Diamond Head Cemetery. A Cook pine from New Caledonia. Yellow stars that poured from a tree? Anyone know the name? The ground as sky. The dead slumber. Decades pass. Beloved Mother. In Loving Memory. She loved the sea. Flowerless. Forgotten. This heaven was the toil of stiff hands. The invention of paradise. Lost. Airplane-filled. A single taste. A myth cascades. Rock and soil call the return to dust. Go back to where you came from.
Category: Belief and Philosophy
This is Mui Wo at night. The path up to my former home. It’s wonderfully quiet and there’s a calm truth to being outside with the frogs and the darkness in utter safety. Forgotten. Lost. Present.
I always felt very out of place in Hong Kong, but I have concluded that this is the nature of the city, both historically and currently, as it is a population that has been shaped by the confluence of trade, politics, and capital. It’s about movement and rather abrupt in that if you are not from the city, it’s where you come to make a deal. I always found it rather humorous that expatriates would jabber on about how HK people were unmerciful and solely concerned with finance. But uh…everyone who was there, the expatriate community–they were there to make money. Very very few expatriates are there to immerse themselves in Cantonese culture or are interested in the native population other than the ways that they provide an avenue for the accumulation of their own personal wealth or well-being. Arguably, there are many cities like this, but the racial and social hierarchies are complex in this city. Not always, but it can be very “us and them.”
There’s the indigenous population, those that migrated from other parts of China, and those who were part and of the former British Empire–government officials, bankers, carpetbaggers, military, and explorers. Finally, there were those like me, a Korean American who ended up in Hong Kong purely by random chance, a default of a marriage to a Brit.
I was an expatriate, but not of Chinese descent, and not from the UK, nor the Commonwealth, so this made the dynamic quite different for me culturally.
A Commonwealth friend once excitedly exclaimed that there was an English speaking woman on the ferry, and in celebration of a new woman in town, there would be a get together welcoming her! There was even a gathering to greet the arrival of a Western white woman. This is when I realized the depth of the difference in the way I negotiated my existence as an expatriate of Asian descent. When you look like the majority of the population, even if you speak English, there are no Welcome Wagons for you. I thought that this must have been what life was like on the prairie in the 19th century. Like, oh the wagon is bringing out a woman from back Home etc… I know there are Korean Welcome Wagons, but personally, I have never experienced this type of thing because my identity has been so fluid. I hadn’t expected any Welcome Wagon, but I realized that life as an expatriate was different if you were not Asian and spoke English.
I remember my mom got a Welcome Wagon basket from a neighbor when we moved to Memphis. This was decades ago so my parents were integrating the white neighborhood and there was a lot of curiosity about them. I would be mortified because right when the conservative white Southern Baptist woman swung by, my mom would be there with the cleaver whacking on the cutting board with garlic rising and I could see the expression of the person’s face: “Oh my, what interesting new people…” Yes, they were different creatures in that space.
There’s a very old comedy Eddie Murphy Saturday Nite Live skit where he gets on the bus as a black/white person and the differing reactions. So often I’d hear the rantings of people’s derisive anti-Chinese comments and simply act like I didn’t understand English. I passed–hence what came to be the title of my poetry manuscript. In Asia, you have access to spaces if you are English speaking. The caste and color line become very nuanced and complicated. I had some tremendous opportunities that would not have been given to me had I been in the US. As an Asian face with lousy Asian language skills, my value was measured. If you don’t have Mandarin, given the politics of the place, it’s tough now for many, but some of the ways you move through society are personality-based.
I thought about being a different kind of species–Genus Mui Wo…I believe I was evolving into something else too, something I could not recognize. There are many ways that being out of your cultural milieu can challenge your value system, what you know about yourself, how you see the world. I was better and worse, potentially more extreme versions of who I am. This is a physical visceral sensation. My parasympathetic system was entirely out of whack. I was not feeling who I was within my former partnership, and also within my own relationship to myself. Who is the self? What is my species? How pedestrian am I? I move from being a creature of the sea to one of the sky. In a sense, this is also the story of earthly evolution. We are all from the sea and before that, the stars, and to this end we will return. Stardust.
And let’s face it, while I didn’t intend it deliberately as I wrote this piece, it touches on this idea: did you ever notice how the future is depicted in media? There are outer space creatures that have vaguely Asiatic features often featured in spandex LOL. The idea is HEY those people are MIGHTY WEIRD. Let’s uh, make them sci fi characters LOL. Because we can’t imagine them. They are perpetually Other and Foreign. As Takaki wrote, we are Strangers From a Different Shore. I think this has long been part of my awareness of difference–being treated like a different species…so there’s that.
The reference to Korea: I almost drowned in the mountains of Korea, outside of Seoul, when I was six. We were crossing a stream, my uncle who carried me slipped. A cousin grabbed me as I went under. I pulled my uncle’s hair. It took years of swimming lessons for me to learn how to swim, although once I did, I swam quite well. After the near drowning, I would sit on the shallow end of the pool on the stairs. I hated washing my face. I terrified of the water. My mother was from Hawai’i, and while she wasn’t a particularly good swimmer, (the Mom Swim: sunglasses on, face always above water lol) I was expected to swim.
After I could finally swim, she insisted I dive. I refused. I would jump over the swimming instructor’s arm, do anything to avoid being upside down. Undaunted, my mother hired the university diving coach. He took me by my feet, hung me upside down like a fish, and said on the count of three I would be dropped in. Splash! He did this several times, and again the next day, and after that–I could dive! I was 10 or 11. Thanks, Mom! Someday I’ll write about the rip tide which still leaves me with some anxiety, but that’s for later…
Reading this poem again, I recognize that I was fatigued, bored, frustrated, and exhausted by the marriage, but yes, I had the minnow, my small child, and so I stayed, as many do. I felt more dead than alive, but my child kept me going. I poured everything onto the page as there was nowhere else to leave it. You start to collapse into yourself. As a child I escaped by reading and writing. During the course of my marriage I read and write to escape amassing pages and degrees and doing whatever I could to avoid my physical reality.
All the while in Hong Kong, I could easily deconstruct how race and nation played out, but patriarchy was more difficult. I should say this was in specific to my own situation. When you are isolated emotionally you become inured to carelessness and cruelty and in the end, this is how and why you can become subject and vulnerable to abuse. In another cultural context too, one can become uncertain of the parameters and structures. Is this the story I know? Is this story playing out because I am in a different space? Where is the beginning and where is the ending? Existentialist type of questions.
I have a different kind of empathy now watching mothers with their small children if they are raising their children outside of their home culture. I can see all the anxiety, the concerns about doing what people are saying is best, but what, within your own culture doesn’t make sense.When you are not in your own milieu, your cultural values become uncertain and questioned. You must adapt–the question becomes what do you change, shift, and why?
I rewrote the ending of this piece many many times. But yes, I did grab that small hand and we ended up in Hawai’i–the ancestral home. Me and The Kid. Right across the street from where my family is buried.
Genus Mui Wo
Kick. Glide. An ageless alien floats.
Close eyes. Close eyes.
No tentacles, only gills, tales of tails.
To elude conscription
I snap skin from honey to olive,
nurse milk from stone,
scuttle over shallow water,
dodge mops. Hide. Seek.
Miscalculations of the moon stranded me.
Risks are for the hunt.
On and off the endangered species list,
experts argue: A bony beak.
Jelly lips. Feet trained to point.
a nylon-clad refugee,
swimming lap after lap.
Please, do not filet.
A diligent learner, I open jars, play puzzles.
Hostile conditions rendered me mute.
Survival, a testament to tenacity,
Plastic goggles squeeze eye sockets,
reveal loops ad infinitum.
I Almost Drown
DAY— KOREA — A MOUNTAIN CREEK.
We drive from the City. Two urban pale uncles hoist children on their shoulders, water skims chins. The sun flicks its light. Footholds missed! Kicks. Sputter. A strong arm. Saved by Cousin Ki-dong op-ah’s red and white inner tube. I am six. Shattered on the sandy river bank, twisted in bladderwrack, fish cheeks like pebbles, glassy eyes rimmed pink.
Years of failure, but Mother persists. This is not tennis! I butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, dive, hobble ashore with webbed feet. Beached, I weep for the sea.
FADE TO BLACK
My nocturnal mate provides shelter,
hunts with a weapon to his ear.
A stomach x-ray reveals a corroded past.
A beast-baring teeth, he attacks seaweed strands,
black painted lines.
I watch the show in silence.
Dolphin hooped: I applaud on demand.
I long to disappear,
but a tiny one swims by my side.
Open a book. Tumble into words.
When the minnow pedals the prehistoric cycle,
I’ll shrink to a cloud bite in the blackest tea.
Before my organs drown and stop,
I dream the sea parts my heart,
walk the collapse of blueberry night,
and lick death’s sweet.
I note my eye’s lemon light,
marvel at my downy skin,
flex my talons.
Ready for flight!
I leap to private myths—
cloud wrap a phoenix belief
from shredded wings,
grab a small hand,
clutch my heart,
instinct pressing me home.
This poem appeared in the hard copy journal Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine Intercourse and Intertextuality (2019).
Myself, ex, and child were in London. We stayed in Canary Wharf. Shout out to Mark Higham @theartshop360 for the image. I sat in the bathtub writing. Yes, at 3AM. I had spent the day alone pushing my child along in a stroller and went to the Tate. I can’t remember the exhibit. I remember wheeling the push chair as they say in UK English, or stroller as they say in American English, over concrete.
Lots of concrete. Are people still pouring concrete everywhere in an attempt to make floor fashionable? After living in a place where concrete dust was always flying due to buildings going up, I really loathe concrete. It’s a necessity, but why get worked up about it aesthetically?
By now, life was full-swing dysfunctional–although in retrospect, it was never functional and full of anxiety and abuse. There were only a few brief windows over the course of many years when there was any calm to the relationship. It was either volatility or boredom.
I see now from a distance that even in the early days (the reference below to steamy night was the night of Handover and meeting up in a bar in Lan Kwai Fong) there was an unease that later became a resignation. There was the stress of money, addiction, depression, passports, and whatever headaches that modern expatriate multi-national relationships potentially have. The difference at this point, which I clearly sensed, was infidelity, though I am now aware that lying is not something someone suddenly does. People lie. Or they don’t. Some lie more than others. At the root of lying is the fear of authenticity. My former mother-in-law was a redhead, which gives everything an Oedipal spin.
I wanted to create a poem that was very short and ambiguous, but not. There are always games of evasion and language. I like the poem now. Moreover, I inhabit such a different emotional space.
I. Am. Free.
I think that might be a new three-word poem. I think that’s about all I need to ever write. Because maybe, that’s all there really is. Once you start moving differently in your truth there is nothing more. This includes fear of Death. I may have some fear of certain physical gestures or movements (i.e. I don’t wear a hat anymore surfing because I tried to come up for air and the hat was in front of my face and I couldn’t get it off and it freaked me out), but fear of Death, no. I am truly not anxious…because yes, this is what it means to live in your own personal truth. You hit the end, and you’re okay with it.
I Never Liked Redheads
red hair and pale flesh straddling you.
sweat, kick in the dark.
a silk dress damp against my skin
the steam of Hong Kong’s night
when you walked
in from the rain.
Desert sun on my back,
light spilled on your shoulders.
A soothing whisper, a baby born.
The wounds and crush.
a journey down a silken road tropic solitude
walks in cold forests
long commutes, silent returns
a chase that devours.
Back to back
I pen this in a hotel bathtub at 3AM,
rest on a brown cushion on cool porcelain.
You come in to pee.
I tell you the dream, you say,
I never liked redheads,
and return to sleep.
Yes, and so begins my new candid show called ‘BAD TOURIST’. In this series, I will reveal and expose some of the stuff that tourists do when they come to Hawai’i that yes, deserves the title: BAD TOURIST. This is not BAD as in COOL. This is BAD as in these are examples of BAD IDEAS.
You come on holiday to be safe and have fun and enjoy the beauty and outdoors. You do not come to be hospitalized, at worst, to die, to injure yourself, to do anything that will make you regret your holiday.
I really wish there was some kind of pamphlet that people would be forced to read while sitting on the plane to Hawai’i. Enroute to Malaysia they make you read one that says you get the death penalty for trafficking drugs. They then give you plenty of time to dump the stuff into the toilet before you land–I think such warnings are good for people visiting different places.
Today we feature Korean tourist X.
Hiked up Kokohead today and saw this. Today Korean tourist X perched on a ledge (bottom left corner). I missed the selfie part, which I am sure she did earlier, but she sat for awhile doing that Kate Winslet Titanic movie move (arms wide out, hair in the wind, generally a bad idea on the edge with a drop down onto the rocks then oops, into the ocean…but hey, maybe this is just me who stood there waiting for the inevitable…). She sat with her arms wide out. You can see partner on his way trotting down towards her. Dear Readers, they were not a coordinated pair, you could tell by how they moved.
I felt very nervous looking at her.
Because three years ago I witnessed someone fall off the rocks into the ocean while hiking and dying. This stuff happens and it is real.
What you have to ask yourself is this: would you take these kinds of risks in your own country, city, neighborhood, hiking trail?
I bet not.
I saw a rescue on the Koko Head trail a few weeks ago and overheard the rescue team tell someone that they are called 3x a week! There were at least five workers, two helicopters–thousands of dollars per rescue that we pay for with our city and state taxes. Much of this could be avoided. It is disrespectful to our government services to take risks like this that are unreasonable.
Please be safe. Have fun here. But think before endangering your life!
I have posted this poem The Forgetting elsewhere. It’s never been published by a journal. It is one of the most significant poems that I have written and I stand by it as a piece of writing. It came to me quickly.
I was at the Hong Kong ferry pier
and had a pencil and a wrinkled piece of paper in my bag. I stopped and wrote it down leaning against a steel column breathing in diesel. I was angry, bitter, upset. I don’t like to focus on how a type of creative energy works because I believe craft is important, but I admit here that the words came to me as if I was in a trance. Sometimes, you open your body up and the words tumble out. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a strange feeling because for me, I write poetry when I have too many feelings and cannot express or name a particular emotion. It would be fair to say there’s always an idea of madness, blood, and a strange churning of the self when poems like this come to me. When you write in these moments you are not present. You come back when you edit. This poem is nearly in its original form. About three years ago, I was given some solid advice about editing and writing and the suggestion to cut the poem in half. I could not. Doing so would lose the frenzied pace of it, the instability.
Fairly obvious, but this reflected the miserable dynamic of my marriage and an attempt at escape.
New York and 57th street
The 57th street reference: a college boyfriend. Charlie committed suicide by jumping from his mother’s penthouse and died in his early 20s. I did not find out about this until years after he had jumped. I also used him, in some ways, as a model for a story from Swimming in Hong Kong that appeared in Cha Online Literary Journal Nantucket’s Laundry, 1985. This was the last story that was published from the collection. Charlie was terribly depressed, on the verge of alcoholism, completely and dangerously unstable. I learned later that he had his face completely reconstructed because he was beaten up so badly. In my memory he is young and handsome, but I also remember, due to depression, he had an eerily elderly quality to him. He had sent me a postcard from Taiwan–that was the last I had heard from him prior to learning of his death. I found the postcard, I believe around the time I wrote the poem, which is probably how this side story of the main story of my marriage made its way into the text…
I descend, my body splits, and I roar to recover
before wounds break, blood pours,
and I ravage pills of memory.
This body wove from man to man,
fucked and begged on hotel room floors,
bore a child and raged in a fire
as my feet burned across the continents.
I am called across the ocean to sands and palms,
pools that lap forests breathe hot nights on my neck.
Weepy drugs feed this cloying beast.
Wicked songs to memory and heart.
I drink your eye in a dark bar of money,
choking rage of forgetting and longing
cheating time like diamonds in a room of amputated arms.
In this land I join the cockroach dance,
survive the holocaust of malls
lured by spas and women on their knees.
There are ways of knowing—
an arm, a breast, an ankle acting the role of thief.
Fingers tap screens of pornographic screams,
but deadened nerves feel no skin.
I drink bitterness pressing buttons,
dropping clothes, closing doors.
An early death, a godless benediction of madness,
for this wild, I surrender all.
I forget to remember,
tongue acid rain,
lost in watery promises of the dark.
Six white hairs, a dozen soon.
Age and beauty,
orchestrated by gods gambling geography games.
Rising like a beast of present perfect:
A face smashed by thugs.
A body sprawled on 57th street.
Penthouse jumps are things of youth.
Suicides and lovers, friends ‘til we part,
the stuff of life lived to the bone.
I clock love and lines by years,
smells of wet nylon and stale beer,
taxi clangs of sorry lies.
A marriage scraped from the bottom of a glass,
gathered to divide, until air becomes
what I long to breathe,
joy a regret unknown.
Freedom calls. Sorrow creeps to sky.
The penury of age a certain misery.
Abandonment defies what we know as beauty,
yet to this green I leave my shell,
crawl before gods in forgiveness,
hell in my heart,
knowing the madness of it all.
These patched retro Levi’s jeans are from my very early adolescence, fashion-wise–from that leftover phase of hippy rebellion. As someone from the GenX cut-off year, I was influenced by this era older than myself and the era in which I lived. At boarding school, I swapped three skirts for this pair of blue jeans that has small embroidered hearts in purple and pink on the back pocket. Thanks, Mary, yes, I still have them. I kept patching them, but of course, I never wore them after a period of time and they don’t really fit me.
I carted them around everywhere as an odd remembrance because it reminds me of a time when I was trying to define my interior self through clothing and all that is exterior. I don’t think about clothing like this anymore. But back then, one minute I would be dressed like X and the next minute like Y and clothing was pure costuming, fun, curiosity, rebellion, and celebration of self. I couldn’t bring myself to be something, so I wore the clothes that suggested I could be something. I am now rather utilitarian most days; I don’t think of clothing in that same way. I’m more in my body, but yet the body seems to occupy a more esoteric space. I recognize clothing as an avenue of expression, but don’t use it that much in this direction.
As I say often, this is all down to how we see death and self.
For me, the more I recognize my interior as an identity, the less I seem to get worried about the exterior. I realize that what we are in the exterior can be entirely artificial. As the membrane between the inner and outer becomes more fluid, soluble, porous, there is less to worry about. We are what we are. Life is rather short. We are temporal beings. Our body is simply our exterior shell.
Social media, avatars, the way we present can be entirely false or mystical and one can be always aware of the gap between what is seen and what is hidden. I think the easiest solution is to collapse the inner and outer. What you see is what you get. That patched jean self is carried within memory. Memory is one part of the inner self, but not necessarily a construct of the present. How I became who I am in the present, was influenced by the time I spent in these jeans, but yeah, but the cells have all regenerated. I am not that girl.
I hope this makes sense for people. For those who experience anxiety about outer appearance, know that the key is to bring the inner as close to the outer as possible. It’s a much easier way to live.