Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lessons Learned in L.A.

I wrote this for a homework assignment--a timed write, where you were supposed to write a two page personal narrative in thirty-five minutes. See below:

The Los Angeles subway system winds through the glitzy avenues of Hollywood and the decrepit streets of abandoned neighborhoods in South L.A.; it brings you down into dark tunnels and up into the sun. It was on this subway that my mom and I spent a lot of our time in Los Angeles--partly because we were too cheap to take the taxi, and mostly because my mom doesn't drive. If you really want to make someone feel like a stranger in a new city, ask them to take public transportation. It's hard to know where the stations are, let alone whether you should take the Blue Line or the Green Line, Bus 54 or 235. That was why it was so incredible to us when someone asked us for help on the subway--we'd come full circle, from tourist to (impromptu) tour guide. But it didn't happen overnight--like anything, it took practice. When we first came to Los Angeles, we were the ones asking for help. In fact, my mom and I got lost several times (even within feet of our hotel)!

One day, we were trying to get from our hotel near the airport to the science museum, in downtown Los Angeles. Although we had our L.A. map handy, we were still completely at a loss as to how to get there. We asked a short, brisk-walking airport official how to get to the science museum, and pretty much the only words we understood in her response were "the," "bus," and "there." The rest was such a jumble of street names--Figueroa, 8th, Broad--that the most we understood was that we should get on a bus. After asking some more people, we finally ran into a couple who were heading in that direction, and kindly showed us which bus to take. Unfortunately, the bumpy bus took two hours on its meandering route through the city. When we jumped on the subway, we had to ask more people (some of whom looked a little disgruntled at spoon-feeding us directions) which line to take. And when we finally figured out that we should get on the Red Line, we accidentally got on the Purple Line instead. By the time we arrived at the science center, we felt like veterans--albeit veterans who were very bad at combat. On the way back, we fared little better. I mistakenly thought that our transit time would be shorter than it really was, leading us to miss a dinner appointment by an hour and a half. This was quite a blow to me, as I value punctuality.

In large part because of our adventures, or misadventures, on the public transportation system, I determined to familiarize myself with it more. Instead of just asking people where to go like my mom had been doing, I studied the subway map ahead of time, enthusiastically circling, marking, and plotting out our route in great detail. I even memorized some of the names of the stations--Pedro, Slauson, Union, West Hollywood, and Universal City, just to name a few. Sometimes, I would spot familiar landmarks as we passed by, like torn-edged signs, in both Spanish and English, advertising "Party Supplies," giant grey warehouses surrounded by unfriendly fences, and the boarded up windows that marked desolate neighborhoods. You could tell you were approaching downtown when you saw the tall buildings off in the distance, and the "Christ Glory Church" with its sign in Korean. A trip on the subway (or at least the parts that went above ground) was like traversing a canvas--a full, rich canvas dabbed with colors that spanned the rainbow. From a hassle and a pain that we tolerated because we were too "cheap" for a taxi, taking the subway grew to be a daily treat.

It was on our last day in Los Angeles, as I was yet again consulting the subway map (just to make sure that we got off at the Imperial/Wilmington station for our transfer), a thin man asked quickly, "Do you know if I need to get tickets here, or at the end of the line?"

"Here," I responded. He nodded his thanks and bought the ticket. I felt rather pleased that I'd been asked such a question (easy as it was for me to answer). Then a short, portly, middle-aged Indian man walked up to us and asked, "Excuse me, I'm trying to get to Union--do you know how I'd get there?" I easily showed him the route on the subway map, adding that the Union Station stop was where we were going as well. He thanked me profusely and started up a conversation with my mom.

"I actually used to live here two years ago," he confessed, "but I never took the subway." I smiled--my mom and I had really made progress when it came to learning the system! Best of all, that knowledge hadn't just stayed with us--it'd gone to help someone else. Knowledge is best when it's shared, and it made me feel good (not just because I was helping someone), but also because I realized that we'd learned something after all those hours of bus and subway rides. After all, if taking public transportation is the tourist's test, then when a former resident asks you for directions, you've gotten an A++.


  1. Hi Adora! I saw your video on Then I searched about you =) thanks for being such a great inspiration to me and i am so proud of you. I am from Hong Kong and I am no longer a kid. I am now 21. But I definitely agree that there are so much to learn from a child! Your passage is so true as I travel a lot as well. Hope I can learn more from you after reading your works. Appreciation from Hedy Wong

  2. I read your post and it is amazing! You are a true writer! :D

  3. If you're ever down in Los Angeles again, two things that might be helpful are Google Maps and, which is the southern California hotline for traffic and transit information (read: call the number 511 when you're lost).

    I've lived in a suburb of Los Angeles for all of my life, and taking public transit to maneuver myself to rallies, protests, and leadership events has been extremely liberating; I'm so glad someone else had a positive experience with the LA subway!