Sean is a volunteer with KYCC’s Youth Services, where he tutors students one-on-one with homework help. He is an elder participant in the Koreatown Storytelling Project, an intergenerational oral history program, for which we conducted this interview. Sean is a first-generation Korean American who works in Koreatown in the medical device industry. He has a law degree in intellectual property rights.
Where is your hometown?
I grew up back in Seoul, Korea, where I lived until 1999, and then I came to the States. I moved for a career change and for a better learning environment for my kids. I travel to Korea on and off to visit. I used to live in San Diego. Then about seven years ago, I settled down in L.A. Now I live in Los Angeles, right by the Century City Mall. I’ve lived there for two years. Before this residence, I lived in downtown L.A.
I really like the diversity in L.A. In general, there is diversity in the States, but in L.A. —the City of Angels—there is a really good mix of diversity. Unfortunately, we are currently experiencing some social issues among the people. I’ve noticed a change in the environment. The environment is hurting. Lots of changes in traffic and pollution. It’s really getting worse. The second thing is the changes in people’s behavior and social conduct. A number of people are really getting impatient; we are not good at managing anger. The rapid environmental and social behavior changes are the two big things in my mind over the past 10 years.
The living environment in Korea when I was young was brutal. We didn’t have enough food and support to have extra anything. Not enough transportation, money, help, or food. So we had to develop ourselves. During those days to make tuition we had to work hard. Even enjoying ice cream was a dream of mine. If I had the money, I wanted to enjoy ice cream as much as I could. Not even just ice cream. Ice itself was really hard to get. Can you imagine that? It just represents how hard it was to live under those conditions. I always want to give 100 percent credit to my mom and dad. They sacrificed themselves for a better future for their kids which I’m doing here now.
As a first-generation immigrant, we have to visualize the future. I think having a dream of a family in the future was a big motivation and passion that got me through.
Do you live or work in Koreatown?
I have had an office in Koreatown for three years. I manage a small medical device company. Personally, I’m proud of helping people because our medical device is designed for giving patients better outcomes. I like most parts of my job. A little while ago I set up my own start-up in this area. I started from scratch with a couple of doctors who came up with ideas and inventions. We were able to commercialize it and secure the patent. It worked very well. Patients were really happy with this new concept because we tried to change the existing environment. The concept they made worked very well. Then a few years later, we were able to sell the company to a big giant, which was Johnson and Johnson. It’s more than great. I enjoy it a lot even with its ups and downs.
I went to college in Korea. Then after I came to the States, I attended law school as well. It was hard because I was 36 years old when I started. Can you imagine that, 36 years old? I didn’t always have an interest in law, but I was interested in one particular area which was intellectual property law. Intellectual property means trademarks, software, copyrights patents. Those are the three big areas of property I was interested in. I was proud when I graduated from law school and I was 37 years old. It’s not that common for people at that age. That was really just a moment I am proud of and that my family is proud of.
I was a businessman. I was an actor for six months. Non paid. I got to know that I don’t really have acting talent. I was in an indie, independent movie that was like 30 minutes long with a young guy. I kept my copy of my film. I realized that wasn’t really my path. The good news is that all my colleagues in that movie were successes. I was mostly a businessman. I changed my career when I was a lawyer then I got back into business and made my own startup. Also I am an angel investor. I am helping young guys develop their ideas. I was also an officer in graduate school back in Korea.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
I understand that there have been a lot of changes. K-Town has a lot of projects to build residential apartments and condos in a modern way. That’s a really, really big change. I think that’s because currently Koreatown has a mix of cultures. The level of residents is rising and they need better conditions to live in. The community is going up and it is becoming a good place to live in LA. I’ve noticed lots of changes in terms of generations in Koreatown. Even now, I’m working with a lot of young people in K-Town. It draws me into a different area. The younger generation can make change in a very significant way. Koreatown is not only for the old generation but for the new generation and I’m excited about that.
I heard about Koreatown a long time ago, almost 50 years ago. I had mixed feelings as a Korean immigrant when I first heard about K-Town in LA. I thought it must be really good for our community and for Koreans. But on the other hand, it would be tough to make a life and live in the States. Honestly, my first impression of Koreatown was not that great because it looked like a really old town in terms of infrastructure. It was not that modernized. All the streets, homes, and buildings looked really old. My first memory of Koreatown was actually a scary moment. It was in the middle of the night and I was walking around. You know, it was scary because all the shops were closed and it was dark. So that was my first experience.
Thankfully, BTS is a great tool to introduce Korean culture throughout the country. Also, Netflix has been a good advocate in terms of Korean dramas and Korean food, as well. So, when I want to introduce Koreatown I say it’s these miniature versions of Korean culture combined together. Lots of Korean food and Korean people. I mean it has one of the biggest populations of Korean people in the States.
K-Town is like my home country. It makes me homesick sometimes. I think there are many more ways to go to make it perfect but K-Town has so many cultures that make it unique.
What’s your favorite place in Koreatown?
I like all the different types of cultural food in the supermarkets and restaurants. My favorite market is H Mart and my favorite restaurant is Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong—it has Korean BBQ. I like that restaurants are offering Korean food that’s authentic. Unfortunately, because of COVID I haven’t been able to have that food. My favorite dishes to have are Korean BBQ and ttoppoki.
What does it mean for you to live a meaningful life?
A meaningful life is a life that we can lead together. Regardless if it’s friends, family, neighbors—life means walking and living together. If you have a good relationship with someone, that’s meaningful. It will be meaningless if you don’t have people around you. I have three kids—two daughters and one son. They are 30, 28, and 26. I have four brothers and one sister. Including me, three boys live in Southern California. I still have one brother and sister living in Korea with my mother. Physically we are not close but mentally I would say we are. My kids live in San Francisco which has been hard to not see them, but I text them every day and try to connect as much as I can.
Sometimes I feel guilty because I am doing nothing during this pandemic. I tried to find something to help somebody or to help something, but virtually nothing for me to get involved in. I sometimes feel guilty or selfish. I try to protect myself and my family. I wish I could do something different and more meaningful.
What has given you comfort and hope during this time?
I try to play golf and then also I try to practice guitar. I used to play guitar when I was in high school and then I stopped when I went back to college. So it’s been almost 40 years. People start playing guitar during high school or middle school and then once you go to college, you get busy.
I try to find comfort in two ways. Physically, I walk around town by myself for fresh air. That is a moment that I can try to feel comfort. Mentally, when I exchange with my family members and close friends, that’s a really good moment of comfort that I’ve been enjoying.
I go outside every day in the morning and in the evening. At least twice a day. In the morning, I just walk around, you know, while listening to music. In the late afternoon or the evening, I walk and pray for my family and for the world.
Faith is important to me. Social relationships and my relationship with God is why I live. Those two things have been very affected by COVID. Socializing with people is not really allowed other than digitally. I am even attending online mass through YouTube. I got to connect through a Zoom meeting. It was a really good moment. It is not a face-to-face meeting and there is more openness to it. So for example, I got to know more about my daughter’s boyfriend. That was really nice.
In some sense, it is a really good opportunity for mankind and the world to stop. We need to think about what we should and shouldn’t keep in an environmental context. We overuse things, lots of things. It is a good moment to think. Even though it’s a really dark moment we should be able to get through it. I tried to throw out all unnecessary items. I am trying to go back to a minimalist life. A kind of blessing in COVID is the opportunity to think about what our lives should be like.
What’s the biggest way your life has changed through this pandemic?
Connection is definitely the biggest way my life has changed. Communication and connection with people have the most impact in our lives. We cannot attend church. I can’t socialize with the friends around me. We can only connect online or through a phone call.
One of my biggest struggles is a little bit of the financial impact of the business that I’m running. Then the second one is the restriction of international and domestic travel. We can’t fly. I want to see my kids as much as I can but they don’t live in L.A. I also want to visit my mom, who lives in Korea, but I can’t. So what if something happens and I can’t be there? On May 30, one of my best friends passed away. I couldn’t attend his funeral ceremony, because it was in Korea. Even the 14-day mandatory quarantine wasn’t in place. That was sad. I will not forget this situation for the rest of my life because no one is able to overcome it. There’s no solution.
As a parent, I had to admit that there was nothing I could do for my kids, other than offer financial support. I really felt a weakness. Other than just calling, there was nothing for me to do beyond that. In the beginning, I was so sad and upset when I felt like I couldn’t help. I was sending text messages every day and praying for them. Now I realize that in the relationship between parents and kids, you have to recognize the unchangeable fact that humans are all independent. It was kind of sad but it will give them more strength as independent people. You need to help others and protect others and your family. As long as those principles are displayed, even the spread of COVID-19 will be reduced.
For my kids I want them to think, “What is your dream?” Making money? Being healthy? Lots of questions should be answered during COVID. I think they realize what is important in our lives. It is a big positive to be able to sit back and really think twice about what is important in our lives.
Now, during COVID we are experiencing a dark time with people experiencing racism. You know it really scares me because I’m a first-generation immigrant and I’m concerned about my kids in the future. It’s a good cause to recreate our nation. It’s really good for everyone to make a better future.