Gina Kim was born and raised in Koreatown. She is a recent high school graduate and was planning on going to Yale in the fall to study English, but due to COVID-19, has been forced to take a gap year. Her passions include writing, photography, and film. Some of her work can be viewed in her online portfolio at mijin.org.
Where is your hometown?
I was born and raised in Koreatown, LA. I’ve lived in the same condo in the heart of Koreatown near Madang for my whole life. So I’ve seen Koreatown change so much, from when I was a little kid to right now because I was just in the center of it all. And the most pressing matter that has come out of the change is the issue of gentrification. I know that most people are complaining about it, but Koreatown was really dangerous when I was young. So I was never allowed to go out after the sun went down because there would be people with guns walking around and stuff. But I’ve never experienced anything big. Like, no one was out there trying to shoot me or holding a knife to my throat. Anyone in a small city anywhere in the world might have experienced the same things I did, like catcalling and feeling weird in dark alleyways. So not really anything big. I think that the LA Riots also play a big part in how I see Koreatown. My dad was actually living here when it was happening and he was working in a market, so he’s told me stories about how he had to surround the perimeter of the building with carts and rice packets and stuff. I still see remnants of the LA Riots today. There’s a sidewalk area near Jamba Juice right before Madang that is abandoned, and apparently it’s been deserted since the riots. I don’t know how credible it is because my dad told me, but I see those kinds of things every day. But now, because of the “gentrification,” it’s so much safer and brighter, and there are so many more lights.
I can’t say exactly what growing up in the city was like, because I’ve never grown up in any other environment, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I definitely feel like I grew up more open-minded because in general, city people are much more eccentric than people you might meet in suburban or rural areas. Also, Los Angeles is home to like one-sixteenth of the nation’s homeless population. That’s so many people without a home. Naturally, I was exposed to homelessness from a young age, and so the importance of education was really drilled into me since I was a child, especially because of Asian culture and all of that. That’s not to say that the homeless are uneducated, but in general, they don’t get the same opportunities to move up the ladder and that’s often due to a lack of opportunities for higher education. Living in the city and being exposed to all sorts of people, my parents’ words seemed more serious and not just like nagging. I’m sounding like a real Asian kid right now, but from a young age, I had a very goal-set mind. I was honestly just scared to fail. It’s not all like rainbows and sunshine in the city. I think that kids that grew up in the city mature a little bit faster because they are allowed to go out on their own. Even if they’re not allowed to, they go out, because there’s just so much stuff to do. Navigating the city on your own and learning how to land on your feet is something good in the long run though, I think.
Do you live or work in Koreatown?
Yes, I live in Koreatown right now, but not for long because I might be leaving Los Angeles soon. I also work in Koreatown at a place called InArt Education, which is like this art portfolio/college prep academy. I actually started working there just as the COVID pandemic was starting, like in late February. I was working there part-time at first because I still had school until May, but I’m working full-time now because I’m done with school. My main job is to help students with college essay writing. It was a natural transition in becoming an employee because it was the place where I made my art portfolio. The head director of the school also knew that I wrote, and she liked my essays. Even while I was a student, she would say things like “You should work here as an essay teacher, I would hire you right away.” So it was basically just connections.
The main reason I work there is that I need money right now. Because of the coronavirus, my dad can’t work anymore, so he takes care of the day to day stuff, and I’m in charge of the groceries. That’s why I’m working a lot more.
I actually like working at InArt because I like working with kids, and I’m a writer, too, so I like editing other people’s writing. And my love for writing originally stemmed from a love for reading. I went to kindergarten twice because my mom wanted me to help my little sister out. But because I learned everything the first year, during the second year the teachers just let me do whatever I wanted. And what else are you gonna do at that age than read? It’s not like you can use computers or anything. So I read a lot at that time, and then after that, I just kept reading. That naturally led to me wanting to make my own stories. I realized I wanted to write pretty early on. It was around fifth grade, so I was 10 years old. Around that time, I was reading a lot of young adult novels, which are mostly really cheesy fantasy stories. And I feel like all artists kind of start with imitation, whether they like it or not, and writing is a form of art. So I was trying to write these spinoffs of what I read, and it was just really cheesy stuff. At that time, I didn’t know that you could write about yourself or anything other than fiction, because I never read anything like that. But when I started my blog in eighth grade, I wrote about my family for the first time. I was reading a lot of memoirs, and that was when I realized that you could write about yourself. So I started focusing on my family, as well as language and the actual writing itself. I started to study how words flow, and just read instruction booklets and other stuff I found on the Internet. I also tried to read a lot of contemporary literature, because I liked the style and that was something that I was discovering at the time. I really learned that it’s not just about the content, but also the delivery. Also, at that time there was really nothing to do. I wasn’t good at technology or anything like that. I didn’t even discover YouTube until the fifth grade. I wasn’t even a nerd, I just didn’t know what I was doing. So writing was just really fun. For the blog, I had a deadline and made sure to upload every week. Even if no one was reading, it was an internal deadline that I felt like I had to maintain, so I just kept writing. So because of that, writing didn’t become hard anymore. It almost became a sort of habit. I mean, to this day I still write because of that routine. I’m also still writing about myself because I’m a narcissist at heart. And all writers say this, but writing has become a form of reflection for me. And it also helps to package it in a pretty way. You know, language is pretty and writing is pretty. So really thinking about how to package and deliver what you want to say makes you think about what happened with more depth. I think a lot more going about my daily life because when writing, you need to think a lot.
I was also interested in art from a pretty young age. You know, Korean parents make you draw when on the little Ikea easels and stuff when you’re little for fun, but I always took it so seriously as a kid. But after I started writing, I realized that sometimes words are not enough, and there are other, better methods to express things that words can’t say. I first started with watercolor, just because I thought it was pretty. I wouldn’t call that art though, it was just making something nice to look at. The first time I really started making my own stuff and getting my ideas out in a physical sense was when I was creating my portfolio. In the beginning, it was for college. I liked art and I wasn’t forced into it, but it was obviously helpful for me to get into college, so I did it. Then, I think it turned into something more personal, and I began seeing parallels between my writing and my art. My ideas started mixing, and from there I got really into photography and video because my writing is about people. So that captures a specific something that photography or video can’t capture, but it’s also the same the other way around. I also realized that visual art can be a lot more abstract. For example, that video I made with you [the interviewer] makes no sense on a surface level, but I hope that there is a deeper message, not because I made it, but because it’s based on something that was already made that I made my own. With art, everything has already been done before, so even when you use something that’s not yours, it can become powerful if you use it in the right way. Moving back to the video that I made with you [the interviewer], I was basing it off “the Perfect Human” by Jorgen Leth. Visual art, especially photography, can capture fleeting moments in an instant, which is the charm of it. But for writing, you have to think about it quite deeply. And that’s the difference. Even if you’re writing about the same thing that you’re photographing, they’re different because of the nature of the mediums. So basically I was charmed by medium. I was carrying out the same ideas about my family and about my Korean-ness but across different methods of artistic expression.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
I actually think about this a lot because Koreatown is a physical manifestation of my being, kind of. Koreatown doesn’t have official borders, and so it’s cheesy but I like to call it a town in limbo. Like, you know, limbo is a place of uncertainty because it was originally this place between Heaven and Hell in Catholicism. So I always refer to it as such because it’s really unlike any other Californian area, even if those areas are ethnic. I also like to say that Koreatown has Californian skies but also Korean air. It’s just a weird place. But I feel really at home here because it’s the home of a lot of second-generation Korean Americans, and I am a second-generation Korean American. I like it. It’s a strange place, but it’s a place that allows me to be unsure of who I am. It’s both American and Korean.
Where is your favorite place in Koreatown?
My favorite place is the food court in Koreatown Plaza. Korean moms are kind of crazy, so when I was little, all of them would gather together with their kids and we’d all go to the Koreatown Plaza food court and get pho. And say hi to the man that runs the restaurant. I think every Korean American knows that ajhussi (middle-aged man). Then when the kids would finish eating, we would all go to the Artbox to get pencils and stuff and run around the fountain.
How has your life changed because of Covid-19?
It’s kind of a lame answer, but it’s definitely schooling. I worked pretty hard to get into a good college because I kind of saw it as a way out and a way to make up for all that my parents have poured into me. Before, I never saw a gap year as a part of my plan. But now, it’s becoming a definite possibility because of COVID, as all schools are potentially going to be online. Even Yale might be online, as it is located in Connecticut, which is a very dangerous area right now because of the pandemic.
In the beginning, I was really sad because I was honestly really excited to go. I thought that I was finally going to be able to get out of this bubble, but what can you do.
But I feel that in the long run, this pandemic is giving me the opportunity to look outside of my set “plan” and just opening up new possibilities for my future. I recently started planning my year out, and the first thing that I’m going to do is do an internship for around a month and a half. I’ve applied to three so far, but results come out later this month so I haven’t heard back from them yet. After the internship though, I’m going to go to Korea because that’s where my mom lives. She has a restaurant there, so I’ll be helping out at night. There’s also an InArt in Korea, so I’ll be teaching essay writing and helping kids do their portfolio during the day. Also, for Yale, if you want to take a gap year, they make you write a sort of essay. One of my promises was that I would finish writing a novel by the time I go back. It’s going to be a sort of homage to my apartment because one of the biggest things that I was taking photos of and making art about was space. I did a piece about my apartment unit for my portfolio, too. And it’s because while people can hide things, spaces and items cannot. Not only is the energy of the people that live there embedded in spaces, but people leave things behind, just laying around. And those kinds of things say a lot about people in a strange way. If you look at someone’s space, I think you can really tell who they are. In a way, that might be shallow, but I think that it’s kind of vulnerable. It’s more of a memory piece about my home and my writing. The focus seems like it will be on people rather than the building itself because it’s gonna be about my family. A person’s environment has a huge impact on how they end up, so it will also end up being indirectly about the apartment as well. There’s gonna be a lot of descriptive writing about the space. And it will be about the whole apartment because of my neighbors and everything. I’ve lived here all my life. So what I’m basically trying to establish is the idea that it’s too small of a space to hold such big memories. I’m trying to explore the effect of space and the physical things that you call home on your idea of home.
As for how it’s affected my day to day life, I’m gonna be honest, I’m not really good at keeping precautions and following government orders. And it’s not because I’m anti-mask or anti-government or anything, it’s just because I just forget that we’re in a pandemic, which is so ignorant to say because people are dying. I mean, I wear a mask and keep the six feet apart rule. Like when I’m on the sidewalk and I’m about to pass someone, we both avoid each other at the same time. As for groceries, I definitely don’t go as much and we bulk buy a lot. I definitely don’t hang out as much too, because first of all, it’s dangerous, but second of all, there’s nowhere to go even if you wanted to go out. I’m still hanging out sometimes, and I know it’s so bad, but because I’m young, I feel invisible, even though I know that I’m not. The whole situation feels far away, which is crazy because we’re living in it. But it feels like I’m watching it happen from a distance.