Chiwan Choi: Los Angeles, Writ Large | KCET
Chiwan Choi: Los Angeles, Writ Large
Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?"
This week we hear from Chiwan Choi, writer, teacher and the editor & publisher of Writ Large Press
"My family came to L.A. at the end of March 1980. That included me, my brother and my mom and dad. We came from Paraguay, in South America. We lived there for five years, until I turned ten.
"I was born in Seoul, Korea. We lived there until I was five. My other relatives who had left Korea moved to Chicago and New Jersey. We were the first in our family to choose L.A.
"When we left Korea, I hadn't started school yet. I had no concept of other countries. I didn't even know what borders were. So when my parents said we were moving to this other place, I was like, 'I have no idea what you're talking about.' Then I went back to playing with my dog.
"All I remember about the trip from Korea to Paraguay is getting on a plane. Then a few hours later, getting off and seeing that everybody looked different.
"When we moved to L.A., though, I was older. I had made some friends. I was just picking up Spanish and feeling a little more comfortable.
"At that time, the only thing I knew about the U.S. was that there was a city called, 'New York.' I told everybody at school that's where I was going. So landing in L.A., and everybody not speaking Spanish -- that was jarring.
"We moved into Koreatown. The first place we stayed was on Crenshaw and 8th. It was in the back house of someone my parents knew. We moved many, many times -- but always within like six blocks.
"My parents felt really comfortable in Koreatown because there were Korean billboards; the store signs were in Korean; there were Korean churches everywhere. For me, it was pretty traumatic. I couldn't fit in with Korean kids because they looked at me as an outsider. I couldn't fit in with American kids because I didn't speak English.
"I tried to connect with Spanish-speaking kids, but even that was difficult because the dialects were different from what I was used to. The speed that people spoke was different. The meaning of certain words was different. I just felt completely disconnected from everybody. I felt shell-shocked.
"My parents have told me that back when we were leaving Korea, it was difficult to get a visa to come straight to the U.S. So they had to go to another country and establish themselves. And run a business. And do all that. And only then could we get a visa to come here. It was almost like you had to go somewhere else to legitimize yourself.
"Why Paraguay? It was probably just one of those things where somebody in Korea said, 'Hey, there's this country in South America. We should all go there.'
"However it happened, the plan worked. It's amazing how many Koreans you meet here who lived in Paraguay -- and Brazil.
"Once we made it to L.A., though, we've stayed. I did leave to go to grad school at NYU. And a couple of years ago, my wife and I rented an apartment in Barcelona for like ten weeks.
"After Koreatown, my family tried living near Griffith Park, just north of Los Feliz, but we didn't like it. It was haunted, among other things. I've been living Downtown for years now. I've been here since Downtown was empty. I mean when I was younger, I used to go sleep at Pershing Square. So it's fun to live here and have everyone here now.
"My brother lives on Figueroa and Second. My parents live in the same building as my wife and I -- there's a low-income unit and I helped them get it. So now in their old age they are living in a Downtown loft -- they are having fun with that!
"One thing that's great about Downtown is we only have one car. My wife works down in San Pedro so she drives. I walk and take the bus and the subway. Because we're out and about all the time, we've become friends with our neighbors. We have them over to our house; they invite us over. It's really become a community.
"Like on Thanksgiving, regulars will take food over to Spring Street Bar and just lay it out. The people who are working there and other stragglers come in and we have a Thanksgiving meal.
"I don't know about Korea or Paraguay -- because my experiences in those places were as a kid who didn't know anything. But in the U.S., in other big cities, I don't think that some of the things I'm part could be done by a person like me.
"We have this project where we're trying to designate a section of Downtown as the Los Angeles Literary Corridor. Different streets would be honor different L.A. writers.
"Also, with Writ Large, what we're doing symbolizes for me what L.A. can be. I've always stayed on the fringe of the literary scene, the publishing scene. I went about things my own way. And with the people we have involved now, we're at this place where we can just do the things we want to do.
"In New York, you just have to go through such a system. There are these people you have to please. You have to go through this approvals process. I mean, it works for there. But here, in L.A., there's not the same hierarchy. If you have something you want to do, you find a place and you go do it."
-- Chiwan Choi
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
Top photo: Chiwan Choi with his family when they all lived in Korea. Photo courtesy Chiwan Choi
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy