A Shadow Life
A young man patiently, methodically fights his way out of trouble

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Minutes before stepping into a boxing ring for his first competitive match, John Yoon’s boyish face bears a stern demeanor. The 22-year-old traverses the stands where friends and fans have gathered, moving to and fro, keeping his body loose, swiveling at the waist, swinging shoulders, and working his arms like silent pistons. His weight shifts from his heels to the balls of his feet in a barely perceptible bounce while pacing the length of the gymnasium, then turning and repeating.

Although he’s trying to stay limber and focused, the severity of his countenance belies a nervousness. About 250 people crowd the second floor of the Los Angeles Oriental Mission Church’s sports complex where a basketball court serves as a makeshift arena for the Fifth Multiracial Boxing Exhibition, which is sanctioned by United States Amateur Boxing, Inc., Southern California Association, and co-sponsored by Friendship Boxing Club, the Korean Boxing Association and Nanoom Christian Fellowship.

Twenty-one matches are scheduled on this torrid Saturday in early August, drawing extended families from across Southern California’s 100 amateur boxing clubs. Their names hint at the history and diversity of fighters ranging from age 8 to the late 20s who are here to represent: Pride and Glory, Outlaws, High Desert, Challenger, Lion Power, Long Beach Police Athletic League, Lompoc PAL, Gaucho’s, Jackie Robinson, Old School, Westside, Mongoose.

John’s Friendship Boxing Club is the lone Korean American outfit which also happens to serve as a co-organizer for the day’s fighting. So when his club mates and supporters arrive in force, he grows anxious. He doesn’t want to let them down.

Match No. 9 sets the squarely built Korean American versus Hector Castro, who at 28 is the day’s eldest competitor and by appearances the line-up’s most seasoned veteran. His scowling mien atop a jawline slightly ajar, broad shoulders, long reach and weathered body tattoos suggest a formidable opponent.

The opening bell sounds and within 13 unlucky seconds, Hector unsurreptitiously rears back his gloved fist from halfway across the ring and lets fly, landing a haymaker squarely on the bridge of John’s nose. Face slightly flushed but expression unchanged and still standing, John doesn’t seemed fazed at first by the punch. The referee, however, separates the fighters and administers a mandatory eight-count, giving both a moment to take stock of their situation.

 [a bell rings]

 It seems as though John’s perpetually severe expression comes from thinking a lot. A broken family life and past forays into drug abuse weigh heavily on him. To confront these issues, he took to training three years ago through a program offered at his drug rehabilitation residency. John does not really view boxing as a career. But during workouts it is clear from the way he gives himself over completely to the tasks before him that he relishes the conditioning, the structure it gives his days. And as he trains his eyes on the shadow his body casts, monitoring his fighting form as if he is looking at his most elusive opponent, boxing, it seems, is a way of searching.

His training might resemble that of a boxer, but his struggle is with more than sport. For the last five years, he has made a home of the halfway house at Nanoom Christian Fellowship Center, a court-approved church facility in a drug-addled, working class neighborhood adjacent to Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Although he graduated from the substance abuse program two years ago, he stayed on at the center and has been working for the church.

 “I think about what happened to people I know who’ve gotten in trouble. I know I don’t want to live like that,” says John. “No one really respected me for trying to change. But I beared through.

 “I can say you have got to have a lot of patience. A lot of people my age, I don’t think they have it. I’ve seen a lot of people give up. It’s really hard to live this life. It’s a lonely path.”

 Much of the turmoil in John’s life began when he was 9. Too young to fathom exactly what was going on, he hints at having been raised in a strict Christian household by a father who came from a family of ministers. John’s father, too, was a minister before he left home in what his son says was a kind of personal crisis that same year.

 “Growing up in a broken home, I had a lot of anxiety,” John says of his childhood family life. “Ninety percent of the time when we talked, it was arguments. I compared myself to other kids, my life and theirs. And it made me mad. The other kids, it seemed like they were always having parents that support them. I didn’t have that growing up.

 “I didn’t have a father figure to turn to in the house, to show me how to be a man.”

 John, who hasn’t spoken with his father in years, was raised from that period on by his mother and two older sisters in Seattle, Wash. His mother took on a catering business to support the family,. While his older sisters entered the military, John took another route.

 With a single mother who worked long hours, he chanced upon the solace offered by the streets. He effectively dropped out of high school and fell in with others who were also just kicking it, whose parents were either lenient, not at home, or had issues with substance abuse themselves. He started to shadow the gang life, befriending peers who orbited that world. From a young person’s perspective, John says, gangsters are people you look up to, even successful to the undiscerning. He and his friends experimented with getting loaded on alcohol and drugs and embarked on petty criminal activities, selling drugs and breaking into homes.

 “I hated life,” recalls John. “And I hated myself. I just wanted to escape reality. I did whatever I could get my hands on. Whatever’s mind-altering, I was pretty good at getting it.

John soon saw some of his peers become caught up with the law, and quickly developed an aversion to his own penitentiary chances.

 “I was a rebellious kid,” John recounts uncomfortably. “Rebellious to the core. I gave my mom a heart attack right in front of me. All I cared about was myself. I grew up thinking no one could tell me anything.”

 ***

 The referee gives the go ahead sign and Hector tries to capitalize on the opening salvo, rushing at John in feral, dogged pursuit, swinging fiercely but connecting with scant few blows. John remains buoyant but without the crispness of movement he had before the onset. Still he mixes it up without shrinking and manages to connect with a few solid counter punches as the bell brings the round to a welcome end. The crowd erupts. Friends unabashedly shout out encouragement, “Stay up, baby!” and “John Yoon!” John leans heavily into a corner turnbuckle. The look on his face says, the last three minutes were an eternity.

 ***

 By the time John turned 17, he had tested his mother’s coping abilities sufficiently for her to issue an ultimatum. On the recommendation of John’s uncle, his mom sent him to Nanoom.

 Coming to L.A. ostensibly to straighten out his life and enroll in a drug rehabilitation program, he found he wasn’t as alone as he thought. He met hardened teenagers like himself in need of succor and without a functional family structure to turn to. In adjusting to the rough environment, one block east of MacArthur Park, the streets called out, by default perhaps, to John and his new rehab mates. They fought episodic battles with addiction, seemingly kicking a habit, only to have the opportunity staring at them again. And then a relapse.

 The residents at Nanoom are no strangers to this scenario. The Rev. Young Ho Han, who cofounded Nanoom with the Rev. Yong Il Kim 12 years ago, says many arrive at his center with addictions to crystal meth, ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana and increasingly prescription painkillers and stimulants. Immigrating from Korea in 1972, Han identifies with his Nanoom charges, having been addicted to drugs and involved in gangs for 20 years. He also knows what it means to have one last chance. As of this summer, the center has graduated 544 residents from programs prescribed for drug rehabilitation, alcoholism, domestic violence and anger management.

 But over the course of 12 years, Han laments, problems appear to be getting worse. He estimates the proportion of young Korean Americans today who have smoked marijuana at least once as high as nine out of 10, with more than half exposed to other drugs and involved deeper than merely experimenting. Formal statistics appear to bolster his assessment. Asian Americans, as a group, are the only community whose juvenile delinquency rate has increased in the past 20 years, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics and reporting by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The problem is there is no leader for these kids,” the 53-year-old minister says. “I know how difficult that is. When I was a trouble maker, I really hated anyone telling me what to do. Between pastors and kids, there’s too thick a wall. I’m not here to teach, to give orders or to discipline. I’m here to be their friend. To know their hearts. We need to communicate with them — to be friends first. Then maybe they can hear what we have to say.”

 For John, it took nearly three years, but he figured out that the streets offered not much more than an exceedingly difficult way of life.

 “It was a temporary escape, but you always came back,” John says of the conclusion he arrived at regarding getting high. “Nothing lasts forever.

 “I worked hard to think like that,” he says. “To learn to take a route that others didn’t want to.

 “I guess I knew we aren’t living a good life. We are destroying people and ourselves. I‘ve seen too many people make mistakes, even more than me, mistakes that could mean a lifetime of regret. Sometimes the devil’s whispering in my ear. I don’t want to fall again. I know what kind of burden that is, to lose the will to do good in life.”

 ***

 John blinks and the bell sounds for the second round. A couple of unbridled flurries are exchanged with both fighters connecting loudly. A young woman, who up to this point cheered spiritedly ringside for John, cringes and turns away in fear as the fighters go toe to toe, and John gets the worst of the exchanges. Two more standing eight counts come in quick succession, and the ref crosses his arms over his head to call it off. The fight is over just as quickly as it began. As Hector is declared the winner, modest applause is quickly overcome by an exuberant ovation when John is acknowledged. Even in defeat, he represents Friendship well.

***

 A few days lafter at the boxing club’s ersatz training “gym” on a half-grass, half-dirt patch of Lafayette Park, John reflects on the conditioning that led up to his first match and fills in some of the particulars of his life outside the ring that brought his story to KoreAm‘s attention.

 “I realize what I was doing wrong when I was training,” John says. “There was only 30 days to get ready for the fight, and my motivation and goals weren’t clear. I was thinking, ‘I have to win. I have to lose weight to fight in this certain division, this weight class.’ I wasted too much energy feeling pressured and worrying about the outside part. Instead of dropping my weight, I should have focused on my strength and being ready on the inside.

“I believe in the philosophy, ‘fast come, fast go.’ If something comes easy, like you gain results fast, you’re going to lose results just as fast.”

 These days John competes with himself, pushing to see how far and how long he can go, trying hard to figure out how to become something in life. There’s no hiding from the old habits he fears, the murmuring temptations. Maybe that’s why John is here, sparring in the shadows at Nanoom. He appears to be fighting for himself and to prove to others there is a way out.

 Although John’s not the type to assert himself as a leader, younger inmates at Nanoom are known to approach him with problems they may  be hestitant to take to the church’s other staff members.

 “He cares a lot about the center,” observes Esther Young, 24, a volunteer at Nanoom. “He considers everyone like his brothers, people he doesn’t even know. He tries to protect everyone.

 “He knows how it is to feel rejection, to have had a hard family life,” she adds. “I think now he knows the way to change those bad feelings into something positive.”

 It’s been some time since he’s had to talk about such things, but John has been thinking about the future.

 “I want to remain clean, and be responsible. I believe that’s possible. I want to be so many things. To tell you the truth, when I was young I wanted to be something that I thought was, you know, like, successful,” John says.

 “If I’m going to be doing something with my life, it shouldn’t just be to make money. I want to be a better person. I’ve thought about maybe going back to school and becoming, like, a doctor. That’s a lot, I know. That could change. But I’ve come this far. God’s given me a chance. I’ve got to make the most of it. Right now, I feel like I should be giving back to [Nanoom]. And I just want to do something good in my life. I still have the opportunity.

 “I want to live like a human being. To have a family,” he says. “I guess I want people to think, ‘Dang, he’s not such a bad person, after all.’”