Mia Giambalvo is a high school sophomore at Larchmont Charter School. She’s been going to school in Koreatown for about four years. She has taken an active role in improving the community. She is very involved in her school’s Community Service committee and is a member of the Girls Build LA club which works on different projects to help the neighborhood. She has been working as a waitress at the Solheim Lutheran Retirement Home in Eagle Rock during this COVID-19 pandemic. She volunteered there many times before officially getting a job. She hands out meals for the residents and helps out in the kitchen. It has proved to be a very meticulous and important job during the pandemic as most of the residents are at-risk.
INTERVIEWED BY SALLY SHAPIRO
Where is your hometown?
West Hollywood. Living there my whole life has made me a very progressive person. I’ve always been surrounded by different cultures. I definitely know what it’s like to have a diverse environment around me. There’s a really big Orthodox Jewish community in West Hollywood and a lot of white families, but also there’s a bit of every culture. I feel like it’s pretty diverse.
The apartments here in comparison to the houses are actually pretty cheap and so my dad lived here when he was in his 20s from Austin, Texas. That’s where he was going to college at the time. Then when my mom moved from Phoenix, Arizona and they got married, they just stayed here because it was good for new couples. Then when they had my brother and me, we moved to a bigger place but in the same neighborhood because they thought it was really walkable and friendly and good for kids. A lot of my memories have to do with walking down to Melrose or Beverly and going to the little family-owned restaurants and stores there. It’s just a really friendly neighborhood. I feel like the restaurants and the stores are a bit more overpriced in West Hollywood compared to Koreatown, just because I feel like the places here are kind of overrated and overhyped.
Do you live or work in Koreatown?
I go to school in Koreatown. My school has many different campuses, including two middle school campuses. So when the middle school campuses joined together at the campus in Koreatown in seventh grade, we moved from being in Hollywood to Koreatown.
Going to school in Koreatown, we’ve had a lot of projects about how our community affects our school and how we affect local businesses. A lot of the local businesses are Korean food or just Korean-owned stores and things like that. For history class, we went around and talked to the people who owned these businesses. It was pretty cool. I’ve noticed that the people in Koreatown are very independent and are self-starters.
Larchmont Charter is interesting. I feel like it’s kind of a unique high school experience because it’s so small. However, even though it’s so small, just the way our classes are structured, you’ll still graduate not knowing who many people are, even though your grade is like 100 kids. There are a lot of Korean students but it is majority white. I think they want to make it a diverse environment. There is a bit of racial separation. I can’t really tell if that’s something school-made or just something that makes students feel more comfortable, hanging out with people who have similar families and experiences. In general, people really don’t go beyond their own groups and cliques.
Los Angeles is so big, but it feels so small when it comes to how many people know each other from different schools, and I think that goes farther than just schools in Koreatown.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
I think it’s a really great area. I mostly love the food and the restaurants there. When I think of Koreatown I think of all the marketplaces and the busy streets. When I first got to Koreatown, it was a lot different than the areas where I’d grown up or gone to school before. I hadn’t really been to any establishments in Koreatown, but we always drove through. So I was a little worried that I wouldn’t fit in, but now I think it’s really great and inclusive. I guess it was a little intimidating because it’s much more in the city, near downtown, where it’s busier and bigger but that was really the only thing that was scary about it.
I learned a bit about Korean culture since going to school there. Koreatown is where the L.A. Riots were really focused around and we covered that in my history and poetry classes. That’s a part of Korean culture, at least Korean culture in Los Angeles, that I learned about.\
I have been to a few marches downtown in Pershing Square. We walked out of school because of rallies against climate change, Brett Kavanaugh, and school shootings. I remember walking through Koreatown to get to the Metro station with all my friends. I got to see a lot of Koreatown while I was getting to those marches.
What’s your favorite place in Koreatown?
I really like Madang. All of my friends and I would go in big groups after school. We would get boba and the ice cream there. I feel like it reminds me kind of The Grove near me. It’s not just like a mall, it’s nice and outside so it feels a lot more pretty and calm than malls that are all boxed around you. If I had to describe it to someone who has never been, I’d say it’s an outdoor mall that has mostly Korean restaurants and food. There is really good boba, a frozen cereal bar, and good ice cream. When I came to the school, there were a lot of people who lived in Koreatown, or who were Korean that introduced me to it.
How has living through this pandemic you feel?
I’m definitely lonelier and I don’t always know what to do with the time on my hands. I want to make myself proud of the type of person I am. So usually I motivate myself. I started animating over quarantine. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. But maybe I’ll stick with it.
I mostly talk to my friends or do schoolwork or watch TV. The first thing I’d do when this is over is see my boyfriend and go on trips with my best friend. It’s definitely a learning curve having a relationship over quarantine, because I think a lot about relationships is being able to see each other in person and just have that type of intimacy. Like being able to hold hands and things like that, but I think that you can somewhat capture that by FaceTiming and talking a lot and just sharing what happens in your days.
I don’t go outside often but every now and then I go on walks with my neighbor, and it’s pretty fun. Normally it would take me an hour to get to work but it takes me only 30 minutes or less because the highways are just completely empty.
Where do you work?
I work at a nursing home as a waitress. I work where my mom works because she’s a social worker which is how I learned about the job and I’ve been volunteering there since I was six. I just really wanted the money so when they offered the job I was ready. So I do have a lot of experience dealing with elders. It’s interesting because before this job I actually dealt with them more in person because I would volunteer in Activities. But now I’m usually in the kitchen, which is not very face-to-face, unless they come to the kitchen to ask for yogurt or something.
The way the kitchen works is that most of the time, since I’m new and younger than everybody, everybody else deals more with the food, making and preparing it. That’s a little bit more advanced than I could deal with because I’m not a chef and I don’t have food industry experience. So my job is mostly just when the tray line happens, I’ll put the trays on or call the orders. Then I’ll organize everything like trays and silverware, just the boring things. But it also means that I’m the one who’s out in front of everything, by the doorways and the entrance, where people will come if they need help with things. So I’m always the person who has to deal with complaints. There’s this one woman from activities, which is the building next to ours, and she always is asking for juice. But the juice machine is always broken and I rarely know how to deal with that. So I’m usually just running around trying to find juice.
They have very specific demands for what they’re served for breakfast and lunch. So a lot of the times I’ll get yelled at about cooking eggs over easy even though I’m not in charge of that. So I guess it’s a good lesson on how to deal with difficult people because you always have to be polite. They’re always in the right no matter what. You just have to be as helpful as you can and sometimes that means listening to them and nodding. There’s a lot of codes that you have to follow because everybody there is high risk. Most of them have autoimmune disorders or things where they need oxygen machines, just a lot of things that involve respiratory illnesses, which is exactly what corona is. So you have to take a lot of precautions when you’re handling their food, which is all I do. So you just have to wear gloves and a mask at all times. Just wash your hands all the time. The dining room isn’t open right now so I just bring food to the residents’ doors instead. We’re not allowed to be in contact with them.
There is this one lady who is somewhat like my boss. She tells me what to do most of the time. Her name is Jennifer and she’s in her 20s or younger. So it’s nice to have someone who’s somewhat in my age range because most of them are just adults. She’s been really helpful. I’ve learned about hard work. It’s not office-type work, it’s more cleaning, getting down on your hands and knees and having to wipe things down, and walking all the time. It’s definitely taught me a lot about manual labor and how hard that is. It’s given me a lot of respect for people who are in their 50s and 60s who still do blue collar-type work, because I’m 15 and I’m exhausted by the end of the day and I only work two days a week. My boss is very big on having common sense. She doesn’t like it when people ask useless questions without thinking first. So sometimes I won’t know where things are and I’ll just stand there for five minutes looking around. I don’t want to ask someone because I feel like I should be able to figure it out on my own. But I’ve learned that that’s not always helpful. It is important to really think before you ask questions, because if you ask unnecessary questions all the time, it wastes other people’s time. But also it’s really good to communicate and if you don’t clarify things you’ll never learn.
I’m the only person who speaks only English in the whole facility. Most of the languages spoken are either Tagalog or Spanish. I think that’s really interesting, because I’m definitely learning a little bit about the languages and I think it’s good not to just be constantly surrounded by people who do the exact same things as you. I think it’s important to be surrounded by people of other cultures too.
What’s it like working in a nursing home during COVID?
With corona right now I have to get tested every two weeks at work. I had to get a TB shot twice and a physical. I did have a background check done, I had to get a working license, submit all of my bank statements so they know where to deposit my checks. I had to go through training for sexual harassment, fraud, elder abuse, so on and so forth. All that definitely took about two weeks before my job started. Then when my job started there’s a lot of organizational things. It’s mostly just about calling the orders. It takes a while to learn how to do that because everything has codes. It’s like, low potassium means just give them a banana or CCHO means no sugar and NAS means low salts. It takes a while to learn this.
I’m not really worried because we’re really cautious about being around each other. So far there haven’t been many cases at work, and I feel like everybody’s been really safe. I don’t know how any of us could get it. They have a lot of different protocols just with how they deal with the food too and a lot of washing your hands, you know, checking your temperature. Usually people are allowed to visit loved ones but not right now because of COVID. I have to wear a mask for a long time at work and I think the people who refuse to wear masks on an everyday basis are just pretty selfish and ignorant.