WE WERE BLITZING ALONG interstate 10, careening between Los Angeles’ abundantly flowing traffic, and we were starving. I casually gripped the oh shit handle in the passenger seat of the Hyundai as the girls chatted and caught up in the back seat, trying to ignore how Will was blasting between lanes. He just laughed – this is California driving!
It had been a long time since we were all together – the reunion in New York City was almost exactly one year ago. But it was now as it was then, surprising how natural it felt, picking up conversations that started in different contexts, different countries. Friendships born at a dormitory in Seoul 3 years ago carried on as though no time had passed.
We wheeled into the parking lot, greeted by a scene that was at once strange and strikingly familiar; Koreans flowed out of Tahoe Korean BBQ in native-tongue conversation, lighting cigarettes, bellies full. For a moment I could have sworn I was on the other side of the Pacific. And essentially I was – in the middle of 10 blocks of Korea, thriving in the heart of L.A.
The food was absolutely phenomenal – dduk bo ssam, or grilled meat wrapped in thin-sliced rice cakes with all the fixins – but nowhere near as great as the conversation and the memories it brought back. Will was my roomate in Seoul during my first term there, and we along with the ladies – my girlfriend Janice, Naerim and Susan – had all eaten dduk bo ssam together last in Seoul’s DaeHakRo neighborhood more than two years ago. As we poured up glasses of Hite and stuffed our faces we were transported back to a time when this was a regular night.
After dinner we split along gender lines – the ladies had a full day of shopping planned for the next day and had a far drive home, while Will and I decided to go meet up more Korea friends for beers at their cozy, bungalow-like apartment in Culver City. Up until my arrival at LAX, my impression of L.A. was entirely negative – the land of Hollywood, pretension, consumerism and sprawl. But my perspective had shifted, ideas of the place filled up with faces of old friends. At that small apartment, drinking Miller Lite, playing Duck Hunt and discussing the finer points of Korean social reality, was exactly where I wanted to be.
The next day I rode into Santa Monica with Will on his way to work. He pointed me in the direction of Main Street and I set off to find a breakfast strong enough to cure my ails – hangover, sleep deprivation and jet lag. I found my answer at the Omelette Parlor, where I indulged myself with coffee, a three-egg breakfast and a copy of The New York Times. Sitting up close to the window I watched Southern California life slowly trickle by. My waitress, a dirty-blonde in her mid-40s, noticed me writing in my journal and said, “You’re just like me, I write in the morning, too. Every morning – I have to.” And I smiled.
After meandering around for a while, my friends Jared and Tattiya – who recently moved to L.A. from Madison – showed up with an extra bike for me to ride, and we rode up to Bay Cities Deli for some sandwiches and brown-bagged bottles of beer. We spent the rest of the afternoon cruising around and chatting over a delicious Belgian brew over at the Library Alehouse; sitting in the shady green back patio of the pub we had a small-world moment, as Jared bumped into a regular customer from the cafe he worked at in Wisconsin.
Our time in L.A went quickly – a sunny haze of events, from the Tofu Festival to a Korean-style crab feast at Redondo pier. Friends went back home or had to get ready for work, and so it was time to roll on. On Sunday, Janice and I took the Amtrak Surfliner down to the suburban fantasyland that is Ladera Ranch, where my Aunt, Uncle and two cousins live. Being an only child and of limited extended family, it was surreal to really meet my cousins for the first time – at all our previous meetings they’ve been too young to speak.
Our last full day in Southern California was fittingly spent at the beach, where we body-surfed and boogie-boarded until we had sand in our teeth. Tuesday we said our goodbyes, sunburned and with a bit of board rash, and took off from John Wayne airport, watching the orange tiled rooves fade into colorful splotches below the clouds.
Tomorrow: A Day in Seattle