I landed in Los Angeles International Airport in the summer of 1996 rockin my blue Adidas windbreaker outfit. I wore matching sandals and beanie and thought I looked like a dope Asian break dancer. After waiting on the curb for over an hour I realized that my Aunt wasn’t coming – she was stuck in traffic but I didn’t know that. From the moment I got off the plane I was on my own. I had to save myself.
I made the decision to hop into a taxi with an Indian driver. He made friendly casual conversation and dropped me off in front of my Aunt’s house in the graffiti stained city of Baldwin Park, just 20 minutes east of East L.A. The cab fee was 28 bucks so I handed him a 50 dollar bill expecting change. He simply put my bags on the ground, got in his taxi and drove off with the tires screeching. Instead of giving me 22 dollars in change he gave me a “Welcome to L.A. mutha #&%@!” kinda welcome.
I was back in the urban dysfunctional jungle and no one was coming to save me.
At least my probation officer in Michigan “cared” enough to transfer my case files to the L.A. office. That first week in L.A. I sat across the desk of my new probation officer with my arms crossed and body slouched. He looked quickly through my files and said with disdain,
“Sit your ass up. I don’t ever want to see your face here again. The next time I see you, you’re either getting off probation or getting locked up. Do you understand?”
Let’s just say he didn’t give a #$%@ about saving another Asian knucklehead. I was just another file for his already busy caseload. I never saw him again.
High-school was the worst. My mom was desperate to save me from gang life in Michigan, somehow, she thought going to L.A. would fix that. Instead I ended up in the lion’s den of gangs – an inner-city high school in Los Angeles County. I made quick work of the situation and found a group of Filipino weed smokers who would skip school every day to…well, smoke weed. But getting high was just a temporary escape, it couldn’t save me from the realities of peer pressure, the fear of not belonging and the cholos at school that were ready to pounce on a skinny Asian gang-banger.
I was lost in this jungle. It wanted to swallow me whole and no matter how hard I tried to find a way out the trail just kept getting deeper and deeper.
Then light began to shine in the most unexpected way…through a white husband and wife from the Midwest. The glimmer didn’t come from the color of their skin but was shone through their acts of kindness. This Christian couple had moved to L.A. to serve ethnic churches and refugees from Southeast Asia. They took their time to take inner-city knuckleheads to the beach and feed them hot dogs. They were willing to embrace our culture and eat chunks of sticky rice dipped in stinky papaya salad with fermented fish…now dat’s gangsta.
I had never known friendly white people before. I had only ever had relationships with white school principals, judges, probation officers and cops. My world was filled with people who discriminate and judge minorities for a living. What set this couple apart was their genuine love for the social outcast, the refugee, the Asian kid with his pants sagging off his butt…me.
I found myself sitting inside this couples cramped apartment with other Asian gang members. One of the ex-gang members began to share his story from being Asian mafia to spending hard prison time to finding hope and change in Jesus. My Buddhist upbringing conditioned me to think that Jesus was for white people only, so naturally, I was captivated, “Who the hell is Jesus?”
For the first time, I heard about a God who created the earth and all that is in it. That He had a plan for me. That all people have turned from God and decided to do their own thing and that’s why our world is broken. That my path in life leads straight to death or prison. That I cannot save myself. I was in the presence of gang bangers, inner-city rejects and ex-cons so I didn’t need a lot of convincing that we suck.
It was here that I heard that God sent His Son, Jesus, to save me. That he died on a wooden cross for my sins and rose on the third day to restore my brokenness. And that he wasn’t white.
I realized that Jesus was the salvation that I so desperately needed. I realized that Jesus was the salvation that my nominal Buddhist brother, mom and dad so desperately needed. And I was confused as to why someone didn’t tell me this sooner.
That night I couldn’t fall asleep. Maybe it was because I was sharing a small room Asian style with 3 snoring cousins but I was captured by the story of Jesus. I was compelled to sit up on the bed and get on my knees. I closed my eyes, put my hands together and prayed,
“…uh, God? I’ve never done this before but I think I need You. Yea, I need You. I believe that You’re real and believe what You did for me. I can’t keep living this life. I’m gonna end up dead or in prison. I can’t save myself. So please just come into my heart. Change it. Change my heart. Aight then God, thanks.”
I fell asleep with a peace I had never known before. I wasn’t worried about L.A. traffic, probation officers or cholos. Somehow, I knew that I wasn’t lost in life’s crazy jungle anymore. I was found. I was saved.
Chapter 14: East Dago