Arab Spring Break
Credit: Courtesy Chris Jeon

It's midnight in Libya, and the math major from UCLA is standing on an overturned pickup truck screaming, "Libya is great!" He has just survived an amateur "drifting" accident – the pickup he was in tipped over on its side, skidding across Benghazi's Keish Square at 40 miles an hour – and he is jubilant. With his carefully tousled hair and goofy T-shirt (featuring a cartoon bomb that's crying while it explodes), he looks like a stoner undergrad on spring break, which, remarkably, he is.

"This is wild," he says.

There are a thousand or so Libyans standing in the overheated square, watching a 21-year-old Korean-American kid from Orange County pledge his allegiance to their country. Not all of them are amused.

A year before, Chris Jeon knew next to nothing about Libya. In the spring of 2011, as Libyans were rallying in Benghazi, igniting a revolution against Muammar Qaddafi, Jeon was a business-minded junior, angling for a high-paying summer internship at BlackRock, the world's largest asset-management firm. The pay was good, and the internship was a stepping-stone to a career path he'd spent his life gunning for, but it disappointed Jeon almost instantly. Each monotonous day in his cubicle at BlackRock's San Francisco headquarters showed him how boring his life could be.

So last August, with the rebels advancing on Qaddafi, Chris Jeon flew to Cairo, hitchhiked across the Libyan border, and joined a rebel battalion. From the outside, it was an inexplicable departure: One week he was a finance trainee in a slick San Francisco office tower; the next he was in the stifling desert, dodging mortar fire and going by the name Ahmed Mugrabi Saidi Barga. To Jeon, however, it made perfect sense. Now, five months after the end of the war, Jeon is back in Libya for spring break. He's abandoned the idea of a career in banking and says he wants to return to Libya to help his friends rebuild their country. But as he stands on the overturned truck, he seems a little dazed. His eyes are wide with adrenaline. He starts chanting in rudimentary Arabic, trying to lead the crowd in a call and response. They're not going for it.

"I think we should get out of here," I say, but he ignores me. Somehow the formation of an angry mob doesn't seem to bother him. Our translator, who'd been watching the rally from the far end of the square, pushes through the crowd to tell us that we need to leave immediately. Jeon doesn't want to go – he's taking pictures now – but the translator is insistent. People are demanding to know who we are. We head to the translator's car and get in. The crowd follows us. Someone shouts that we're with the CIA. Dozens of men circle the vehicle. Fists start banging on the roof. "Ameriki go home," someone screams. Jeon just waves.

"They're so passionate," he says. "It's wonderful."

The translator gets out to reason with the crowd, and someone puts a gun to his head, forcing him back into the car. A large man with a wide, flattened nose climbs into the passenger seat.

"What's happening?" I yell, in a panic.

"You're being kidnapped," the translator says. I look over at Jeon. He's laughing.

"You gotta love Libya, right?" he says.