Good Trouble Here.
The first phrase that comes to mind when describing Mike Kim is 'hero of the human spirit.' That phrase sounds lofty because it is. But it’s also true.
Mike is the Korean-American activist, storyteller and entrepreneur who founded the anti-racism, pro-kindness organization Some Neat Place. To say that his life has been riddled with hardship would be the understatement of this young decade. From gang beatings, to a lifetime of racist harassment, to a literally unbelievable string of cancer diagnoses amongst his loved ones, Mike’s story appears to be a laundry list of sufferings.
And yet, Mike is one of those rare humans who exude the kind of good vibes that can’t be taught, only learned. He’s a dude who sees the beauty and positivity in the world, despite having every reason not to. The way he’s turned all that negativity into unbridled positive energy is a kind of lead-to-gold personal alchemy that frankly, awes us.
Mike was gracious enough to share his story with CONVICTS last week. Read Mike’s story, in his own words, below. Inspiration guaranteed.
His story’s been edited for clarity and flow.
As an immigrant family coming to the States, we had all these American dreams: to eat McDonald’s when we first landed, start a business and have a big house and a nice life. We had McDonald’s when we first landed, but the rest of our life wasn’t anywhere near what we envisioned.
If we’re talking about how I grew up...racism was a big part of my identity. Almost daily, I’d be racially profiled or attacked or bullied. Those were my formative years and that bullying made me angry. I developed a temper. I was getting in trouble at school and graffitiing the back of the bus.
Freshman year of college was the first time I made a best friend who was an Asian American. We bonded because we grew up similarly--he grew up in Houston, I grew up in Austin--and neither of us had many Asian friends. I mean, I was so ashamed of my identity. I didn’t want to look Korean or be Korean or talk Korean.
But in college, I was floored by how many other Koreans and Asian people I met and became friends with. That’s when I really began to embrace my Korean identity. But at this time, I still had a lot of anger and resentment. I wanted to stand out. I wasn’t going to let anyone say anything to me.
And you know, we’d do those dumb college things: we’d go to raves and parties. Sometimes we’d drink too much. We hung out with some of the wrong people in Houston, some of the Asian gangs.
It was in my later college years when I got jumped by one of those gangs. I had a long-term Chinese girlfriend and I was lying to her all the time about going out with my friends. This was one of those nights. We were at karaoke. When I went outside the bar, there were some guys sitting on top of my car. My friend and I yelled at them to get off of my car.
Next thing I knew, these guys start barking back at us. Then, about twenty of their friends came out of the karaoke bar. I recognized some of them and knew they were in a gang. I thought 'ah shit,' and backed up against the driver door. My friend was to my left against the passenger side door. It felt like slow motion when the first beer bottle popped on my friend’s head. I started swinging. The next thing I remember was a foot coming towards my face. One of my friends was on top of me, shielding me from the beating. He pulled me up and hustled me across the street. But I looked back and my friends were still getting jumped, so I ran back to the fight. Just then someone yelled out 'COPS!' and everyone dispersed.
Back at the apartment, I realized how badly we were bleeding out. My friends head was wide open from the beer bottle. When we went to the hospital, I learned that I’d fractured my orbital bone in my eye, gotten a concussion and nearly fractured my ribs. Plus, the skin was ripped off of my knees and elbows.
It was such a bad but defining moment for me. Going into that night, I was an egotistical, temperamental person who was hurt and damaged by all the racism and family issues I’d faced. But that night, as soon as my ex-girlfriend--I’m still great friends with her to this day--came into the hospital and saw my eye swollen shut, she just cried and asked me if I was ok. I thought she was going to lay into me for lying, but she didn’t. That moment never left me. I’m still thankful to her for basically saving my life...because at that moment, I was like, 'what the fuck am I doing?' A switch flipped for me then. I needed to be better.
That’s when I started doing a lot of the inner work that completely changed my life.
Then, in my early thirties, I married my ex-wife. I felt like things were getting in order. We were saving for a house and doing the whole nine yards of married life. I was so proud to identify myself with that marriage.
At that phase, I was grinding at the startups where I worked. I was all about success and job titles and achieving the dream...things that my dad was never able to do. But the marriage took over and...I kind of lost myself in that relationship. I forgot who I was and ultimately, we got divorced.
My wife ended up cheating on me with her boss. I caught it in a text message. That was the hardest moment. That’s when the trauma started. To be honest, I began having suicidal thoughts. I was lost in the grief and trauma of what felt like the ultimate betrayal. I was going down a dark spiral and not liking who I was, not going to work and drinking daily. It was a bad look. But I saved myself that time. I went to therapy. I really started digging in and figuring out who I was.
Fast forward a few years and I was back on the grind in LA and finding my stride again. I lost a shit ton of weight and my business was on another level. I was making a lot of money and had that downtown LA lifestyle. That’s when I thought, 'Ok my life is starting to come together, it’s going to be pretty damn good.'
Then the cancer started hitting. Three weeks into a new COO job, at the end of 2018, we find out my dad has cancer. That it’s terminal. Two weeks into that December, my sister-in-law’s breast cancer returned. In January, my ex-wife called. One of our mutual friend’s ovarian cancer had returned. In the third week of January, we went to UCLA hospital and ended up seeing our friend take her last breath.
And I’m thinking, 'three people with cancer, what the hell?' Three and a half months later, in March, my grandma’s lung collapses. Lung cancer attacked her other lung, which collapsed too. We laid her to rest a week later. The second week of April, I get a phone call from my brother. After emergency surgery, they discovered that my mom had stage four colon cancer.
It was surreal to have my brother’s wife and my mom and dad on different floors of the oncology center. The doctors could not believe it. Then, in late 2019, another friend of mine lost their battle with brain cancer. So that was number six. But through all of this, I found a relationship. It lasted for about a year, but in June of 2020, she ended up breaking off the relationship. I was like, 'can anything else go wrong during COVID or my life in general?'
And this is where the story culminates. In late July, my dad’s life began slipping away. His cancer quadrupled. We knew his time was nearing. So I called all my relatives and told them to come over. That night, I was out front of our house with my aunt and my cousin. I thought I heard something from my dad’s room. My mom told me to go check on him. I went to the door of his room and it was locked. But I hadn’t locked it.
My mom started freaking out. I banged on the door but nothing happened, so I got a piece of metal and opened the lock. I immediately see that my father isn’t in his bed. I look into the bathroom and there he is, with his head slumped over the bathtub. Earlier in the day he was wearing a white t-shirt...but now it was red with blood. I didn’t know what happened. Maybe his chemo port had burst and he’d fallen. I called 911 and a few minutes after the emergency guys came, I heard one of them on the radio talking to the hospital. ‘We have a 72 year old male, Korean-American, with a slit left wrist first, slit right wrist and slit neck,’ he said.
That’s when my brother said 'no, bro, you saved his life, he tried to commit suicide.' They bandaged both wrists and his neck to stop the bleeding, then did surgery. That bought us two more weeks with him. We were able to say our goodbyes and talk with him about the deepest things from our childhood: the mental and physical abuse he inflicted upon us, the drinking, the living in a trailer house with no hot water.
He apologized with his dying words. That healed so much, because he’d never said sorry in his life. That’s when I felt a new level of compassion. I had already started Some Neat Place but from that night onward, SNP has been driven by my understanding that life is so short. If you’re not in it, it passes by you. All of a sudden you’re old and angry and holding so much in. You realize you’ve forgotten to enjoy the one life given to you.
Some Neat Place is not something I just want to go viral. It’s something that I believe in. We need deeper connections, because there are so many people hurting. With SNP I want to create a place where everyone could go to and feel safe and be heard. It’s for all colors, all races, all creeds. It’s for my younger self, the fourth grader who purposefully threw up on his clothes to escape the bullying.
SNP is a safe place to express yourself, a place to dismantle all these labels and all the stories around these labels. We’re surrounded by people who tell us stories. The stories could be lies, but these lies become truth when they’re shared and told so frequently. And that’s where the hate is coming from. That’s why I want to tell different stories. I want to tell compassionate ones about the 99% of people who are our neighbors, who are the everyday heroes grinding through this life. We need to tell stories that give us a better color of one another, because there’s a richness in each of us.
Eight billion people, eight billion stories. Some Neat Place is predicated on the idea that performing a single act of kindness--every day--can change someone’s life. Like my ex changed my life by showing up to the hospital, overlooking my mistakes and just hugging me. I wouldn’t be here without that.”