wrote a letter in Arabic and told Jeon to show it to anyone who asked questions. The letter read, “Hello. My name is Chris. I am from the United States. Please help me to go to the front lines. Thank you, and thanks to God.”

Amzain kissed Jeon on both cheeks and told him to come back soon.

In early September, Jeon was dropped at the gates of an oil refinery.  He could tell that the front lines were close. Pickup trucks mounted with rocket launchers streamed out of the complex, heading west. Tripoli had fallen, but Qaddafi was still at large and unbowed. On the radio that day, he vowed to fight a “long, drawn-out war.”

Qaddafi’s loyalists had concentrated their firepower in the central coastal region, near his hometown of Sirte. For the revolution to succeed, Qaddafi had to be killed or arrested, and many believed that he was hiding in Sirte, the city the rebels were now pushing toward.

As they rolled out of the refinery, each truck blasted a different song: Tupac bled into high-pitched Arabic music followed by the Scorpions. The men onboard wore green camo with red-checkeredkaffiyehs over their faces.  One of the trucks stopped, and a young rebel stuck his head out of the window.

“Jackie Chan!” he shouted at Jeon and swung the back door open.

“Holy sh-t, this is really happening,” Jeon thought as he squeezed in among the men, the RPGs and the AK-47s. Nobody asked who he was or why he was there. They just handed him a grenade, some earplugs and a cigarette.  He was glad he had practiced smoking.

Twenty minutes later, they stopped on the side of the road, where a clump of pickups stood in the open desert.  Suddenly, a shell landed nearby and sent a huge plume of dirt into the air.  The rebels in Jeon’s car leaped out of the cab, returning fire with the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bed of their truck. Others fired cannons and launched rockets. There was no coordination.  Everybody just let loose with every weapon they had, aiming in the general direction of the incoming fire.  This was way crazier than anything he’d seen on YouTube.

Shells rained down around them.  The rebels panicked, scrambling to get into their vehicles. As they sped away, one of the rebels put his hand on Jeon’s chest and felt his heart thudding heavily. Everybody glanced at Jeon and laughed. He looked terrified.

“Where you stay?” the rebel asked.

“Nowhere,” Jeon replied.

“No problem,” he said. “You stay with us tonight.”

Back at the oil refinery, the rebels had commandeered a newly built two-story town house. There were a half-dozen men sleeping in each room. Two members of the battalion had been killed by a rocket that day, so some floor space had opened up. In the living room, Jeon sat on the ground and introduced himself, but the rebels didn’t like his name. Chris was too short and didn’t sound Libyan.

“We give you new name,” announced Mohammed, an 18-year-old from Benghazi.

Shouting broke out as the rebels debated Jeon’s new name. Finally, Commander Absalam, the group leader, held up his hand and pointed at Jeon.

“Chris no more,” Absalam said solemnly. “Now you are Ahmed Mugrabi Saidi Barga.”

The rebels cheered. The name was a mash-up of all the tribal names represented in the room. They would call him Ahmed.

“My first day in the front-lines with a rebel army group,” described Jeon. “This is where I began my transformation from a naive college student from L.A. to a soldier in the Libyan revolution.”

“AHMED, YOU SMOKE hashish?” Jeon’s second day with his battalion was spent brazenly driving into small desert towns in an attempt to flush out pockets of Qaddafi loyalists by drawing enemy fire. No shots had been fired, but the stress was evident as the rebels passed around the dirty plastic soda bottle they used as a water pipe. When it came to Jeon, he hesitated. He had never done any drugs. It was then that he decided to institute what he called a “yeah, man” policy.

“Yeah, man,” he said, taking a hit. “I smoke hash.”

The next night, the battalion drove to a darkened four-story mansion on the sea. Commander Absalam blasted off the mansion’s door handle, and they walked in. The place had been hastily abandoned. Absalam explained that the only people who lived in houses this nice were people who cooperated with the regime. Therefore, everything in the house was now rebel property.

Clothes still hung in the closets, and there was food in the refrigerator.  The rebels grabbed the food and rifled through drawers. Jeon saw a toothbrush lying in the master bath and pocketed it. He hadn’t brushed in days, and he could hear his orthodontist father’s voice nagging in his head.

Hanging on the wall of the living room was a shiny new flatscreen TV.  Mansur, a rebel in his late 20s, handed Jeon a hammer and an AK-47. Jeon was confused.

“That’s a good TV,” he said. “Why not take it?”

“Qaddafi people, they hurt my father. They hurt my mother,” Mansur said. “This is Qaddafi people. F-ck this house.”

Jeon felt the weight of the gun in his hands and looked around the room.  The leather couches were big and new.  Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. It reminded him of all the McMansions back in Ladera Ranch.

He took a hammer to the TV, and then aimed the gun. He pulled the trigger, watching as the chandeliers shattered and crashed to the ground.

“This is my host Aymen in Benghazi,” said Jeon. “He took care of me like his own family and always made sure I was well fed and protected. He also liked to do my hair. I will always be indebted to him and his family.”

The next day, Mansur gave him a Russian-made shotgun. He was no longer just an observer. He was becoming part of the katiba, the Libyan word for brigade. He still didn’t speak much Arabic, but that didn’t seem to matter.  There was a cheap Casio keyboard in the town house and when they weren’t on patrol, Jeon taught a skinny 17-yearold named Akram how to play Beethoven. In exchange, Akram showed him how to assemble and break down an AK-47. After two days, the Casio was covered in gun grease, but Akram could play “Für Elise,” and Jeon could field-strip the gun in less than 90 seconds.

Akram spoke English and wanted to know everything about Jeon’s life back in California. Jeon showed him photos of Ladera Ranch on his cellphone.  Akram couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and wondered why Jeon would ever want to leave such a place. Akram explained that Libya under Qaddafi was hell. A few months earlier, his cousin had spoken out against the dictator and was executed.

“I am fighting for my cousin, for my family, for my country,” Akram said.  “I have no fear because death would be better than living the old way.”

Few of the rebels seemed to care why Jeon was fighting, only that he was willing. On Jeon’s fourth day with the brigade, Commander Absalam told him that the mission they were going on was too dangerous. “You’re not ready to be a martyr,” he told him and dropped Jeon at a rebel staging area in the desert.

Two American reporters, Bradley Hope and Kristen Chick, had just arrived. “We were way, way out there,” Hope says. “And then we saw this college kid with a shotgun and a Lakers jersey. It was mind-boggling.”

Jeon explained that he was on summer vacation and “thought it would be cool to join the rebels.” He added that his parents didn’t know he was in Libya and pleaded with the reporters not to mention him, but both wrote articles about the encounter (“At first glance, Mr. Jeon looked like someone who took a wrong turn on their way to the beach or the Santa Monica Pier,” wrote Hope in a Dubai paper, The National).  Jeon’s parents learned he was in Libya when people sent them articles online. They frantically started emailing and phoning news organizations in the region.

“Nobody wants their child to be in a war,” Dr. Jeon said. “Plus, school was starting soon.”

An Al Jazeera news crew spotted Jeon at the refinery where he was staying with his katiba. A network correspondent took out her satellite phone and handed it to Jeon. Within a minute, his parents were on the line.

“You have to come home, Chris,” his dad shouted. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Jeon snapped.

His mother got on the phone. She was crying. She sounded terrible. She begged him to come home. Jeon told her he’d think about it. He hung up and rejoined his brigade.

A couple of days later, the katiba drove into the desert and fired cannons at loyalist positions. Jeon helped load the ammunition. “My lips were cracked and bleeding, I hadn’t brushed my teeth in days, and my face was peeling, but it didn’t matter,” Jeon says. “I was totally happy—happier than I’d ever been.”

“Hanging out in the Mediterranean with Absulam and Tetty. The water was the warmest and clearest that I’ve ever experienced, and the contrast of the beautiful oceanside with the charred leftovers of destroyed cities 50 feet away on the coast was huge.”

He was standing beside a truck, watching his friends fire the cannons, when he heard the whine of an incoming shell. Everybody dove for cover, and the ground shook. Sand rained down, and somebody screamed. When he finally stood, he saw a mangled, charred body lying near the blast. It was Akram.

He stared at the body. Just a few nights before, Akram had played “Für Elise,” jumping up and down when he did it without a mistake. He was only 17. “Those f-ckers,” Jeon kept saying.  Somebody told him to get in a truck, and they retreated.

That afternoon, Commander Absalam sent Jeon with five others to relieve a checkpoint in the desert. Nobody talked on the drive out. When they arrived, they chain-smoked and sat wordlessly under a tarp. It was 110 degrees. Jeon saw three trucks appear out of the heat shimmering off the road in the west.  They were moving fast, inbound from Qaddafi-held territory. The rebels around him picked up their weapons, cigarettes dangling from their mouths.

As the trucks approached, Jeon saw someone lean out of one of the windows with a gun. It seemed surreal, like a mirage in the desert heat. The rebels around him started yelling, and he heard bullets whiz past. They were under attack.

“Motherf-cker,” Jeon hissed, grabbing an AK out of the bed of a truck. He knew how to assemble and disassemble the gun, but had yet to fire it in battle. Now he could see the faces of the loyalist forces as they drove offroad, circling the rebels and strafing the checkpoint. He flipped the safety off.

A bullet pierced the leg of a man next to him. The screaming was buried underneath the report of automatic weapons. Jeon was breathing fast. He popped up from behind his vehicle, took aim and fired at one of the circling trucks.  The gun jerked wildly, and he ran out of bullets. He loaded another clip. This time, when he squeezed the trigger, he saw the passenger’s head snap back—blood splattered the inside of the car.

After another volley, the attackers sped back to the west, and it was quiet again, except for the growls of the wounded. One of the rebels walked up to Jeon and slapped him on the back.

“You are Libyan now,” the man said.

At dusk, he rolled into the refinery with a contingent from the checkpoint.  As the daylight faded and the adrenaline drained out of him, he wondered what he’d just done. “I didn’t feel any remorse,” he said. “But I worried about what my parents would think if they found out.” He remembered his mom crying on the phone and got choked up.

“Problem, Ahmed?” asked Abdul Karim, a rebel friend.

Mia, mia,” Jeon replied in Libyan slang. It meant he was 100 out of 100, feeling fine.

“This was the barracks where we stayed. These buildings were former villas that belonged to Qaddafi loyalists; however, we took over the compounds and used them as base camps.”

BY MORNING, he’d decided to go home. Chris Jeon was scheduled for a full load of classes the fall term of his senior year—linear algebra, differential equations, game theory—but by November, he’d not managed to make it to many. He’d lost interest in math and almost everything else he used to care about. He sat in his off-campus apartment and smoked with the shades drawn. An AK-47 bullet dangled from his neck on a leather necklace—a gift from his brigade. He slept during the day and stayed up late so he could talk to his Libyan friends on Skype.  “I gave him sh-t because he stopped hitting me up and going out,” said McCray, Jeon’s friend from the one-dollar trip to Seattle. “He just disappeared.”

Jeon’s parents were worried too.  Peter Jeon, who’d never done anything more adventurous than golf, for fear of hurting his arm and impacting his orthodontics practice, couldn’t understand why their son had sought out a war zone. “All my friends asked me where Chris had come from,” Dr. Jeon says. “I told them I don’t know.” In the U.S., many had reacted with horror to his story. Wired.com charged him with “turning someone else’s struggle for freedom into your barstool anecdote,” and the L.A. Weekly labeled his trip a “mere summer-vacation thrill.” After all, if it was combat experience he was after, he could have walked into a local recruitment office.  But Jeon insists that he was simply looking for a deeper, more direct understanding of the world, from homelessness to war. Besides, he’d forged a deep bond with his rebel friends.  “These people treated me like I was part of their family,” he said. “They did so much for me, I have to give back.” In January, he decided to go back to Libya during his spring break. I decided to go with him.

The sun is setting in Benghazi when we touch down in April. I’m already having doubts about the journey. Just before getting on the plane, Jeon asked to put a bottle of vodka in my bag. He said there wasn’t room in his.  “Really?” I asked.

“It’s spring break,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”

The first thing we encounter is a stern-looking customs official sitting beneath a sign that says alcohol is strictly prohibited in Libya. Every bag is X-rayed. Soon, he locates the bottle and is raging mad. He pours the bottle down a drain in front of us.

That night, we walk to Freedom Square, where the revolution started.  The buildings around the square are lined with oversize photos of rebels who died in the war, which ended just five months ago. A group of men approach and ask where we are from.  When Jeon introduces himself, they throw their arms up, shout and embrace him. They had heard the stories of the Asian kid from L.A. who had fought on their behalf.

“He is famous here,” Mohammed Al Zawwam tells me, explaining that rebel fighters had spread Jeon’s story.  Al Zawwam is a 28-year-old youth organizer and gets choked up the more he talks. “I don’t have words to describe how I feel about what he did. He was fighting very bravely for us. He is amazing.” The next night, Jeon reunites with five of his rebel friends at a second-floor hookah cafe on the outskirts of Benghazi. It’s a fluorescent-lit, smoke-filled room, and soon after we sit down, two guys near the entrance suddenly attack each other. One of the guys lands a series of rapid jabs to the face before he’s pulled off by the staff. Things calm down, and Jeon’s rebel friends tell him he looks fat. Everybody laughs, and the conversation resumes.

Ebrahem Benamer, a 23-year-old guy with a soul patch, tells me that he initially thought Jeon was a Special Forces commando sent by the U.S. to hunt Al Qaeda. Then he saw that Jeon didn’t know where the safety was on a gun, and he concluded that he was just a guy who wanted to help the revolution.

“We thought American people didn’t care about Libya,” Benamer says.  “But after we met Ahmed, we realized we were wrong.”

When the hookahs are smoked through, Jeon gets antsy. He’s heard there’s an informal “drifting” competition in the square, and he wants to check it out. When we arrive, four cars whip past us, skidding sideways. There are no barriers between the 1,000-odd spectators and the cars, which skid perilously close to the crowd. Within an hour, we see two sets of cars crash into each other. A spectator tells me that a few months ago, a car smashed into a pack of people, killing three.

Benamer wants to give it a try in his pickup truck, which is still emblazoned with the spray-painted logo of his brigade. He honks his way through the crowd, stomps on the accelerator, and starts fishtailing across the square.  When he comes to a stop near us, Jeon yanks open the back door and leaps in.  I follow him.

Benamer peels away before I even shut the door. As I struggle to close it, I notice his AK-47 rattling on the floor. It looks like it’s loaded. “Libya drift 2012!” Jeon shouts beside me. He’s filming himself with a pocket camera.  Benamer spins the wheel, forcing the car into long, semi-controlled skids, and then accelerates, gunning for a dramatic slide. We spin sideways at about 40 mph, heeling up on two wheels before the truck crashes on its side. Ten minutes after we crawl from the wreckage, we are taken hostage.

My hands are shaking; my breathing is shallow. The car is surrounded by men with machine guns.

They are accusing us of being with the CIA, but my translator is sure they just want to rob us.

“These are very bad people,” he says. “They are going to take us into the desert, and we will not come back.” I can see some crumbled buildings 50 yards away. Maybe we can make a run for it. I look over at Jeon and see him smiling. “Dude, are you scared?” he asks, laughing. “You look scared.” He seems to be enjoying himself. I want to shake him and tell him to snap out of it. The only thing he’s worried about is that they might take his camera with the car-crash video on it. “Dude,” he says, “I shoved the memory card up my butt so they won’t take it. I don’t want to lose that video of us crashing.” Another truck of armed militiamen pulls up, and the new arrivals begin arguing with our captors. My translator explains that this is a different militia.  We are driven to a militia compound, where the argument continues for hours. Finally, near dawn, we are released with no explanation.

When we get back to our hotel, Jeon is ecstatic. We all are. I am still worried that a militia might track us down at the hotel, but I also feel the rush of being free. It’s 6 in the morning, and I’m not tired at all. In fact, I feel enormously alive.

“You see what I’m saying about Libya?” Jeon asks me. “It’s amazing.” He says he craves the instability.  “It’s the total opposite of what I was doing before,” he says. It forces him to take nothing for granted, to live in the moment. I can see the logic, but I still want to get the hell out of here. I book a ticket to Istanbul departing the next night.

Later that day, a youth group in Benghazi stages a protest march in the center of town. They’re demanding that the transitional government explain where all the oil revenue is going.  Jeon says he wants to attend, to show his support for the new Libya. When I walk over, I see him standing in the middle of a throng holding an Arabic sign over his head. They’re in the street, and cars honk their way through the protesters. I ask Jeon what his sign says.

“Don’t know,” he says, explaining that he can’t read the Arabic. “I just grabbed one.”

He leaves the protest with the sign, still proudly holding it over his head as we walk down the street.  Now that we’re away from the relative safety of the march, I tell him to roll it up. “You have no idea how people will react to whatever’s on it,” I say, stopping on the sidewalk.

“It’s all about risk and reward,” he says.

“Exactly,” I almost shout. People are walking past us, looking suspicious.  “The risks outweigh the rewards.” “But you don’t even know what the reward could be,” he says. “Something cool could happen because I’m holding this. That outweighs the risk.” I hurry back to the hotel and pack my bag. As I’m checking out, I see Jeon in the lobby. He’s heard about some fishermen nearby who throw explosives into the water and then scoop up the fish that float to the surface.  “I’m going to give it a try,” he says, brightly. “I just have to find someone who will sell me some dynamite.”

This article was published in the January 2013 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)

6

January Issue: The Real Story Behind College Student Turned Libyan Freedom Fighter Chris Jeon

Jeff Jeon

Photo by Mark Edward Harris/KoreAm

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.

“I think we should get out of here,” I say, but he ignores me. Somehow the formation of an angry mob doesn’t seem to bother him. Our translator, who’d been watching the rally from the far end of the square, pushes through the crowd to tell us that we need to leave immediately. Jeon doesn’t want to go—he’s taking pictures now—but the translator is insistent.  People are demanding to know who we are. We head to the translator’s car and get in. The crowd follows us. Someone shouts that we’re with the CIA. Dozens of men circle the vehicle. Fists start banging on the roof. “Ameriki go home,” someone screams. Jeon just waves.

“They’re so passionate,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”

The translator gets out to reason with the crowd, and someone puts a gun to his head, forcing him back into the car. A large man with a wide, flattened nose climbs into the passenger seat.

“What’s happening?” I yell, in a panic.

“You’re being kidnapped,” the translator says. I look over at Jeon.  He’s laughing.

“You gotta love Libya, right?” he says.

Ladera Ranch bills itself as “one of Orange County’s premier master-planned communities.” The development sprouted out of the brush-covered hills of Southern California in 1999 and offered a slice of sunny perfection to anyone who could afford it. The newly paved streets are lined with saplings, American flags hang from porches, and buyers can choose from a handful of elegant home models. The community of approximately 8,000 households has its own schools, freeways and shopping centers. Soon after Chris Jeon’s family moved there, the local branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers voted it Project of the Year.

The Jeons came to the U.S. from Korea in the 1980s. Chris’ father, Peter, studied at UCLA, racking up an impressive list of degrees: a bachelor’s, a master’s in mechanical engineering and a medical degree in dental science.  His wife, Jane, became a pharmacist, while Dr. Jeon ran his own orthodontics practice in Orange County. Chris was their eldest, a first-generation American, and his parents had high hopes for him.

He didn’t disappoint: National Honor Society, a 4.3 GPA, vice president of the Future Business Leaders of America. When other kids were shotgunning beers in the parking lot behind the cineplex, Jeon was home practicing piano and guitar. “My parents sacrificed a lot so their kids could have opportunities,” Jeon says. He had no intention of wasting them. “I wanted to be the perfect kid for him,” he says, referring to his father.

He wasn’t exactly perfect. In junior high, he assembled a large-enough collection of death metal—Slayer, In Flames, Cryptopsy—to alarm his Catholic parents, who threw it all out one day when he was at school. “I’ve never been so angry,” Jeon remembers. In one of his first acts of rebellion, he slept in his car in the family driveway for a week.

When Jeon arrived at UCLA in 2008, he had the résumé of a classic overachiever. He joined a frat, drinking his first beer in April of his freshman year. He got properly hammered a few times after that, but never lost focus on academics or his dream of eventually landing on Wall Street. “I wanted money, status, stock options, all of it,” he says. “To me, that was the pinnacle of achievement.”

But by junior year, he started to feel anxious, stifled—and not just by academics. At the fraternity, there was talk of going to Cancún for spring break. It would be awesome: They’d chase girls and get wasted just as they had the year before.

“Why don’t we do something different?” Jeon suggested.

Only one of his frat brothers took him seriously—Ross McCray. McCray had also grown up in Ladera Ranch, in a house with the same floor plan as Jeon’s. They were both math majors whose fathers were doctors. Somehow, they hadn’t met until UCLA.

Jeon, manning a 14.5-mm anti-aircraft gun meant to shoot down airplanes in the sky. “The bullets were over a foot long and sliced through people like butter,” he said. Photo courtesy of Chris Jeon.

Together they decided to fly to Seattle for a week and survive on only a dollar. It was something that kids like them would never consider doing.  “We were very, very on-track students,” McCray says. “This was like a release valve.”

McCray dubbed it the “one-dollar trip,” and within days, they were in downtown Seattle with nothing more than a single dollar, their driver’s licenses, and a book containing 400 investment banking interview questions. (Interviews were looming, and they needed to brush up.) They hadn’t counted on it being 40 degrees and were soon freezing and hungry. They started to beg.

For the next week, they slept in parking garages and homeless shelters, panhandling for food and struggling to stay warm. For Jeon, it was a revelation.  “Between Ladera Ranch and UCLA, I’d always lived in a bubble,” he says.  “It wasn’t the real world.”

A week later, they started interviewing for summer internships with investment banks. It was a hard transition.  One interviewer asked Jeon to estimate the number of golf balls that would fit inside a 747. “Who the f-ck cares?” Jeon thought. But his family had worked hard to get him to this point. He ran some numbers in his head and said that roughly 15.7 million golf balls would fit in a 747, assuming you didn’t fill the fuel tanks. A few days later, he was offered a job at Black-Rock, one of the world’s largestasset management firms.

That summer, Jeon sat in a cubicle for 12 to 18 hours a day in BlackRock’s San Francisco headquarters. He spent weeks preparing a report on the micro and macroeconomic potential of the medical-insurance industry and researched the balance sheets of Brazilian mining companies. Jeon’s mind wandered.  He’d Google things like “most interesting places in the world” and “unexplored frontiers.” He was ready to start living differently.

He went skydiving, but it wasn’t thrills he was looking for. One weekend, he did a dollar trip to Las Vegas, passing himself off as a bellhop at the MGM Grand even though he wasn’t dressed as one. He simply took bags out of open trunks and led guests on meandering, confused journeys through the massive hotel. Somehow he managed to make $20 in tips. He played craps with the money and drank complimentary cocktails on the pit floor. He returned to BlackRock on Monday, bleary-eyed and unshowered, wearing the same suit he’d left in on Friday. His supervisor warned him that his behavior was unprofessional. He didn’t care.

“Each day at BlackRock felt the same,” he says. “But every day on a one-dollar trip lasted so long. There was so much more substance—the emotions were so intense because I was living on nothing. In terms of experience, I felt like I was getting so much more bang for the buck.”

Interns were expected to keep up on how world affairs might influence oil prices and stock indexes—and Jeon became captivated by the scrappy rebels fighting in Libya. At the time, they were advancing on Tripoli with a ragtag army outfitted with Cold War-era rifles and pickup trucks jury-rigged with anti-aircraft guns. It’s like a one-dollar war, he thought.

This is the moment when the Western media found Jeon in Libya. “I was flanked by many of the rebels curious to see who I was and what I was about,” said Jeon. “Many of them turned out to be some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”

In early August, Jeon went out for sushi with two other interns, Astrid Fernandes and Letian Zhang. He told them that he was thinking of going to Libya to join the rebellion. It was a chance to see something historic before school started, and he wanted to feel what it was like to have different kinds of problems. “No more PowerPoints or crazy-ass spreadsheets,” he said.  Libya seemed like the obvious next step in his journey.

“Are you f-cking crazy?” Zhang asked.

Zhang took out a pen and started drawing on the place mat. He’d studied math at Stanford and was heading into a statistics-focused sociology Ph.D.  program at Harvard. He made a probability map for Jeon. There was a 25 percent chance Jeon would get shot before making it to the front lines. If he did make it, there was another 25 percent chance he’d be killed in the crossfire, since he didn’t speak any Arabic and had no idea what he was doing. He gave his friend a 50 percent chance of dying.

Jeon felt like he was dying already.

A week later, he and Astrid went to a liquor store, where he bought his first pack of cigarettes. He figured the rebels were heavy smokers, and so he wanted to practice. His friend watched him strike a match, take a drag and break into a fit of coughing.

CHRIS JEON LANDED in Cairo on August 23, 2011. School didn’t start again for another month, and he had told his parents he was going sightseeing in Egypt. He brought one pair of jeans, three shirts, a leather jacket, a pair of Converse and two condoms. He hopped a bus in Cairo and headed for Saloum on the Egyptian-Libyan border.

The rebels guarding the border were playing FIFA Soccer on a PlayStation when he arrived. Jeon waved at them. They glanced at his passport and went back to their video game. “OK, cool,” Jeon said, and simply walked into Libya.

It looked like the moon: empty, burnt-brown desert stretching for mile after mile. The front lines were 500 miles to the west. Jeon didn’t speak Arabic and hadn’t done much research on the region, but he’d read the Wikipedia page on Libya and watched a bunch of YouTube videos documenting the war. He particularly liked one that showed a group of rebels chanting in unison after a victory—he’d never felt that fired up about anything. The momentum had shifted, and Qaddafi’s grip on the country was weakening.  With the support of NATO airpower, the rebels were now attacking Tripoli.  Qaddafi was in hiding, but issued a statement saying the government was ready to “turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents.” Jeon wanted to find the fighting before it was all over.

“This is Sgt. Absulam Zawe on the left and General Absulam Reche in the center. Reche was the general of the brigade and was one of the highest-ranking officers in the rebels. I have an AK-47 and utility vest ready for the morning’s battle.” Photo courtesy of Chris Jeon.

At the border, Jeon caught a taxi for the rebel capital of Benghazi, where he planned to hitch a ride to the front.  But the taxi was stopped at a checkpoint about 10 miles outside the city.  Three rebels peered in and motioned the foreigner out of the car. They asked who he was, and Jeon struggled to explain that he was a UCLA student looking for the front lines. One of the rebels asked in broken English if he was a North Korean spy sent by Qaddafi. The taxi took off, stranding him there. The rebels grew impatient:

Who was he here to see? Could anybody in Libya vouch for him?

While at BlackRock, Jeon had emailed the only two people in Benghazi who had posted on CouchSurfing.org, a website that helps travelers find free places to stay. One guy had responded that Jeon should call him when he got to Benghazi. Jeon dug out his number and gave it to the rebels. It was the middle of the night, but someone picked up. Jeon could hear yelling on the other end. He figured that this was as far as his Libyan adventure was going to go. The rebel hung up.

“OK, your friend coming,” the rebel said.

A half hour later, a sleek BMW 7 Series sedan pulled up at the checkpoint, blasting Justin Bieber on the radio. A guy was sitting in another’s lap in the passenger seat, even though there was no one in the back. The passenger door flew open, and Ayman Amzain, Jeon’s couch-surfing contact, bounded out. He had long hair and no front teeth.

“Kreeez!” he said in a high-pitched voice and planted kisses on Jeon’s cheeks. He stepped back and took a good look at Jeon.

“I thought you’d be blond,” he said pouting. “And maybe taller.”

Amzain was a 31-year-old medical student who lived with his parents and dreamed of moving to San Francisco.  The appearance of a Californian in Libya was probably as close as he’d get to his dream, and he was thrilled that Jeon had come. In fact, he didn’t want him to leave. He tried convincing his new friend to forget going to the war.  But after four days of hookah bars and music videos, Jeon grew restless.

“I was living in a cloud of hairspray and Justin Bieber music,” he says. “It was like the revolution wasn’t even happening.”

Amzain reluctantly arranged for a friend to drive Jeon toward the fighting.  He wrote a letter in Arabic and told Jeon to show it to anyone who asked questions. The letter read, “Hello. My name is Chris. I am from the United States. Please help me to go to the front lines. Thank you, and thanks to God.”

Amzain kissed Jeon on both cheeks and told him to come back soon.

In early September, Jeon was dropped at the gates of an oil refinery.  He could tell that the front lines were close. Pickup trucks mounted with rocket launchers streamed out of the complex, heading west. Tripoli had fallen, but Qaddafi was still at large and unbowed. On the radio that day, he vowed to fight a “long, drawn-out war.”

Qaddafi’s loyalists had concentrated their firepower in the central coastal region, near his hometown of Sirte. For the revolution to succeed, Qaddafi had to be killed or arrested, and many believed that he was hiding in Sirte, the city the rebels were now pushing toward.

As they rolled out of the refinery, each truck blasted a different song: Tupac bled into high-pitched Arabic music followed by the Scorpions. The men onboard wore green camo with red-checkeredkaffiyehs over their faces.  One of the trucks stopped, and a young rebel stuck his head out of the window.

“Jackie Chan!” he shouted at Jeon and swung the back door open.

“Holy sh-t, this is really happening,” Jeon thought as he squeezed in among the men, the RPGs and the AK-47s. Nobody asked who he was or why he was there. They just handed him a grenade, some earplugs and a cigarette.  He was glad he had practiced smoking.

Twenty minutes later, they stopped on the side of the road, where a clump of pickups stood in the open desert.  Suddenly, a shell landed nearby and sent a huge plume of dirt into the air.  The rebels in Jeon’s car leaped out of the cab, returning fire with the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bed of their truck. Others fired cannons and launched rockets. There was no coordination.  Everybody just let loose with every weapon they had, aiming in the general direction of the incoming fire.  This was way crazier than anything he’d seen on YouTube.

Shells rained down around them.  The rebels panicked, scrambling to get into their vehicles. As they sped away, one of the rebels put his hand on Jeon’s chest and felt his heart thudding heavily. Everybody glanced at Jeon and laughed. He looked terrified.

“Where you stay?” the rebel asked.

“Nowhere,” Jeon replied.

“No problem,” he said. “You stay with us tonight.”

Back at the oil refinery, the rebels had commandeered a newly built two-story town house. There were a half-dozen men sleeping in each room. Two members of the battalion had been killed by a rocket that day, so some floor space had opened up. In the living room, Jeon sat on the ground and introduced himself, but the rebels didn’t like his name. Chris was too short and didn’t sound Libyan.

“We give you new name,” announced Mohammed, an 18-year-old from Benghazi.

Shouting broke out as the rebels debated Jeon’s new name. Finally, Commander Absalam, the group leader, held up his hand and pointed at Jeon.

“Chris no more,” Absalam said solemnly. “Now you are Ahmed Mugrabi Saidi Barga.”

The rebels cheered. The name was a mash-up of all the tribal names represented in the room. They would call him Ahmed.

“My first day in the front-lines with a rebel army group,” described Jeon. “This is where I began my transformation from a naive college student from L.A. to a soldier in the Libyan revolution.”

“AHMED, YOU SMOKE hashish?” Jeon’s second day with his battalion was spent brazenly driving into small desert towns in an attempt to flush out pockets of Qaddafi loyalists by drawing enemy fire. No shots had been fired, but the stress was evident as the rebels passed around the dirty plastic soda bottle they used as a water pipe. When it came to Jeon, he hesitated. He had never done any drugs. It was then that he decided to institute what he called a “yeah, man” policy.

“Yeah, man,” he said, taking a hit. “I smoke hash.”

The next night, the battalion drove to a darkened four-story mansion on the sea. Commander Absalam blasted off the mansion’s door handle, and they walked in. The place had been hastily abandoned. Absalam explained that the only people who lived in houses this nice were people who cooperated with the regime. Therefore, everything in the house was now rebel property.

Clothes still hung in the closets, and there was food in the refrigerator.  The rebels grabbed the food and rifled through drawers. Jeon saw a toothbrush lying in the master bath and pocketed it. He hadn’t brushed in days, and he could hear his orthodontist father’s voice nagging in his head.

Hanging on the wall of the living room was a shiny new flatscreen TV.  Mansur, a rebel in his late 20s, handed Jeon a hammer and an AK-47. Jeon was confused.

“That’s a good TV,” he said. “Why not take it?”

“Qaddafi people, they hurt my father. They hurt my mother,” Mansur said. “This is Qaddafi people. F-ck this house.”

Jeon felt the weight of the gun in his hands and looked around the room.  The leather couches were big and new.  Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. It reminded him of all the McMansions back in Ladera Ranch.

He took a hammer to the TV, and then aimed the gun. He pulled the trigger, watching as the chandeliers shattered and crashed to the ground.

“This is my host Aymen in Benghazi,” said Jeon. “He took care of me like his own family and always made sure I was well fed and protected. He also liked to do my hair. I will always be indebted to him and his family.”

The next day, Mansur gave him a Russian-made shotgun. He was no longer just an observer. He was becoming part of the katiba, the Libyan word for brigade. He still didn’t speak much Arabic, but that didn’t seem to matter.  There was a cheap Casio keyboard in the town house and when they weren’t on patrol, Jeon taught a skinny 17-yearold named Akram how to play Beethoven. In exchange, Akram showed him how to assemble and break down an AK-47. After two days, the Casio was covered in gun grease, but Akram could play “Für Elise,” and Jeon could field-strip the gun in less than 90 seconds.

Akram spoke English and wanted to know everything about Jeon’s life back in California. Jeon showed him photos of Ladera Ranch on his cellphone.  Akram couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and wondered why Jeon would ever want to leave such a place. Akram explained that Libya under Qaddafi was hell. A few months earlier, his cousin had spoken out against the dictator and was executed.

“I am fighting for my cousin, for my family, for my country,” Akram said.  “I have no fear because death would be better than living the old way.”

Few of the rebels seemed to care why Jeon was fighting, only that he was willing. On Jeon’s fourth day with the brigade, Commander Absalam told him that the mission they were going on was too dangerous. “You’re not ready to be a martyr,” he told him and dropped Jeon at a rebel staging area in the desert.

Two American reporters, Bradley Hope and Kristen Chick, had just arrived. “We were way, way out there,” Hope says. “And then we saw this college kid with a shotgun and a Lakers jersey. It was mind-boggling.”

Jeon explained that he was on summer vacation and “thought it would be cool to join the rebels.” He added that his parents didn’t know he was in Libya and pleaded with the reporters not to mention him, but both wrote articles about the encounter (“At first glance, Mr. Jeon looked like someone who took a wrong turn on their way to the beach or the Santa Monica Pier,” wrote Hope in a Dubai paper, The National).  Jeon’s parents learned he was in Libya when people sent them articles online. They frantically started emailing and phoning news organizations in the region.

“Nobody wants their child to be in a war,” Dr. Jeon said. “Plus, school was starting soon.”

An Al Jazeera news crew spotted Jeon at the refinery where he was staying with his katiba. A network correspondent took out her satellite phone and handed it to Jeon. Within a minute, his parents were on the line.

“You have to come home, Chris,” his dad shouted. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Jeon snapped.

His mother got on the phone. She was crying. She sounded terrible. She begged him to come home. Jeon told her he’d think about it. He hung up and rejoined his brigade.

A couple of days later, the katiba drove into the desert and fired cannons at loyalist positions. Jeon helped load the ammunition. “My lips were cracked and bleeding, I hadn’t brushed my teeth in days, and my face was peeling, but it didn’t matter,” Jeon says. “I was totally happy—happier than I’d ever been.”

“Hanging out in the Mediterranean with Absulam and Tetty. The water was the warmest and clearest that I’ve ever experienced, and the contrast of the beautiful oceanside with the charred leftovers of destroyed cities 50 feet away on the coast was huge.”

He was standing beside a truck, watching his friends fire the cannons, when he heard the whine of an incoming shell. Everybody dove for cover, and the ground shook. Sand rained down, and somebody screamed. When he finally stood, he saw a mangled, charred body lying near the blast. It was Akram.

He stared at the body. Just a few nights before, Akram had played “Für Elise,” jumping up and down when he did it without a mistake. He was only 17. “Those f-ckers,” Jeon kept saying.  Somebody told him to get in a truck, and they retreated.

That afternoon, Commander Absalam sent Jeon with five others to relieve a checkpoint in the desert. Nobody talked on the drive out. When they arrived, they chain-smoked and sat wordlessly under a tarp. It was 110 degrees. Jeon saw three trucks appear out of the heat shimmering off the road in the west.  They were moving fast, inbound from Qaddafi-held territory. The rebels around him picked up their weapons, cigarettes dangling from their mouths.

As the trucks approached, Jeon saw someone lean out of one of the windows with a gun. It seemed surreal, like a mirage in the desert heat. The rebels around him started yelling, and he heard bullets whiz past. They were under attack.

“Motherf-cker,” Jeon hissed, grabbing an AK out of the bed of a truck. He knew how to assemble and disassemble the gun, but had yet to fire it in battle. Now he could see the faces of the loyalist forces as they drove offroad, circling the rebels and strafing the checkpoint. He flipped the safety off.

A bullet pierced the leg of a man next to him. The screaming was buried underneath the report of automatic weapons. Jeon was breathing fast. He popped up from behind his vehicle, took aim and fired at one of the circling trucks.  The gun jerked wildly, and he ran out of bullets. He loaded another clip. This time, when he squeezed the trigger, he saw the passenger’s head snap back—blood splattered the inside of the car.

After another volley, the attackers sped back to the west, and it was quiet again, except for the growls of the wounded. One of the rebels walked up to Jeon and slapped him on the back.

“You are Libyan now,” the man said.

At dusk, he rolled into the refinery with a contingent from the checkpoint.  As the daylight faded and the adrenaline drained out of him, he wondered what he’d just done. “I didn’t feel any remorse,” he said. “But I worried about what my parents would think if they found out.” He remembered his mom crying on the phone and got choked up.

“Problem, Ahmed?” asked Abdul Karim, a rebel friend.

Mia, mia,” Jeon replied in Libyan slang. It meant he was 100 out of 100, feeling fine.

“This was the barracks where we stayed. These buildings were former villas that belonged to Qaddafi loyalists; however, we took over the compounds and used them as base camps.”

BY MORNING, he’d decided to go home. Chris Jeon was scheduled for a full load of classes the fall term of his senior year—linear algebra, differential equations, game theory—but by November, he’d not managed to make it to many. He’d lost interest in math and almost everything else he used to care about. He sat in his off-campus apartment and smoked with the shades drawn. An AK-47 bullet dangled from his neck on a leather necklace—a gift from his brigade. He slept during the day and stayed up late so he could talk to his Libyan friends on Skype.  “I gave him sh-t because he stopped hitting me up and going out,” said McCray, Jeon’s friend from the one-dollar trip to Seattle. “He just disappeared.”

Jeon’s parents were worried too.  Peter Jeon, who’d never done anything more adventurous than golf, for fear of hurting his arm and impacting his orthodontics practice, couldn’t understand why their son had sought out a war zone. “All my friends asked me where Chris had come from,” Dr. Jeon says. “I told them I don’t know.” In the U.S., many had reacted with horror to his story. Wired.com charged him with “turning someone else’s struggle for freedom into your barstool anecdote,” and the L.A. Weekly labeled his trip a “mere summer-vacation thrill.” After all, if it was combat experience he was after, he could have walked into a local recruitment office.  But Jeon insists that he was simply looking for a deeper, more direct understanding of the world, from homelessness to war. Besides, he’d forged a deep bond with his rebel friends.  “These people treated me like I was part of their family,” he said. “They did so much for me, I have to give back.” In January, he decided to go back to Libya during his spring break. I decided to go with him.

The sun is setting in Benghazi when we touch down in April. I’m already having doubts about the journey. Just before getting on the plane, Jeon asked to put a bottle of vodka in my bag. He said there wasn’t room in his.  “Really?” I asked.

“It’s spring break,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”

The first thing we encounter is a stern-looking customs official sitting beneath a sign that says alcohol is strictly prohibited in Libya. Every bag is X-rayed. Soon, he locates the bottle and is raging mad. He pours the bottle down a drain in front of us.

That night, we walk to Freedom Square, where the revolution started.  The buildings around the square are lined with oversize photos of rebels who died in the war, which ended just five months ago. A group of men approach and ask where we are from.  When Jeon introduces himself, they throw their arms up, shout and embrace him. They had heard the stories of the Asian kid from L.A. who had fought on their behalf.

“He is famous here,” Mohammed Al Zawwam tells me, explaining that rebel fighters had spread Jeon’s story.  Al Zawwam is a 28-year-old youth organizer and gets choked up the more he talks. “I don’t have words to describe how I feel about what he did. He was fighting very bravely for us. He is amazing.” The next night, Jeon reunites with five of his rebel friends at a second-floor hookah cafe on the outskirts of Benghazi. It’s a fluorescent-lit, smoke-filled room, and soon after we sit down, two guys near the entrance suddenly attack each other. One of the guys lands a series of rapid jabs to the face before he’s pulled off by the staff. Things calm down, and Jeon’s rebel friends tell him he looks fat. Everybody laughs, and the conversation resumes.

Ebrahem Benamer, a 23-year-old guy with a soul patch, tells me that he initially thought Jeon was a Special Forces commando sent by the U.S. to hunt Al Qaeda. Then he saw that Jeon didn’t know where the safety was on a gun, and he concluded that he was just a guy who wanted to help the revolution.

“We thought American people didn’t care about Libya,” Benamer says.  “But after we met Ahmed, we realized we were wrong.”

When the hookahs are smoked through, Jeon gets antsy. He’s heard there’s an informal “drifting” competition in the square, and he wants to check it out. When we arrive, four cars whip past us, skidding sideways. There are no barriers between the 1,000-odd spectators and the cars, which skid perilously close to the crowd. Within an hour, we see two sets of cars crash into each other. A spectator tells me that a few months ago, a car smashed into a pack of people, killing three.

Benamer wants to give it a try in his pickup truck, which is still emblazoned with the spray-painted logo of his brigade. He honks his way through the crowd, stomps on the accelerator, and starts fishtailing across the square.  When he comes to a stop near us, Jeon yanks open the back door and leaps in.  I follow him.

Benamer peels away before I even shut the door. As I struggle to close it, I notice his AK-47 rattling on the floor. It looks like it’s loaded. “Libya drift 2012!” Jeon shouts beside me. He’s filming himself with a pocket camera.  Benamer spins the wheel, forcing the car into long, semi-controlled skids, and then accelerates, gunning for a dramatic slide. We spin sideways at about 40 mph, heeling up on two wheels before the truck crashes on its side. Ten minutes after we crawl from the wreckage, we are taken hostage.

My hands are shaking; my breathing is shallow. The car is surrounded by men with machine guns.

They are accusing us of being with the CIA, but my translator is sure they just want to rob us.

“These are very bad people,” he says. “They are going to take us into the desert, and we will not come back.” I can see some crumbled buildings 50 yards away. Maybe we can make a run for it. I look over at Jeon and see him smiling. “Dude, are you scared?” he asks, laughing. “You look scared.” He seems to be enjoying himself. I want to shake him and tell him to snap out of it. The only thing he’s worried about is that they might take his camera with the car-crash video on it. “Dude,” he says, “I shoved the memory card up my butt so they won’t take it. I don’t want to lose that video of us crashing.” Another truck of armed militiamen pulls up, and the new arrivals begin arguing with our captors. My translator explains that this is a different militia.  We are driven to a militia compound, where the argument continues for hours. Finally, near dawn, we are released with no explanation.

When we get back to our hotel, Jeon is ecstatic. We all are. I am still worried that a militia might track us down at the hotel, but I also feel the rush of being free. It’s 6 in the morning, and I’m not tired at all. In fact, I feel enormously alive.

“You see what I’m saying about Libya?” Jeon asks me. “It’s amazing.” He says he craves the instability.  “It’s the total opposite of what I was doing before,” he says. It forces him to take nothing for granted, to live in the moment. I can see the logic, but I still want to get the hell out of here. I book a ticket to Istanbul departing the next night.

Later that day, a youth group in Benghazi stages a protest march in the center of town. They’re demanding that the transitional government explain where all the oil revenue is going.  Jeon says he wants to attend, to show his support for the new Libya. When I walk over, I see him standing in the middle of a throng holding an Arabic sign over his head. They’re in the street, and cars honk their way through the protesters. I ask Jeon what his sign says.

“Don’t know,” he says, explaining that he can’t read the Arabic. “I just grabbed one.”

He leaves the protest with the sign, still proudly holding it over his head as we walk down the street.  Now that we’re away from the relative safety of the march, I tell him to roll it up. “You have no idea how people will react to whatever’s on it,” I say, stopping on the sidewalk.

“It’s all about risk and reward,” he says.

“Exactly,” I almost shout. People are walking past us, looking suspicious.  “The risks outweigh the rewards.” “But you don’t even know what the reward could be,” he says. “Something cool could happen because I’m holding this. That outweighs the risk.” I hurry back to the hotel and pack my bag. As I’m checking out, I see Jeon in the lobby. He’s heard about some fishermen nearby who throw explosives into the water and then scoop up the fish that float to the surface.  “I’m going to give it a try,” he says, brightly. “I just have to find someone who will sell me some dynamite.”

This article was published in the January 2013 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)

Monday's Link Attack: Doo-Ri Chung, Steven Yeun, John Cho

Designer Doo.Ri on Spring 2012, Illustrators, and Motherhood
StyleCaster

Earlier this week, we told you that Korean-American designer Doo.Ri Chung had just dressed Michelle Obama and is slated to design a capsule collection with Macy’s. At the press preview for her eponymous runway collection and contemporary Under.Ligne line, we had the chance to chat with the articulate, talented designer about her design inspirations, designing for two different markets, and how motherhood has changed her work. Read the interview transcript below, and click through to see our favorite looks from her Spring 2012 runway collection!

The Walking Dead Interview
SFX (U.K.)

Ever had moments when you have been so squeamish you haven’t wanted to do something?
Steven Yeun: I think it’s really cool in our cast that there’s just an understanding that you can’t be a wuss on a show like this. Even if you are squeamish, you can’t show up to work and be squeamish because then you’ll just get razzed from that point on. You just fit the standard that’s been set. That’s what so amazing about this cast.

S. Korean pitcher Park Chan-ho released by Japanese club Orix
Yonhap

South Korean baseball pitcher Park Chan-ho has been released by his Japanese cub Orix Buffaloes.

The Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) club announced Monday that Park, 38, will not be retained for next season. The right-hander joined the Buffaloes before the 2011 season on a one-year deal.

The former Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star pitched only seven games for the Japanese club, and none after June, going 1-5 with an earned run average (ERA) of 4.29. He dealt with assorted injuries all season.

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Nuclear Talks With North Korea Begin in Geneva
New York Times

GENEVA — The United States and North Korea began two days of talks here on Monday that American officials have said will test the ground for a possible resumption of wider discussions on North Korea’s nuclear program.

A convoy of vehicles brought Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, to the United States mission in Geneva exactly on schedule at 10 a.m. for the first round of talks with a team of American negotiators led by President Obama’s special envoy for North Korea policy, Stephen W. Bosworth. Clifford Hart, the American special envoy for the talks, said the American and North Korean delegations met for about two hours and made initial presentations that he described as “useful.”

Head of U.N. Humanitarian Aid Paints Dire Scene in North Korea
New York Times

North Koreans, especially children, urgently need outside aid to fight “terrible levels of malnutrition,” the United Nations’ humanitarian chief said Monday, in an appeal that came amid criticism that both Washington and Seoul were withholding aid for political reasons.

“Six million North Koreans urgently need food aid, but the outside world is not giving enough,” the official, Valerie Amos, said in a press conference after a fact-finding trip to North Korea last week. “We need to remember the most vulnerable people in North Korea are victims of a situation over which they have no control. They are suffering from no fault of their own.”

For New Yorkers, cooking classes demystify Korean cuisine
Yonhap

On a recent Saturday evening, Youngsun Lee, culinary instructor and executive chef of the popular Kimchi Taco Truck, welcomed 12 curious students to “The Korean Plate” cooking class at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in Manhattan.

Lee started the class by introducing a few basic Korean ingredients, including gochujang (red pepper paste), doenjang (fermented bean paste) and dried anchovies. Along the way, he shared anecdotes about the various ingredients and dishes from his childhood in Korea.

For the next three hours, the students made their first attempt at various Korean recipes, from the most famous dishes such as kimchi and bulgogi to the popular summer dessert of patbingsu, Korean shaved ice with sweet red beans and chewy mini rice cakes.

“These classes help people demystify Korean ingredients and dishes so that they can enjoy Korean food better at home and outside,” said Lee.

The Korean invasion: New Yorkers are screaming for the new wave of pop stars
New York Daily News

Check out this lengthy feature article written by KoreAm contributor David Yi about K-pop’s rabid fans, who descended on New York City for a sold-out concert over the weekend.

On a recent Monday afternoon, hordes of fans outnumbered tourists in Times Square, holding colorful cardboard signs outside of MTV’s TRL studios. The cheers weren’t for Katy Perry or Justin Bieber, but for a group of South Korean acts including B2ST and 4 Minute. One fan issued a familiar cry.

“Oh my God, this is a dream come true!” exclaimed Nicole Asmat, 19, who was part of the lucky audience inside TRL studios. A flood of tears drenched her face after one of her favorite stars held her hand from the stage.

“I haven’t seen this in years,” Peter Griffin, executive vice president at MTV said while peering at the crowd outside. “It reminds me of when ‘N Sync was here and the fans lined up around the studio.”

The OC guy who fought in Libya? Meet him
OCRegister

Chris Jeon did hesitate. But it was just once, he says, and it didn’t involve much soul searching. It worked like this: This summer, Jeon, a UCLA student from Mission Viejo, flew to Egypt. When he landed he headed east, traveling by train, bus and thumb to the front lines of the Libyan civil war.

And he did it all with his usual mix of confidence and more confidence. Then, at the edge of the rebel-held city of Ras Linuf, Jeon was stopped at a checkpoint. He was stuck there overnight, he says, during which he spent maybe 20 minutes wondering what he was doing on the edge of war, alone, thousands of miles from home. But when morning came and he was allowed to pass, whatever questions he’d brushed against were vaporized.

“After that,” Jeon says, “no doubts.”

Violinist Hahn-Bin set to shake up Washington Center
The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)

Imagine Andy Warhol with Lady Gaga’s wardrobe, Davie Bowie’s makeup, Travis Barker’s hair and Hilary Hahn’s violin technique, and you’ll get an idea of Hahn-Bin.

The young violin star might be 24, Korean-American, transgender and an impressive classical musician, but in the show he’s bringing to Olympia’s Washington Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday he’s trying to get you to think way beyond all that. Beyond Mozart, Gershwin and Piazzolla, in fact – beyond things that divide humanity and into something that connects us.

Whoa, BJ Kang Was A Total Jerk When He Arrested Raj, According To Raj [Rajaratnam]
Business Insider

Apparently when FBI agent BJ Kang arrested Raj, he was a total jerk.

You won’t believe what he said to Raj before he and five agents pulled him away from his family. According to a new interview with Raj in the Daily Beast, when Kang showed up at Raj’s front door in Manhattan at Sutton Place, he told the former hedge fund manager of the Galleon Group -

“Take a good look at your son. You’re not going to see him for a long time. Your wife doesn’t seem so upset. Because she’s going to spend all your money.”

Here’s an interesting profile on the Korean American FBI agent published by Reuters in late 2009.

Sexual Abuse Play – YouTube
TheYoungTurks

Korean-American Gina Kim shares the story of being molested by her uncle and how her mother dismissed the sexual abuse. She made a play out of her tragedy in a autobiographical play called Miss Kim.

Midfielder Ki Sung-yueng Nets 4th Goal of Season for Celtic
Chosun Ilbo

Korean midfielder Ki Sung-yueng scored his fourth goal of the season in the Scottish Premier League on Sunday to help Celtic beat Aberdeen 2-1.

In front of a raucous home crowd, the 22-year-old netted a well-worked opener for the home side 17 minutes into the game before defender Ryan Jack leveled for Aberdeen on the hour mark.

Korean dance, fashion show leave audience spellbound
Times of Oman

A troupe of Korean dancers with their colourful costumes and beautiful choreography thrilled an audience of women at the Grand Hyatt on Wednesday.

The dancers are part of the Korea-Arab Friendship Caravan, which is on a mission to improve ties between the East-Asian nation and seven Arab countries, including Oman, by showcasing Korean culture.

“When you have a very special friend and you want to feel closer to your friend, you have to show as much as possible about yourself to them, so after this event I hope you’ll feel much closer to my country,” said Choe Jonghyun, Korea’s ambassador to Oman, as he welcomed the audience.

The complete guide to Seoul taxis
CNNGo

Not only are Seoul taxis abundant and convenient (you can pay with credit cards or T-money public transit cards) but most come equipped with GPS navigation systems and Big Brother-esque black boxes to ensure proper conduct of both the driver and the customer.

Whether you’re a first-timer to the city and confused about the colors, or a local who doesn’t know about the change in rates at night, here’s our guide to Seoul’s many taxis.

John Cho: We get very excited about George Takei
7Live (ABC San Francisco)

Harold and Kumar have gone from White Castle to shooting Santa Claus out of the sky in “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas.” One-half of the incredibly funny duo, John Cho, stopped by 7Live to chat for a while

John Cho talks about making the Harold and Kumar movies, meeting President Obama, eating dinner with the president of South Korea, showing Star Trek to troops in Iraq, being inspired by George Takei, and how “Flash Forward” came to an end.

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Wednesday's Link Attack: G-Dragon, Kim Jong Il, SAT Cheaters

‘Glee’ Roars Into the World of Tiger Moms, Dads and Cubs
Wall Street Journal

Count me among the legions of Asian American Gleeks who’ve been irritably waiting for show producers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan to do something interesting with Harry Shum Jr.’s peripatetic footballer-turned-dance machine, Mike Chang. Really, RyBrI: After two years of back-bench toil as the mostly mute “Other Asian,” there isn’t a performer on the show who’s earned a turn in the spotlight more than Harry. And given the season-opener revelation that Chang is a senior, with little likelihood of sticking around on the show post-McKinley, this season could represent Shum’s final chance to shine.

A Closer Look: Back from Libya
The Daily Bruin (UCLA)

Chris Jeon reminisces about his time fighting in the Libyan revolution and living with rebels.

Rain’s final concert this Sunday
CNNGo

Weeping will ensue en masse this weekend, as South Korea’s biggest pop star and Stephen Colbert’s arch-nemesis, Rain, will perform in the public for the last time before enlisting in the South Korean military. The “Ninja Assassin” star’s free good-bye concert will be held on Sunday, October 9, as part of the Gangnam Fashion Festival 2011.

It is sure to be a tearful affair on both sides: “Concerts to me are like life on a smaller scale,” Rain told CNN Talk Asia in 2009. Rain begins his mandatory, 22-month, Republic of Korea Army service on Tuesday, October 11.

Big Bang’s G-Dragon caught smoking marijuana
allkpop

But did he inhale?

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Koreans make their mark in Fairfax
Fairfax Times (Va.)

When Steve Choi and his family moved to Virginia from South Korea in 1974, his sixth-grade classmates wanted to touch his hair, or challenge him to a fight–sometimes both.

“A lot of them had never even met an Asian before, so even my hair was very interesting to them,” said Choi, who now runs a highly successful food service company and serves as President of the Korean-American Association of the Washington Metro area, based in Annandale. “Everybody thought I was Bruce Lee- they wanted to fight me to see if I knew kung-fu.”

These days, Koreans are no longer the novelty they once were in the region. Korean immigration to the U.S. was negligible prior to 1970, but since that year some 973,450 South Koreans have obtained permanent resident status in the U.S. and the Washington, D.C. metro area has the third largest Korean population in the country behind Los Angeles and New York.

The Torrid Romantic Life of Kim Jong-il
Chosun Ilbo

Yun Hye-yong was a woman beyond the reach even of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Yun, the lead singer of Kim’s former favorite band Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, was brutally executed after she spurned Kim’s persistent advances and fell in love with another man.

Or so claims Chang Jin-song, an author formerly affiliated with the North Korean Workers’ Party, in “Kim Jong-il’s Last Woman.” Published in May, it is an epic poem that details Kim’s private life and inside story of his regime based on the true story of the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble.

SAT cheaters
Korea Times

A famous SAT teacher in Korea was caught illegally discussing what was on the exam. He used the time difference between the United States and other countries to tell his students what will be on the test.

As students talked after the test, some of them, without noticing, told others that they had known what was going to be on the exam.

Since SAT scores are based on percentages, the other students felt this was unfair and reported the incident to the College Board. All the tests taken in Korea were voided and the efforts of those who actually worked hard came to naught.

However, the worst part starts here. As more and more people found out about the SAT teacher, more and more parents tried to send their kids to him so their children could attain high scores. It is shocking that some parents care more about children’s short-term goal of getting into a good college instead of looking to the distant future of their children.

Korean Official: US will endorse FTA with Korea by Oct. 21
Korea Times

Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon said Wednesday that the U.S. Congress is expected to give a final endorsement of a free trade agreement with Korea by Oct. 21 at the latest.

Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na named ambassador for 2012 Winter Youth Games
AP via Washington Post

Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na will help promote the first Winter Youth Games.

The IOC says the 21-year-old South Korean skater will join Olympic ski champions Lindsey Vonn and Benjamin Raich as an “ambassador” for the games, which will be held in Innsbruck, Austria, from Jan. 13-22.

Jay Park interview with channelAPA.com
channelAPA

Over the weekend at 2011 ISA LA, channelAPA.com had a chance to chat with Jay Park about his music and dance careers. With a huge following in both USA and Asia, we talk about opportunities for Asian Americans in both regions. He shared with us about his strategy straddling the East and West. Jay Park has already release several singles including Single Life, Demon, Bestie & Speechless. He’s even done several collabos like Clouds and Maybe One Day. He might not have an English album soon, but he’s working on new English tracks. In the meantime, he’ll be busy promoting his upcoming Korean film “Mr. Idol” and a Korean album in November.

Monday's Link Attack: Chris Jeon, Michelle Wie, Bae Doona

Living with Libyan rebels: U.S. student’s story
CBS News

UCLA student Chris Jeon appeared on CBS’ “The Early Show” to talk about his experience with Libyan rebels.

“The first day there,’ Jeon continued, “was actually a desert skirmish. Artillery would hit the ground, and they would come up to me and feel my heartbeat to see if I was scared. And of course, it was pounding; they would laugh at me, but I didn’t run away. They called me ‘Braveheart,’ and I think after that, they realized that I was there seriously, and I wouldn’t back down or anything; they actually took me into the barracks after the first day and I slept with them.”

Jeon also appeared on CNN.

Europe Wins Solheim Cup
AP via ESPN.com

Europe won the Solheim Cup for the first time since 2003 on Sunday, finishing powerfully to beat the United States 15-13 at Killeen Castle.

Norway’s Suzann Pettersen turned the momentum Europe’s way when she recovered from 1 down with birdies at the last three holes to beat Michelle Wie by one hole.

A trek across South Korea filled with ‘small joys’
Los Angeles Times

The hill appeared out of the mist, taunting me. Soaked in sweat and an entire day’s rain, lugging a 40-pound backpack, I could hardly see through my fogged-up lenses. But what I could see, I didn’t like.

Seven hours earlier, I had started a solo walk across my native land, dreaming of seeing the real South Korea. It was nearly dark when I reached the imposing hill. What lay on the other side — more forest? I had to find someplace to stay for the night, but where? Then, a tougher question: Could I handle the real thing?

I had left South Korea in 2002, when I was 16, to study in the U.S. I loved the English language and wanted to be surrounded by it.

In all, I spent seven years in Washington state, always thinking of how hard my family worked to pay for my college education.

Whenever I felt homesick, I’d visit my school’s East Asia library and read Korean books. The written Korean language was a big comfort, but what I loved most were the travel books that described the beauty and mystery of the landscape, people and culture.

Body Recovered From Lake Congamond
NBC Connecticut

The body of a 44 year old man has been recovered from Lake Congamond, Police said. The man has been identified as Dong Soo Kim of Springfield, Mass.

Crews were called to the scene around noon on Saturday after witnesses said Kim’s daughter fell overboard while boating. Kim jumped in after her but never resurfaced.

Officials at the scene said the daughter was pulled from the water by nearby boaters and given CPR. She was taken to an area hospital.

N. Korean heir apparent cements status: S. Korea
AFP via Google News

The son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has cemented his status as leader-in-waiting through frequent field trips with his ailing father, the South’s unification ministry said Monday.

Kim Jong-Un has accompanied his father 100 times, or on two-thirds, of his trademark “field guidance” trips, since he was confirmed as leader-in-waiting a year ago, the ministry said in a report.

Bae Doo-na Ice Cool Ahead of Hollywood Debut
Chosun Ilbo

All it took was a video call and a short home movie, and the Wachowski brothers — the brains behind “The Matrix” trilogy — were sold on actress Bae Doo-na.

The Wachowskis had been looking around for someone to fill a role in their upcoming movie, “Cloud Atlas,” which has a star-studded cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving.

Blowing the cobwebs off Korea’s heritage
Yonhap

Korea’s history offers it all — kingdoms rise and fall, wars smolder and blaze, religions wax and wane, orthodoxies are established and questioned. Across this colorful tapestry royals strut, heroes ride, rebels plot and villains scuttle.

Why then, is English language presentation of so many traditional Korean heritage assets so unremittingly dull?

Adoptee becomes first Korean to reach French Senate
Yonhap

A South Korean adoptee won a seat in the French Senate in the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday, becoming the first ethnic Korean to advance to France’s top political body.

Jean-Vincent Place, 43, who was adopted by a French family in the 1970s and grew to become a politician, was elected as a French senator after running in a constituency of the province of Ile de France on the leftist Green Party ticket.

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Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone
Time.com

On a wet Wednesday evening in Seoul, six government employees gather at the office to prepare for a late-night patrol. The mission is as simple as it is counterintuitive: to find children who are studying after 10 p.m. And stop them.

In South Korea, it has come to this. To reduce the country’s addiction to private, after-hours tutoring academies (called hagwons), the authorities have begun enforcing a curfew — even paying citizens bounties to turn in violators.

Way Home by Erick Oh
Vimeo

Tuesday's Link Attack: NK Defectors, Sung Kim Confirmation Delayed

Suspected North Korean defectors found off Japanese coast
The Guardian (U.K.)

Coastguard officials in Japan are questioning nine suspected North Korean defectors after they were found drifting off the country’s west coast, on Tuesday morning.

The group – three men, three women and three young children – were found by a coastguard helicopter 15 miles off the Noto peninsula, in Ishikawa prefecture, after a tip-off from local fishermen.

They were collected by a coastguard vessel and taken to Kanazawa for questioning. Their eight-metre boat bore Korean characters along its sides and was stocked with rice and pickled vegetables, Japanese media reports said.

A man claiming to represent the group told local media that they had come from North Korea and had intended to travel to South Korea. The man reportedly described himself as a member of the Korean People’s army, and said the eight other people on board were his relatives.

Hawkish senator obstructs confirmation of Sung Kim
Korea Times

The U.S. State Department is trying to persuade a senior Republican senator to lift a hold on the confirmation of Sung Kim, the nominee to become a new ambassador to South Korea, congressional sources said Monday.

Jon Kyl (R-AZ), assistant minority leader in the Senate, has been blocking the confirmation process for more than a month, according to the sources. He is known as a staunch conservative on foreign policy.

The article goes on to say that it was unclear exactly why Sen. Kyl is holding up the confirmation.

Police not ruling out foul play in former Cal golfer’s death
Oakland Tribune

Police have not ruled out foul play in the death of Diane Kwon, a 21-year-old former golf star found dead last week in a shopping center parking lot.

Kwon, a graduate of Kennedy High School in Fremont, was not shot or stabbed, Sgt. Chris Mazzone said. Authorities are trying to determine her cause of death, which they are treating as “suspicious,” he said.

The Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau is performing an autopsy and a toxicology report, which takes four to six weeks to complete.

“We’re waiting for those reports to come back to find out the cause of death,” Mazzone said.

About 11 p.m. Sept. 5, a passer-by discovered Kwon on the ground near her car, behind a building formerly occupied by Barnes & Noble in Fremont Plaza, 3950 Mowry Ave., police said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Father’s relief as Chris Jeon, ‘dude with the AK47′, calls from Libya
The National (U.A.E.)

At first, it did not sink in. Front line? Front of what line? A concert or movie queue? A beach volleyball game? No, the caller said, your son is at the front line of the Libyan civil war with rebel fighters trying to oust a notorious despot.

Peter Jeon was stunned. “A friend said Chris was on the news, so we went on the internet,” said Mr Jeon, an orthodontist in Orange County, California. “Obviously, we were shaken.”


Moon Bloodgood Q&A
Men’s Fitness

This former dancer turned actress and star of TNT’s post-apocalyptic thriller Falling Skies talks no small amount of trash while running circles around you in the gym or beating you to a pulp on Xbox Live. That’s right, Moon Bloodgood is perfect.

Dave Gibbons Is a Church Misfit
O.C. Weekly

Check out this O.C. Weekly cover story by former KoreAm staffer Michelle Woo about Korean American pastor David Gibbons.

Newsong was on its way to becoming Orange County’s next big megachurch—then its pastor decided to pull back and go small.

Raising Kang: Single mother, single goal
Casa Grande Dispatch (Arizona)

Here’s a nice profile of a Latina single mother raising her son Michael Kang in Arizona.

Hawaii, it happens, is a part of Kang. His father is Hawaiian-Korean. His mother is Hispanic. He takes a bit of gentle ribbing from his classmates about his ethnic diversity. For Kang, that’s all just background noise, though. Military life has always been his focus.

How Korean Pop Conquered Japan
The Atlantic

In Japan—a country that has prided itself on producing and exporting its own fantastical pop culture—Korean entertainment has come to gobble up massive portions of melodrama and musical market share. Not only do Korean dramas air frequently on TV, but in the past year Korean pop groups like Girls’ Generation and KARA have shattered sales records and become primetime fixtures on Japanese television programs, thanks to a mish-mash of Western club-friendly and a sped-up tempo appropriate for an arcade. This boom in Korean entertainment isn’t just about units moved or appearances on talk shows; Korean media, especially pop music, has exploded in the Land of the Rising Sun because the K-Pop architects have embraced everything that the Japanese music industry has shunned for years.

Scholar fights for Korean studies in US
Korea Times

[Professor Kim Yung-hee], currently director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is wrestling with a fresh challenge.

The class size of Korean studies there is shrinking.

“These days it is hard to find students who are interested in Korean studies as a major. As a Korean literature professor, this is my primary concern,” said Kim. “The arts and literature department is not a priority in many U.S. universities. I think this is the case for Korea, too. I understand many Korean parents encourage their children to attend either law or medical school in the hope that they can land high-paying jobs easily after graduation.”

Students’ lack of interest in Korean studies came as a bit of a surprise, considering the number of undergraduate students taking Korean language courses at the University of Hawaii has continued to increase. Approximately, 300 to 400 students attend the course every semester.

Seoul revival as students embrace Korean language
The Australian

Good Korea move: 89 students have signed up for a new Korean language program at the University of Western Australia, which is riding a wave of teenage obsession with Korean pop groups and television.

“We initially had more than 100 and we had to put a cap on [numbers]. Nobody expected so many students,” Associate Professor Kyu-suk Shin said. Korean has been in low demand in Australia, despite official rhetoric about its importance.

Pizza on Jesa Table?
Ask a Korean! (blog)

This photo is generating an interesting online controversy in Korea. As the Korean covered previously, jesa is a traditional ritual in which the family gets together to commemorate the ancestors. (A jesa held on chuseok and other holidays are called charye [차례].) Jesa follows a strict guideline in all aspects, including what to put on the table and the order in which those items will be arranged.

Needless to say, pizza does not really fall under that guideline — hence the controversy.

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Tuesday's Link Attack: Chris Jeon, Dumbfoundead, Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Chris Jeon’s Parents Say He’s Safe
The Atlantic

As Libyan rebels try to talk the country’s remaining loyalist forces into a peaceful surrender, their wackiest member, UCLA student Chris Jeon, is reportedly planning to head home soon. Jeon has been living with the fighters for several weeks, and has become the fascination of many stateside who think he’s an imbecile, a daredevil, or both. On Tuesday, The National’s Bradley Hope tweeted: “Parents of #ChrisJeon told me he is safe and heading back soon. He was unaware that there had been any news about him for the last week.”

As reports surface of UCLA student Chris Jeon fighting with rebels in Libya, former roommate feels shock, concern
The Daily Bruin (UCLA)

About a week ago, Cody Soto and Ross McCray dropped their close friend Chris Jeon off at Los Angeles International Airport.

Soto had one thought on his mind: “I just watched my friend go into war. Did I just do that?”

The plan: join the rebel movement against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s in Libya. Jeon, a math student at UCLA, had a camera, a small backpack with a couple sets of clean clothes and a one-way, $800 ticket. Soto and McCray tried to talk him out of it, but Jeon – a high-adventure spirit who has apparently also spent four months living with an indigenous tribe in Costa Rica – had his mind made up.

Steelers name Roethlisberger, Ward, Farrior and Battle captains
AP via Washington Post

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ final 53-man roster includes all the usual names, including captains Ben Roethlisberger, James Farrior, Hines Ward and Arnaz Battle. One name, however, raised some serious eyebrows on one of the NFL’s most stable teams.

Steelers’ Ward nearing elite mark
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Hines Ward has plans if he finds his way to the end zone Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. “If I score,” the Steelers wide receiver recently said with a smile, “I’ll give a ‘Dancing with the Stars’ tribute.”

Ward needs only 46 catches to become the eighth player in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions.

dumbfoundead: respect the OGs
angry asian man

I am 25 years old and I’ve been performing since I was 15. Back in the early years Asian-American musicians were obviously not as visible as they are today. We’re talking the “pre-YouTube” era, where we were only getting paid gigs by playing for college organizations. Some of the artists I would run into regularly were Beau Sia, Denizen Kane, PK, Jupitersciples, Far-East Movement, Danny Cho, Ken Oak Band, Eddie Kim, Nemo, Burning Tree Project, Snacky Chan, Jin, etc. Since then YouTube has expanded and created huge fan bases for the AA community and has played a great role in the transitioning of AA artists into the mainstream.

North Korea’s Kim does not trust China: US cable
AFP via Google News

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il expressed distrust of his country’s major economic prop China during a 2009 meeting with a visiting South Korean businesswoman, according to a US diplomatic cable.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson Becomes The Highest-Grossing Female Director Of A Film
PR Newswire via Dailymarkets.com

DreamWorks Animation today announced that its summer blockbuster, Kung Fu Panda 2, has grossed over $650 million globally to date, making Jennifer Yuh Nelson the highest-grossing female director of a film at the worldwide box office.

Check out our August 2011 cover story on Jennifer Yuh Nelson here.

Hank Conger makes defensive strides behind the plate
Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.)

Hank Conger couldn’t really see tangible results Friday behind the plate, but he knew he was on the right track.

Even though he bounced a couple of balls while throwing to second base, Conger noticed his footwork was better. That’s appropriate because his defensive progress has come in short steps for the young catcher, who has been under the tutelage of bullpen coach Steve Soliz and bullpen catcher Tom Gregorio to improve throwing technique.

How Chuseok is Changing
Wall Street Journal

With Chuseok, Korea’s Thanksgiving, happening this weekend, new businesses have sprung up for people torn between the need to follow traditional customs and the desire for an easier and relaxed holiday.

One of the important Chuseok rituals is beol-cho, an annual event where relatives get together several days before the holiday to tidy up ancestors’ grave sites with overgrown weeds. Some people find it increasingly cumbersome because they have to make an hour-long trip to the countryside to join it, not to mention a possible danger from using the hand-held mowing device that a city-dweller is generally not used to.

South Korean village bitter over what it sees as Olympic slight
Los Angeles Times

Soon after a farming area was chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, the government angered villagers by banning most land sales, and resort jobs never materialized.

Friends, teachers remember drowned USC international student Wonwoo Choi
The Daily Gamecock (Univ. of South Carolina)

Known for his infectious happiness, big personality and love for his Korean heritage, cooking and sports, Wonwoo Choi was a model of positivity to his many friends and teachers.

Choi, a student in USC’s English Programs for Internationals, drowned in the Saluda River Friday evening, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.

5 best indie rock bands in Hongdae
CNNGo

The music scene in Hongdae, whether it be hip-hop, punk or indie rock, is growing at a rapid speed with more music clubs now than ever before. These five best Korean indie rock bands are reason enough to drag yourself out to a club in the most youthful part of town.

Top Seoul educator vows not to quit
Korea Times

Embattled top Seoul educator Kwak No-hyun said Thursday he will continue to work with a “sense of grave responsibility,” rebuffing calls for his early resignation over ever-growing bribery allegations.

East meets West: Korean student teachers learn, share at Sky View
The Herald-Journal (Utah)

Here on a mission to teach and learn, three South Korean students are taking their time to explore the American education system and acclimate to the new environment before they have a chance to take on the role of teacher in one of Sky View’s classrooms.

Dan Bi Park, So Young Cho and Hye Mi Jang traded one of their senior semesters at Seoul National University for Sky View High School in Cache Valley, where they will have a chance to learn about American culture and education, as well as introduce a little bit of South Korea to the local high school.

Ed Wang, Craig Davis among Bills cuts
NBC Sports

Chinese American offensive lineman Ed Wang was released by the Buffalo Bills in the final round of cuts last week. Wang starred at Virginia Tech as a left tackle and was drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

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Friday's Link Attack: Jeju Protestors, Libyan Rebel Chris Jeon, Alina Cho

South Korean Police Detain Island Activists Opposed to Base
New York Times

The police on Friday detained nearly three dozen activists and villagers on the southern island of Jeju who have been camping for months to resist the construction of a naval base in their scenic seashore village.

Kim Sung-han, a police spokesman, said he could not confirm the number of police officers involved in the raid in the village of Gangjeong or the number of protesters at the scene during the raid, but witnesses estimated the number at 50 to 60.

Dear UCLA’s Chris Jeon: War Isn’t Cool
International Business Times

If he eventually makes it back in time for his first class at UCLA this semester, he’ll be lucky to have his head intact. Jeon’s actions are dangerously stupid. They remind me of when some high-school kid from Florida that went to Iraq for a school assignment during the height of the Iraq War. U.S. civilians without a military escort shouldn’t just show up in a dangerous battle zone.

However, what’s worse about Jeon is his reason for going to Libya to fight in this dangerous war. Why did Jeon remove himself from the U.S., go on a ridiculous journey to Libya and put himself in harm’s way with a bunch of strangers who he’s never met and can’t even really communicate with?

Jeon Kicked Out of Rebel Group?
Al Jazeera via Twitter

Our team in east #Libya said rebels fed up with Chris Jeon, US kid who tried to join, told him 2 go, last seen on pick-up going 2 Benghazi.

Look At This F–king Hoopster: Libyan Rebel Edition
Deadspin

And he did it all in a $100 throwback jersey. Hoopsters worldwide, hear this: the bar has been set, and your John Stockton kiddie jerseys at Lollapalooza just will not do anymore. Get real, and get yourself a ticket to the Libyan revolution.

What I Wore: Alina Cho
New York Times

ALINA CHO, 40, a CNN national correspondent since 2004, has reported on topics like North Korea, President Barack Obama’s election and Hurricane Katrina. She is now shooting “Fashion: Backstage Pass,” her third half-hour special devoted to New York Fashion Week, set to be shown on Sept. 17. Ms. Cho will then take the show overseas for the first time to cover the Paris fashion collections.

South Korea Will Allow Buddhists to Visit the North
New York Times

South Korea said Friday that it would allow a 37-member Buddhist delegation to visit North Korea, a sign that it might be ready to ease restrictions on civilian contacts with the North.

Koreans to honor Sept. 11 victims with classical music
Yonhap News

A group of Korean musicians in the United States plans to present a “peace concert” this month in commemoration of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their families, as the tragic incident marks its 10th anniversary.

The Washington Korean Symphony Orchestra, a charity organization, said it will open the concert at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This event is sold out.

4 Koreans charged with kidnapping fellow Korean in Cebu
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Four Koreans are facing criminal charges for kidnapping a fellow Korean here last month. The Criminal Detection and Investigation Group (CIDG) in Central Visayas filed kidnapping for ransom charges against Kim Jong Seok, Choi Se Yong and two unidentified Koreans at the city prosecutor’s office on Thursday.

They were charged with kidnapping Kwon Young Hoon, 28, last Aug. 21, just a few hours after he arrived in Cebu for a vacation. He was kept captive in an apartment in Lapu-Lapu City and was released two days later after paying $7,000 in ransom.

Lebanon thumped 6-0 by South Korea in Asian qualifying match
The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Lebanon’s Asian qualifying group stage got off to a sobering start after South Korea thrashed the Cedars 6-0 in Korea.

New Arsenal signing Park Chu Young scored a hat trick, while Ji Dong Won helped himself to a brace. Kim Jung Woo scored Korea’s other goal.

Wiki: How Long Does it Take to Learn Korean?
Ask A Korean! (blog)

Given that everyone has different aptitudes with language, the Korean is not sure if there can be such thing as a “general” timetable for an Anglophone to become fluent in Korean. But it might not be a bad idea to take a straw poll, just to see the range.

Racist FOX Sports piece with Bob Oschack
channelAPA

Comedian Bob Oschack did some “investigative” reporting on the USC campus about Colorado and Utah joining the PAC-10. In his comedy bit (if you can call it that), he specifically targets foreign students who are clearly not aware of what he’s talking about. Not sure why FOX Sports would left this on the air, but ranks up there with Asians in Library : Racist Rant by Alexandra Wallace. Wendi Deng Murdoch needs to lay the smackdown on this guy.

Fox Sports Does Humiliating Whiteface Routine
Deadspin

Nice to see non-Asian media outlets calling out this guy.

Hence the flagrant racial caricature in this video, based on the assumption that belonging to a certain group makes you inherently buffoonish. Hey, Colorado and Utah—you people are so white, we bet you’re totally confounded by the sight of people with other ethnic backgrounds! Just like our white clown of an announcer, you probably can’t even understand the accented speech of someone who knows more than one language.

Why does Fox Sports insist on portraying white people as incorrigible racists and rubes? This is demeaning.

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