Participants took pictures throughout the tour with #ktownismytown | 'Our fearless leader @theotherhelenkim conducting a special birthday edition of her #ktownismytown tour. #ktown' @ceci_instagrams
Participants took pictures throughout the tour with #ktownismytown | ‘Our fearless leader @theotherhelenkim conducting a special birthday edition of her #ktownismytown tour. #ktown’ @ceci_instagrams

In lieu of celebrating my birthday with the usual fanfare — something along the lines of a day at the spa, a fancy dinner and/or blowing out candles on top of a cake — I spent this past Saturday walking and shouting for six hours and then bussing tables, sort of. I should explain.


Three weeks ago, I led my first Koreatown tour for 10 guinea pigs from Biola University. It was a mediocre success, which was fine by me. I had never orchestrated or led a walking tour before, after all. When the point person at Biola and I were planning these beta Urban Plunge tours a few months back, I knew that one of the four tour dates was going to fall on my birthday. I had initially wanted that day off but it stayed on the calendar because of some scheduling conflicts. Since I was going to have to “work” on my birthday anyway, I decided to offer a second tour later on in the day for friends who’ve been curious this project.

'Sample. #ktownismytown' @losfamgeles (private account)
‘Sample. #ktownismytown’ @losfamgeles (private account)

The morning tour (and also my second-ever tour) was an improvement from the first one I gave three weeks ago, evidenced by the fact that I now had a liability form and a rudimentary activity worksheet. I felt like a pro as I returned to the starting point of the tour at four o’clock to welcome the second group of the day. The afternoon tour, unlike the morning one, began quite a bit after the designated start time. I guess college students don’t have to worry about babysitting arrangements and kids with diarrhea. There was even a couple among us who was on their second date! Who knew my home-spun walking tour would end up being a destination for date night? The pressure was definitely on.

We began the tour at Oriental Mission Church, the a Korean church of which my family has been members since 1985. My dad was on hand, presumably to share a quick history of the church as well as his personal immigration story. You never know quite what you’re going to get with my dad sometimes, though, and his quick story turned into an impassioned and epic testimony of how his desire for adventure brought him out of a prosperous life in Korea and into a life of unimagined hardship and regret, then ultimately to spiritual enlightenment and transformation. This, after being so hesitant to share anything at all, repeatedly asking me why his story would be of interest to anyone! There were a few times during his talk when I had the impulse to reel him in but I reminded myself that I wanted my dad’s story to be told the way he saw it and wanted to tell it. Plus, I could see that he was filled with the Spirit. Hallelu, Appa. Hallelu!

After parting ways with my dad, I led our party of 18 southward-bound on Western Boulevard. We must have looked like quite a sight, especially with my now-signature strawberry umbrella. To my surprise, walking down Western in the afternoon was a rather different experience from walking down the very same street at nine in the morning.

'@theotherhelenkim #ktownismytown #ktown' @ceci_instagrams
‘@theotherhelenkim #ktownismytown #ktown’ @ceci_instagrams

I thought a post-college crowd would be more willing to talk and ask questions but I now realize that people of all ages are generally reticent in a group setting. One of the biggest things I’m learning is to be okay with this while also knowing when to push a little. Finding the sweet spot between someone’s comfort zone and a few steps outside it is one of my goals with this and ideas for other happenings I have swirling around in my head.

Tour participants discussing their observations along Western Blvd. They were more at ease talking in smaller groups rather than in front of the whole group. Duh, Helen.
Tour participants discussing their observations along Western Blvd. They were more at ease talking in smaller groups rather than in front of the whole group. Duh, Helen.

It’s amazing how quickly you can rise to “expert” status after a few hours of clicking around on Wikipedia and throwing on a branded tshirt. I didn’t notice it at the time but, while I was leading the group through a discussion at Madang Mall, a few passersby stopped to listen. Turns out, they were from El Camino College and were on an assignment to explore Koreatown. After our group dispersed to explore the mall, the El Camino students interviewed me on camera. I definitely felt like an expert then! Of course, being an expert doesn’t necessarily equate to being confident or self-possessed. In the middle of a later talk about the LA Riots at the Wilshire Colonnade, I spotted a security guard walking toward us. My first instinct as a well-trained rule-follower was to run away so I attempted to shoo the group out on to the sidewalk. When I regained my composure, I managed to provide a calm, logical explanation for our presence to the guard. As it turns out, I was not sent to the principal’s office. I was not arrested. The security guard gave me a high-five and a go-ahead to finish my talk.

'Streets of LA. #ktownismytown. With @theotherhelenkim' @bethand (private account)
‘Streets of LA. #ktownismytown. With @theotherhelenkim’ @bethand (private account)
'Our lady of the angels. #ktownismytown #losangeles #ourladyoftheangles' @brandejackson
‘Our lady of the angels. #ktownismytown #losangeles #ourladyoftheangles’ @brandejackson

The tour ended at Dan Sung Sa, a take on the traditional pojangmacha. A real pojangmacha is a street stall or small restaurant on wheels but Dan Sung Sa, an old-school staple of Ktown, is a great place to sample a variety of Korean street food and booze. I have to admit that I was overcome by maternally-driven anxiety at the restaurant. It’s one thing to have an eclectic group of people participating in an organized activity and quite another for them to be locked down in rectangular formation around tables with strangers. Yes, I understood these were grown men and women but they were my grown men and women and I desperately wanted to make sure they were properly fed, got along and had a good time. I’m sure I looked crazy, my eyes darting to and fro as I hopped from seat to seat. At one point, I was serving drinks, passing out plates of food and clearing dishes while listening in on conversations for participation/enthusiasm level and interjecting when necessary. I could tell my behavior was attracting attention so I pretended to relax.

The photo quality is awful but it was the best I could do between waiting and bussing tables
The photo quality is awful but it was the best I could do between waiting and bussing tables

It’s hard to say definitively with a large group like this that everyone enjoyed themselves but I think I can say with confidence that a good time as had by 87.4% of the people. Not bad! That is an actual figure based on an equation I came up with. I know I’m nuts. At the end of the night, my friend Grant gave me one of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received in a long time. He said that the tour confirmed that I have a knack for bringing people to together for a good time. This is exactly what I want to keep practicing as I figure out ways to build community and explore unique forms of inclusive storytelling. My ultimate goal is to provide exactly what Grant told me he experienced on Saturday: an environment and the opportunity to “feel the feels” (his words), learn something new and get down with some good people and good grubbin’. I worked super hard on my birthday and it didn’t feel celebratory in the usual way. Still, it was the most rewarding birthday I think I’ve ever. I could really go for a spa day at the Korean jimjilbang, though.

'#KtownIsMyTown' @rhettm
‘#KtownIsMyTown’ @rhettm

This post also appears on ktownismytown.com. If you would like to be part of the next beta Ktown Is My Town tour, you can sign up here.


Additional photography courtesy of Jennifer Ceci, Jessie McLaughlin, Beth Andrews, Brande Jackson and Rhett McLaughlin.

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