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A Fiscal Lesson for the Ages
For Some, the Economic Turmoil Is a Grim Reminder of Past Crises. For Others, It Marks a New Fear.

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

On a recent evening, about a dozen elegantly dressed ladies filed to the front of the auditorium at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Gaithersburg to sing a hymn.

Steve Choi, a 46-year-old Korean American businessman with sparkling brown eyes, watched with a mixture of admiration and concern. The one with the ponytail, Choi knew, had been struggling to keep her restaurant afloat. The one in beige recently closed her dry-cleaning store. And the one with the frilly white blouse would need to work extra hard at her water-supply business now that her husband had been forced to give up his job as a Lexus salesman.

Choi had a pretty good idea what his friends were feeling. He is a man who has lost everything he owned. Twice.

Yet twice Choi pulled himself out of the abyss, working 17-hour days and seven-day weeks to rebuild. His food-service operation now has 300 employees and $20 million in sales. He went from living in a single room to a spacious home with a Porsche, a Bentley and several Mercedes-Benzes. And at a time when the economy is menaced by seemingly inexorable forces, Choi's story is a reminder of powers that can prove even stronger: faith in one's God, the support of family and the sheer resilience of the human spirit.

For a man destined to face so many setbacks, Choi had a comfortable start. His father owned a prosperous window manufacturing business in Seoul, and Choi was raised in a seven-bedroom house with a chauffeur and a housekeeper.

But Choi's father found South Korea a tough place to do business. "You had to pay lots of bribes in those days," Choi said.

In 1974, the elder Choi decided to sell his company and move his wife and four sons -- Choi, 12, was second-oldest -- to Northern Virginia. "I don't think my father realized how hard it would be. Otherwise he would never have done it," Choi said.

The awakening was swift and rude. Unable to speak English, Choi's parents started small, opening a grocery store on a rough stretch of Georgia Avenue in the District. The hours were grueling, the profits slim. In 1977, Choi's mother was held up at gunpoint. Shaken, the family moved to Manhattan and bought a deli on Long Island.

Within a year, Choi's parents were able to trade the deli for a dry cleaners. Soon they left their cramped apartment to rent a modest house.

Choi was flourishing academically. He had taken violin lessons since he was 4. A teacher at his middle school suggested he try out for New York's High School of the Performing Arts, later celebrated in the movie "Fame." Choi beat out 350 kids. He began to dream of becoming a concert violinist.

"Music makes you free," Choi said. "You can show your emotions."

Then, in 1979, disaster struck. A fire raged through the dry cleaners, destroying everything. Choi's father had been unable to get insurance because the neighborhood was prone to riots. In hours, the family lost their entire investment.

They piled a couch, clothing and books into a truck and drove to a friend's house in Columbia.

"All six of us walked into this one bedroom," Choi said. "There wasn't even furniture in it."

The friend offered to let the Chois run a carryout he owned in Baltimore. But something inside Choi's parents had broken. "They were in shock. . . . It was like they just couldn't do it anymore."

Until then, Choi had been something of a party boy, and was more focused on his musical ambitions than his family. Now he felt called on to step into the breach. His older brother was in college, studying to become a doctor. His two younger brothers were still children.

"There was no choice. It was clear that I was the one who had to carry the household," he said.

Choi quit high school and started working at the carryout. It was the hardest year of his life.

"There was a lot of bitterness. It was difficult to see my friends going to school and graduating while I was stuck in that carryout from 10 o'clock in the morning to 10 o'clock at night," he said.

But it was also a time of spiritual awakening. Practically every Sunday of his life, Choi had sat in some pew, listening to some sermon. For the first time, the words had meaning.

"I began to understand that life is not only about what you see. Because if that was the case, then I would have no hope," he said. He sought out services at Bethel Korean church in Ellicott City like a drowning man reaching for a life raft. "I had no other place to go. That was my source of strength, and I had to cling to it."

By year's end, Choi's parents had recovered their verve. The next two decades were challenging, but marked by steady progress: Choi went back to high school, then put himself through college by taking loans and waiting tables. He helped his parents expand into the frozen yogurt business, then a cafeteria. They began to enjoy a measure of prosperity.

On a trip to South Korea in 1989, Choi fell in love with a poised woman with delicate features named Leena. They married a year later, had two daughters and settled in South Korea.

By fall 1997, he was the proud owner of a travel agency employing 30 people. "I had my own office. I had my own secretary. I could take my family out to dinner anywhere we wanted," he recalled. "I just thought life was going to keep getting better and better."

That's when the second cataclysm of Choi's life hit: a banking crisis that sent the economies of Asia into freefall. In three days, South Korea's currency lost more than half its value. Overnight, Choi's business became worthless.

"Every single thought goes through your mind," Choi said. "It was like I had the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other: 'Maybe I should commit suicide.' 'No, you have your family to think of.' 'Should I sell a kidney to pay back the customers?' 'Don't worry, you've got nowhere to go but up.' "

Weeks before the financial crisis, Choi sent his wife and daughters to Maryland so the girls could start school. They had enough money to live on frugally for a year. Choi decided to join them and start over. But like his parents, Choi found he had lost his drive.

"I was stunned," he said. "I just didn't know what to do. It's a weird feeling. A numbness, like your brain is not functioning."

For almost a year he did not work. "At first I thought I should let him rest, let him figure things out," said Leena, now 44, who took odd jobs. "But after a few months, I started to get nervous."

Once again, faith proved the salvation. A Korean missionary invited Choi on a trip to Sri Lanka.

"When I saw what was there -- the poverty, the flies and roaches crawling over everything -- I realized how much we have just living in the United States," he recalled. "I realized I should thank God for what I do have rather than asking for what I don't."

Choi returned with newfound energy. Immediately, his fortune turned. The elderly owner of an unprofitable cafeteria at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters offered to let Choi operate it, then use the profits toward its purchase. Choi installed a salad bar and a hot-food bar and tripled sales.

He was working even longer hours than he had at the carryout, but the work filled him with joy. "I was so thrilled to have a purpose again," he recalled.

He got a contract to run the cafeteria in another government building. Then another. Then another.

Choi has a ritual to mark such occasions: Every time he wins a new contract, buys another car or moves into a bigger house, he drives to the carryout in Baltimore, steps outside and says a prayer.

"It's a way to remember where I came from," he said. "To realize that without the help of God, there is no way I would be where I am now."

It is that memory that has also prompted him to quietly help out dozens of friends who are struggling, offering grants to help cover college payments, or keep businesses afloat and mortgages current. Still, Choi said the most valuable aid he can offer is the lesson of his own life: "If we never lose hope, if we stick together, we will come out of this."

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