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A Journey Into Self : Through Taekwondo, L.A.'s Choi Finds His Korean Heritage--and His Father

August 25, 1993|WENDY WITHERSPOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Choi is one of the best taekwondo fighters in the nation, but that's rather a recent development.

Choi, as an infant, was kidnaped by his father in South Korea. His mother got him back and, in search of a better life for him, brought him here.

Choi, 27, grew up playing football in Los Angeles and remained largely ignorant of his Korean heritage. It was ironic, then, that he discovered taekwondo, the Korean martial art, five years ago.

Taekwondo led Choi to one of the most difficult decisions of his life: returning to Seoul, more than 20 years after having been swept out of South Korea, and finding his father.

*

Choi's story begins in Seoul in 1968, when he was a year old.

Chris Ahmed, Choi's divorced mother--she has since remarried--had sent Choi to visit his father, Sung Duck, in South Korea, with a promise by Sung to return James after a month.

But when the month passed with no word from Sung about James' return,

Ahmed became alarmed. She called her former husband and heard determination in his voice.

"I'm keeping James," he said.

But Ahmed was determined that he would not.

She borrowed money for plane fare and, along with a Korean-American lawyer who had offered to help her, set out for Seoul to get her son back.

Ahmed was sure that the U.S. Embassy at Seoul could help, too. When she arrived there, however, U.S. officials merely shrugged. There was nothing they could do, they said. She was told that, according to Korean law, children born to Korean fathers were Korean citizens; that in South Korea, children belong solely to the father. Ahmed had no legal recourse.

But where there's a mother's will, there's a way. An embassy worker helped her make a duplicate passport and she slid $60 under a table to a Korean official to obtain an exit permit for her son. Then she went to see her former husband.

Sung at first refused to give James back when Ahmed confronted him. Eventually, though, he changed his mind.

"He doesn't look like a real Korean, so in Asia he might have a little bit of problem with that," Sung said. "So I figured, let him go back to the United States."

But Ahmed was not about to take anyone's word. She went to Sung's house while he was out and told her former in-laws that she wanted to take James for a short walk.

Forty minutes later, she and Choi were on a plane to Los Angeles.

Choi has no memories of South Korea, but the incident affected his life. Only recently, however, has he realized how deeply.

*

Choi was the 1984 Whitmont League defensive lineman of the year as a senior at Bell Gardens High. He continued his football career at Santa Monica College for two years, then realized that he had reached his peak in the sport.

So he sought another outlet for his competitiveness. A friend introduced him to taekwondo; Choi was fascinated. Watching telecasts of the taekwondo exhibition at the 1988 Olympics at Seoul increased his enthusiasm.

Choi set his goal then: He would become an Olympian. But he had to make up for lost time.

"I remember thinking that I was 22 years old and I was too late to even start this and so I wanted to know right away if I had any ability," Choi said.

After training for only a few months, Choi persuaded his taekwondo master to allow him to wear a black belt in competition so he could compete against more experienced fighters.

"I'm pretty much a brawler and I didn't mind taking a shot," Choi said. "It's a matter of who's tougher, and in my head, I always thought I was the toughest one."

Although Choi still has a long way to go to prove that distinction to the rest of the world, he has become one of the top fighters in the middleweight division in the United States. At 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, he won the gold medal at the U.S. Olympic Festival at San Antonio last month.

In May, Choi finished third in the U.S. national championships at St. Paul, Minn.

He also finished third in the U.S. team trials at Chicago in June, although that was not good enough for him to advance to taekwondo's premier event, the World Taekwondo Championship last weekend in New York City.

Still, Choi is a favorite in the L.A. International Taekwondo Championships, Saturday and Sunday at Loyola Marymount.

Considering that he competes against fighters with twice his experience, Choi's success seems improbable. He credits his mother for his determination.

"She never stopped doing what she was doing, she just kept going," Choi said. "I had the same thing. I always felt like I could do anything I wanted as long as I put my mind to it."

Choi's talent at taekwondo surprises him, though. And even more surprising is how taekwondo has helped to unravel the mysteries in his mind about his ancestry, about his family, about himself.

*

It was muggy when Choi arrived in Seoul.

He had not been to South Korea in more than 20 years, but when he was invited to participate in a taekwondo tournament there, he decided that might be a chance to clear up some unfinished business, to make sense of those vague images in his mind. To meet his father.

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