Adventures in Koreatown – First Experience
Here I was, a recent transplant to Los Angeles on a whim and the funds from selling my SUV out of lack of desire to drive from Austin, Texas, through the desert, to the West Coast. As I sit here on the bed of my 3rd floor apartment in Koreatown, it still feels like I’m on a long vacation and that the past couple of weeks didn’t really just happen. This first edition of Adventures in Koreatown won’t focus solely on my KTown experiences but instead give a little backstory as to how I got to Los Angeles in the first place and to set the mood for all the K-Adventures to come. …Some of the names have been changed.
It was an over cast morning as my friend’s wife and I piled my suitcases and bags into her SUV. I was tired; usually the night before any trip spells a restless night in bed for myself. We were in a big hurry, since the printer at the house didn’t work and I had yet to have my ticket in hand. We sped towards her workplace as I glanced constantly at the radio clock that was just fast enough to give me a slight heart attack every time I was fooled by it. I had to make my flight. The next flight that day to L.A. was hours later and $300 more. Plus, I’m one person who goes insane sitting and waiting in airports. Quickly, we arrived at her office, printed my boarding pass, and soon were pulling up to the airport. My heart sank. Curbside for my suitcases was super long, and there was a large family with a bazillion kids getting ready to embark on a European vacation, passports in hand. I was in agony, it was almost time to board my flight and I had yet to get through security. Well, at least security at AUS was a breeze, with my latest outgoing flight security check lasting all of 2 minutes….I would be fine.
…But it wasn’t the same at 6:00a.m. on a Friday morning. After waiting in agony behind the family in the curbside line to check my suitcase, I was faced with the winding security line from hell. It wasn’t the same level of hell as DFW, but it was enough of a nightmare for me as I shuffled slowly in the line, the time of my departure creeping up at an alarming rate. Once I could get ahold of 5 bins, I was in and out of the line, running with my bags and putting my shoes back on at the same time. My gate was right there, and it was apparent that boarding had long started. My ticket didn’t want to scan. I apologized profusely to the nice Korean woman behind me that I’m sure I had unknowingly cut in line. Then, the finish line: My lovely, lovely seat was near the front, as I had made sure in a moment of weakness booking my flight the night before. I collapsed in the window seat, clapped on my seatbelt, and laid my head back and sighed. I was ready….I was MORE than ready to start this new chapter in my life. The engines started to roar as the plane backed out onto the runway.
The mountains flew by underneath my window, yet I felt far from as hot as the desert below surely was. I was freezing. My costly decision to buy the premium seat had resulting in me facing a full-on assault from the AC unit blowing down on me, unrelentlessly, even as I and subsequently the guy next to me tried to turn it off. It refused to die. As we landed at LAX, I was a shivering mess that wanted nothing more than to run to Starbucks for anything warm and overpriced. I got my wish: LAX, being the aiport heaven created by angels, put a Starbucks right next to my baggage claim. My excitement lasted all of 3 minutes, as my struggle with multiple bags and my coffee lead to a very messy death for my expensive drink. Many an outlooker witnessed my death as I watched the spilled drink spread out on the sidewalk, the almost tears in my eyes evident as I looked on in horror as if someone had performed a hit and run on a loved one. I had also run out of cigarettes. I sat down in dejected silence, waiting on Megan to rescue me from going insane.
Megan, surprisingly, came from inside. Megan was almost a stranger to me, as we had never met. She had volunteered to take me in as I looked around for an apartment. She had been a loyal follower of AKPF since the beginning and was one of the first people to support 24-7KPOP after the ultimate upheaval. She greeted me with a smile and directed me towards her car, all the while chatting as if we had always known each other. Finally, I was thawing out of the cold stupor I had inherited as a souvenir from the chilly plane ride. I watched the palm trees on the freeway fly by as we chatted about my flight, my hand swinging out of the window every now and then. It was warm, but not hot. Such a change from the drought of Texas. Megan didn’t live in the city, but in one of the suburbs, and the view of the mountains looming above was the first moment of true shock to me in California. I had seen mountains before but it was at that moment that I realized that I would be living with mountains as a constant in my life, on a daily basis.
Cats love me. I don’t/can’t reciprocate the love. The early years of my childhood involved me spending a lot of time with my neighbor, who was a “cat lady.” My overexposure to felines resulted in me being deathly allergic to them later on in life. I don’t just share this information to have you readers bond with me, as this bit of information is very important to the rest of the story. Megan loves cats. She loves cats so much that she rescues them and takes care of them. This was something Megan had told me before I came to California, something I just accepted and didn’t see as too much of a threat. I was armed with my Claritin, I would be fine. That reassurance flew away quickly as Megan opened her front door and I was greeted by at least 6 cats. I smiled at Megan as she looked at me. I would be fine, I reassured her and myself at the same time. I put my suitcase down and abruptly sneezed.
The first day involved me keeping busy as Megan returned to work. I made the switch from iPhone to Android, getting a new phone and my new California phone number. I discovered the odd names of local grocery stores and felt a little better about my new surroundings: It wasn’t that drastically different from south Texas. There seemed to be a large Hispanic population, the familiar Spanish instructions in stores and on street signs, and tinny sounds of Tejano music could be heard coming out of passing cars. If I closed my eyes, I felt like I hadn’t left Austin. That is, until I reached the front door of Megan’s house again. The cats eyed me like I was a new toy, and no matter how cuddly they looked, I couldn’t have them too near to me. The medicine wasn’t really working, and the wheezing had begun. Asthma-like attacks weren’t far behind and once Megan got home, her mission was to get me out of the house for as long as possible. This, of course, meant driving to the beach.
It was almost 6PM, which meant another involving south of downtown was not going to be possible. Instead, we started the trek towards another coast, Megan giving me a tour along the way. We passed through Anaheim and although Megan despises Disney, she pointed out Disney Land. Soon, it grew dark as we continued on towards the beach. It was my first time near the ocean, since all my adventures so far in life had only taken me within reach of the Gulf, even in Florida. My excitement didn’t even die as the growing chill from outside caused me to let the window up. As we parked I smiled and jumped out…straight into a freezer. My short sleeves did not have me prepared at all for the sheer cold front that assaulted every cell in my body. Megan gestured me towards the shore, and we walked to the wall where I could see the lapping waves in the moonlight. I shivered and hugged myself tightly as a little boy ran by shirtless, in shorts, laughing in glee. I was definitely out of my element. Less than a minute later I was running back towards the car, eager to turn the heat on. I was quickly lulled to sleep by the movement of the car back towards Megan’s house.
The next day, I woke up with the worst congestion, wheezing, and coughing. It was Saturday, and we were going to Koretown. I had to suck it up and replace my sickness with excitement. We drove down the infamous 405 to downtown and I got to see the L.A. skyline for the first time. It was and wasn’t the view I was expecting, all at the same time. The buildings didn’t have the weird spark and architecture that Houston or even Austin had, but you could tell that it was a busy haven, even in the off hours after the workday. Megan gave me the heads up as we exited the freeway to Western Avenue: I was about to see a ton of Hangul. I sat up in my seat, ready to be happily assaulted. Then, it was there. Everywhere. On auto garage shops, gas stations, restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, street-signs: A weird, homogenous mix of Spanish and Korean. Watching the ahjummas gather on the sidewalks to talk, seeing the busy, almost sprinting pedestrians as they raced to their bus stops, the metro stations, and to meet friends to study at local coffee shops, I really started to feel like I was in another world. We turned into a shopping center parking garage when Megan informed me that we were in one of the big Koreatown shopping centers. We were going to have lunch before we looked at a few apartments. As we walked into the center, I started to feel a little like the odd duck out: I was, besides Megan, the only non Korean in the whole center. We walked past a busy Korean grocery store, a Korean bookstore, and a Korean music store before we headed into a small coffee shop. As I ordered my sandwich and coffee and sat down, I looked around to see the clusters of older Koreans sitting around deep in discussion. Every now and then, their eyes would venture over to me and they would continue talking. I had one of those weird middle-school cafeteria moments where I felt everyone was talking about me. Megan seemed unconcerned, as she was a tall White girl that frequently ventured into Ktown and stuck out like a sore thumb. I nibbled on my sandwich and watched the many varieties of shoppers and café patrons come and go, each surveying the table inhabited by the brown and white girls.
After I consumed a large part of my lunch, we slowly walked to the exit to look at the first apt on my list. Not much to report, except the place was awesome. The bedroom was large, the roommates seemed cool (the artsy, filmmaker couple and another absentee roommate), and there was rooftop access that allowed me to see all of downtown Los Angeles. The downside: Their cat, who ran up to me immediately. In my current wheezing state, the place was quickly downgraded on my list. Afterwards, we returned to the shopping mall, where I quickly ran over to the music store.
It was KPOP heaven! I felt in my element in this store full of MBLAQ, Miss A, and Super Junior albums, photobooks, and posters. I hadn’t been able to physically hold any of this stuff before (even though lucky followers had won such prizes from our affiliates and one affiliate had sent me Xia Junsu’s album, which was promptly stolen when it got delivered to my house while I was out of state). The second I spotted MBLAQ’s latest album, I bought it. I watched as teenage KPOP fans of all races came into the store, their faces immediately lighting up as Teen Top’s To You played on the TVs above the merchandise. Next, we crossed over the bookstore, where I made a few funny purchases that I know the followers will enjoy at some point. The day ended with more delicious food and then me almost overdosing on allergy and congestion medicine.
The next day, a Sunday, we decided to go on a ride close to the beach, through Santa Monica up to West Hollywood. The breezes were immediate and refreshing, as we cruised with the windows down, our KPOP music floating out of the car. The palm trees lining the streets, the trendy shops, the large billboards, and the expensive cars that passed us by were amazing.
[VIDEO WILL BE PLACED HERE SOON, I PROMISE!]
Soon, we turned towards Hollywood, the expensive country club houses and condos turning into coffee shops, studios, and tons of awkward tourists walking the streets. It took me a while to realize the Wall of Fame had been passing me by for at least a few minutes. I caught a glimpse of the Hollywood sign before we doubled around to drive into the hills to try to get a better look. This took us over to the 101, a freeway that runs into the hills near Universal Studios. We drove down through the Valley for a while and turned around to drive by the Hollywood Bowl, which looked like a clusterfuck of cars and valet service. Back on the 101, I got another great view of the downtown skyline from another angle. Then, we drove through the mountainous areas of Montebello (another large Asian hub) and other suburbs that I can’t remember the names of. That night, instead of going crazy downtown, Megan and I both agreed to have the night in drinking soju and beginning my love of A Gentleman’s Dignity. After inhaling more medication, I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
The next few days were a blur of medication, apt hunting, and trying to help my 24-7KPOP team. I learned the areas of L.A. I definitely didn’t want to live as there were a few hit-and-misses in my apartment hunt. Thank Shisus for Megan, as the second we would round a street corner or do a quick drive-by, she would alert me to the danger level of perspective places. Also, having the Metro and bus lines nearby were a large factor in my search, and as I had NO idea where any of these were, Megan was the proverbial Jewish angel beneath my wings.
The Fourth of July really crept up on me. Living far from my family when I resided in Austin, I had grown used to passing holidays not spent with them. But, somehow, this felt completely different. I was new in a new place, with no clue as to what to do with myself on a festive holiday. When Megan asked me for suggestions on how to spend the day, my mind immediately went towards the beach. But first, we needed to shop for the beach. A few stops at Old Navy and other stores turned into a mini shopping spree, since I didn’t really bring that many clothes with me on the plane. It was nearing 6PM by the time we were speeding down the freeway towards Venice Beach. At the light on the hill before the beach, Megan told me to pick an appropriate song for my first daytime view of the beach and I shuffled over to Big Bang’s Blue, which turned out to be a great choice. The bright blue water stretched out forever on the other side of the very busy beach, filled with European tourists (they give themselves away, really), bicyclists, sunbathers, and surfers. We parked and made our way towards the water, where KPOP Troll decided to let it all hang out. Soon, we were walking along the water, the waves spraying us and soaking my skirt. Although we walked towards the boardwalk, we never completely reached it. The sun was setting and in our rush to get to the beach, we hadn’t even packed a blanket. Megan got a phone call from her friend Hans*, who owned a beach house not far away. We climbed in the car again and drove the short distance to his very very very VERY nice house. I can’t even describe how nice his place was, not in words, but this is what his “toy” parked in the driveway looks like:
We relaxed with wine/drinks and Hans prepared a lovely salad/Mediterranean sandwich dinner while we sat on his deck and watched the fireworks go off above our heads. Hans is old wealth with a great soul, and soon my geek reflexes were on high alert as he informed me he was the producer of some of my favorite games. Nearing midnight, we left Hans and his wife with promises of my return for one of their infamous garden parties, where I was encouraged to run shoulders with some of Hollywood’s elite.
The next week flew by relatively fast, with lots of trips to apartment locations, nearby tourist spots, and even a visit to see family I don’t recall ever meeting before, for a birthday party. Megan, of course, accompanied me on my ventures, since it was almost impossible to use public transportation from her house. Because of her help, I avoided living in gangland central (the random gang signs and graffiti gave it away what gang invaded the territory, and she’s able to tell me exactly who).
That weekend, we got dressed up and made our way downtown for a Kollaboration event hosted at a largely-Korean nightclub. It took us forever to find a parking spot because a commercial filming had closed down some of the streets. Trying really hard to breathe (my asthma-like symptoms had grown worse by this point), I walked alongside Megan to the door of the venue, which had not yet opened. Wanting to find a restroom instead of waiting in the non-existent guest list line, we crossed the street to a coffee shop. Within 10 minutes, a look across the street let me know I probably didn’t make the best decision. There was a line, and it was out of control. As we crossed back over, I suddenly felt very much out of my element. While I was dressed up to go out, all the Korean girls were dressed to the nines, short dresses and skirts showing off their legs as they teetered on high heels. As we had our names checked against the list and made our way in to buy our super expensive drinks (damn, L.A.!), we sat and watched the young Korean hoardes dancing to the latest American hip hop and pop tracks. Somehow, I was no longer in the mood to be there, feeling like such an outsider. In agreement, Megan and I left for home. One day I’ll attempt to go back, dressed to the nines as well. It’s kinda hard to do that when you can’t breathe and you only have a suitcase of clothes.
Next day, we jumped on another freeway to catch the BEST view of downtown, in my opinion, in search of the next place on my list. It was RIGHT downtown, right across the freeway and within walking distance to the skyline. Problem was, the place was super small and one roommate in particular didn’t seem too keen on having any other roommates. I had made up my mind that it was going to be the place and prepared myself, that is, until I returned the next day. Right as I left with promises of bringing the rent, I got a text from another place I was interested in. On a whim, and growing particularly tired of staying on Megan’s couch, I urged her to drive to that location as well. On the spot, I signed. It was in the heart of Koreatown, with a major subway stop a block away and everything within walking distance. I was handed the keys that night and contently went to sleep that night feeling relieved. The next day, moving day, would officially be my first day living in Koretown.
The next evening, Megan and I arrived to my third floor apartment. There, I ran into one of my roommates, Art, a cool guy in his early thirties who happens to be Pilipino. Then, soon after Megan left, I met Hanna*, one of my Russian roommates who was also just moving in. Dwayne* also trickled in, a young Black singer and actor who had moved out to L.A. from Miami and South Carolina. Anna*, another Russian roommate, followed soon afterwards and then there was Kim, the young adorable Korean guy.
I felt like I was living on The Real World set, and that wasn’t a bad thing. I didn’t sleep well that night, solely because in my rush to move in I had forgotten to get myself bed sheets and blankets. I nearly froze to death that night, as the nights here downtown are rather chilly and the large windows are pretty much always open.
The next morning, I was awakened by food. My roommates called me to the kitchen, where there was salad, wine, and fresh fruit and chocolates. I ate as Dwayne grabbed his guitar and started singing. Soon afterwards, everyone dispersed to go to work or roam L.A. I soon realized the wifi wasn’t working and loaded up my laptop and started my first walking trek into my neighborhood. I stepped out of the courtyard, went through the gate, and was immediately smack-dab in the middle of a Hollywood movie being filmed. I quickly walked through and didn’t make eye contact with who may or may not have been Angelina Jolie standing there. The McDonald’s around the corner was full of people hogging the free wifi, so I crossed the street and roamed until I made my way a few blocks down to Tom Tom’s Coffee Shop, a nice Seoul-ish coffee shop heavily patroned by young Koreans and Korean students. I felt like I was sitting in a K-drama set, watching the chill crowd converse in Korean and study while cheesy American music played over the speakers. I passed the next couple of hours working on the site and talking to my team. As the sun set and night quickly sprang up, I gathered my laptop and prepared for the walk back home.
And it was this exact moment that is hit me that I was officially living in Koreatown. All the lights. All the Hangul. The buses, the cars speeding by, the people passing me by on the sidewalks. I forgot I was in Los Angeles on that walk back. I stopped in another coffee shop for a smoothie, this time picking a random American shop to wake me up out of my dream state. As the employee made my drink he told me about his recent weekend trip to San Francisco and about missing his train. It was nice having a stranger just start chatting with me, since I didn’t really expect that outside of the South. I clutched my computer bag and sipped my drink, already feeling like crossing the busy streets was becoming old-hat. As I got to the front gate of my apartment, I lit a cigarette and was prompted interrupted by Kim. He wanted to go for a walk and wanted me to go with him. Long story short, we walked the streets of Ktown talking, went to 7-11 for beers, and found a great spot for people-watching as we drank and talked late into the night. At midnight, it was his birthday and I sung Happy Birthday to him in Korean when we made it back to the apartment. Then, his family in Korea called to wish him a happy birthday as well. We were preparing to climb the fire escape to the roof before I realized it was probably a bad idea after drinking. Other roommates started to trickle back in and quickly went to bed and passed out. Again… no bed sheets.
The next day, Art and Kim and I piled into Art’s car in search of a Target. As I shopped for necessities, including bed covers, the boys played in the aisles and shrieked in glee when I found them again, almost like little kids caught going crazy by their mom. Once I got home, the boys went on a bike ride and I declined, preferring to organize my room a little. Later that night, getting a little restless there was still no wifi, I again made my way over to McDonald’s. Standing in line in front of me was an obvious Hollywood actress trying to not look obvious. She was in her late 40s, large hat, big sunglasses, expensive boots. Her husband/lackey/caregiver stood next to her as she grilled the poor McDonald’s employee on the ingredients and nutritional value of everything on the value. I sighed heavily, only wishing to order my ice cream cone and sit down on my computer. All the plugs were taken and I needed to find a spot to wait and watch. As the actress paused for breath, the obviously annoyed employee asked me for my order, to which I replied, “I want a Vanilla ice cream cone. Just a cone. That’s it.” He smiled at me in relief as I waited. Once I had my cone in hand I sat across from 2 guys chatting in their seats, right next to a plug. The second they stood up, I sprang into action and quickly sat down, earning weird looks from the two guys. I plugged in, turned on, and started on my ice cream. The actress had finally ordered and sat down at a table across from me, devouring the poor burger she had finally settled on. As she got up to leave, she stopped at my table, smiled, and said, “I ordered my meal after you and still woofed it down before you even finished your ice cream cone. I admire your restraint.” Then she left as I stared after her in pure puzzlement. But my night of weirdness wasn’t over yet.
Right when I was starting to type on my computer, a cute guy walks in, does the usual once-over for plugs, and looks at me and smiles. I smile back then look down at my laptop again. Soon, he walks over and asks to sit at my table, since I was near the plugs. I shrugged and said sure and started back to work. He started talking, introducing himself, and soon we were in a conversation that had nothing to do with the work waiting on me on my laptop. His name was Liam*, he was from Tunisia, and he’s usually mistaken for Italian. We started discussing wifi hotsports and landed on Tom Tom’s when he informed me there was also a 24-hour version of the café blocks in the other direction. He then asked if I wanted to walk there with him and on a whim, I said yes and packed my stuff up.
We walked slowly down Wilshire in a direction I had yet to walk. We passed the subway, a ton of shops, late night restaurants, saunas, and even another Tom Tom’s before we got to our 24-hour destination. He pointed out anything worth pointing out as I translated the Korean signs for him. We arrived at Tom Tom’s and it was HUGE and populated in every possible corner by well-dressed Koreans meeting to socialize. Liam ordered his coffee and my tea and we sat outside and talked, losing all pretense of looking for wifi. I learned that Liam was a big deal back home, where he played soccer and was the King of women, lol. He had lived in Russia, Germany, and Las Vegas. He got a huge kick out of people losing their shit when he told them he was African. We stayed and talked for a few hours and then started walking back. Suddenly, he was holding my hand and we walked the night streets back towards the subway. At my gate, he asked for a kiss and invited me to continue to walk the streets but I was too tired. I gave in to the kiss request and went up to my apt, leaving him with my phone number. Anna really enjoyed hearing about him as we had a girl talk moment before I passed out in my bed. There were bedsheets now!!!!!
In the morning, Kim woke me up so that I could go on a mini-adventure with him. Since internet had been promised to me before move-in, Kim and I went to the nearby Verizon store (I swear there’s one on every block) and got wifi. The whole store, of course, if almost all Korean, with everything your eyes can land on covered in Hangul letters. I started up a conversation with employee Robbie*, also Korean, once he realized I knew what KPOP was and he noticed me reading the Korean newspapers. Robbie looks just like David So, so for those of you that know me well, you know I was suddenly flirting with him without realizing. We talked about KPOP as he completed my order, and soon he told me he was friends with PK and knew the Art of Movement people. We exchanged information and Kim and I left to catch a bus to our next destination, which was further into downtown. We ran a few errands and as I sweat my ass off Kim smiled really big at my observation that Koreans don’t really sweat. After running around a bit, eating lunch, and walking some more, we caught another bus home. I settled in for the rest of the day, drinking a little wine with the guy roommates and hanging out as Dwayne played guitar and sang. Art left for work (he works nights) and Kim ran off somewhere and the girls were off playing tourist. Megan came and picked me up and we drove to Papa Cristo’s Greek Restaurant, a super famous diner that had amazing food and wine.
I was near bursting and had to get most of my food to go. Afterwards, we drove to a Korean coffee shop and sat outside with our drinks, talking. That’s when she reminded me that the I Am movie tickets were out and asked when I was going. I texted Pam (another follower) and we made plans to see it Monday afternoon. Then, Megan dropped me off at my apt and I sat on my bed and watched the neighbors in the buildings across the street as they lived their lives with their windows wide open. Oh, the things my eyes saw and can’t unsee. I rather enjoyed the hot Korean guy across the street doing shirtless pushups in his window for my benefit. I know he didn’t mind, since he walked over to the window after and smiled in my direction. I dozed off to sleep, having sweet dreams before the sounds of drunk roommates returning had me turn over.
The next day, I went thrift shopping with Kim then came home with intentions to work. I dozed off again, got up and prepared to go out and do something. That’s when Dwayne got the great idea to go buy some more wine. We drank as he played and then I got a text from Liam asking me on a coffee date. He was on his way home from work. I said ‘sure’ and got ready. An hour or so later, he had to cancel and I stayed in listening to music and drinking some more with Dwayne. I texted Kim telling him I wanted to go to Korean karaoke and then apparently I passed out on my bed, heels and all. Around 2AM, Art, a female friend of his, and Kim wake me up and tell me to get up and drink with them, to which I blindly walk towards them in the kitchen and sit down. We talked, drank, and played cards late into the morning until I eventually had to crawl back into bed.
So, today is lazy Sunday and I’ve only ventured out a few times, mostly for supplies. Most of the roommates have disappeared for the day. I thought about catching the Metro to the beach but then decided to stay in and finally finish this first entry into Adventures in Koreatown. There’s a clear blue sky, a strong soothing breeze, IU on my speakers, windows thrown open to the street, and I’m happy. This coming week should be rather fun, since I’ll eventually consent to a date with Liam, I’ll be testing the waters of L.A. employment, Pam and I will be going to see I Am tomorrow, and I will embark on my first full week in Koreatown. Look forward to next week’s episode……