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Blog Educators Reading & Writing Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Woman. Warrior. Writer. Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Meet August’s Woman.Warrior. Writer. Marie Myung-Ok Lee!

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is an acclaimed Korean-American author of Somebody’s Daughter and The Evening Hero—a novel that focuses on the future of medicine, immigration, and North Korea. Lee has widely published across news outlets, won fellowships to Yaddo/Macdowell, is a founder of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, and teaches at Columbia University.

How did you come to author your life?

Even while growing up in a Christian household in an all-white rural area I knew I was Buddhist-leaning non Christian at age 9, about the same time I declared I was going to be a writer for a living.  At 9, I started meditating even though I didn’t have the words for what I was doing. But I just knew doing both writing and meditating every day would lead to…something. Also, parenting my intellectually disabled, medically fragile son for 20+ years, I just show up for him, including for all the disasters and emergencies, Interestingly he has started communicating–at the same time my 18-years-in-the-making novel is finally coming out. You can’t do everything in a day, but you can commit to doing what ever “it” is, daily, like writing, parenting, being present. 

About The Evening Hero as a Buzz PICK Good Morning America Book Club selection Marie Lee says: “I think this is a good illustration go what doing something every day, even without promise of reward, can do.”

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Educators Hawai'i Poetry Reading & Writing Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Woman. Warrior. Writer. Debra Kang Dean

 

Meet March’s Woman Warrior Writer Debra Kang Dean! Debra Kang Dean is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks and three full-length books of poetry. Totem: America, her most recent book, was shortlisted for the 2020 Indiana Authors Award in Poetry. Long engaged with taijiquan, she is on the poetry faculty of the Sena Naslund-Karen Mann School of Writing.

 How did you come to author your life?

Although the words “woman,” “warrior,” and “writer” separately apply to different facets of my being, it might be truer to say that life keeps authoring me—not as subject but in terms of the kind of writer I am. Widowed at fifty, I find those words rearranging themselves, each taking its turn as a verb. I have never forgotten reading how some post-menopausal women became ambiguous figures in one tribal society and so were able to move in the spaces between conventional boundaries—not an especially good fit for our very gendered, youth-oriented culture, but one that has helped me to keep the self that creates intact and persist through changing inner and outer weather. The struggle is real, but remember: This work is no small thing.

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Blog Reading & Writing Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Woman. Warrior. Writer. Grace Cho

January 2022’s Woman Warrior Writer is Grace Cho. Cho is the author of Tastes Like War (2021), a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame Secrecy and the Forgotten War(2008), which won the American Sociological Association’s Asia and Asian America Section book award in 2010. She lives in New York City with her partner, kids and chosen family, and she teaches sociology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

How did you come to author your life?

My former teacher, the incomparable bell hooks, wrote in Theory as Liberatory Practice, “I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me.” Writing for me has always been about theorizing, about theory as “a location for healing.” As a young adult, I began writing to make sense of all the injustices my mother faced, all the ways in which her history had been obscured or erased or made into an object of shame and contempt.  As her daughter, it became my business to denounce that shame and celebrate her legacy.

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Belief and Philosophy Blog Educators Hawai'i Self-help Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Hawai’i: Family

I’m starting to learn how to play Chang-gi/Jang-gi or Korean chess, or what some may call Chinese chess. I’m doing this, so that Dad and I can have some activity together. The Kid and Dad played 5-in-a-row. Dad can beat The Kid at this game. He’s also good at chess. He told me this is how he spent part of the Korean War with his brother and cousin, hiding in the attic to avoid being drafted as a young teenager, the three of them playing chess.

I first learned to play chess in the third, maybe fourth grade. A friend taught me and failed to tell me that losing the pawn was not as bad as losing a rook and she easily won for several rounds. I developed an interest in playing chess, enough to have Dad come home from a business trip with a small magnetic chess set. I still have it. He learned Western chess; we played together. My ambition became to beat him.

I played other Korean boys in Iowa, most distinctly one who won against me with a series of memorized moves. I was in awe. I asked him how he learned chess, and he showed me a chess book. I went to the mall, ordered the same book, Dear Reader, I still have it, LOL. I studied it, and then memorized the moves. I got better. I kept playing. I didn’t ever play the boy again, but I ended up challenging Dad to chess and beating him.

I beat him once, but obviously, he was the person I wanted to win, as I didn’t play much after that match. Dad laughed. I had taught him now to play Western chess, and he had always beaten me up to that point. Looking back, I know he had let me win, played a bit casually, but no matter. I felt like it, and he admitted it: I had won.

So much of my identity throughout my life was tied to being my father’s daughter. The daughter of a scholar and research scientist and doctor. The daughter of someone who had survived the Korean War, who had won the nation’s top scholarship to come to the West, who had a PhD and MD by the time he was 27. He headed a research lab. He was the only person of color with his field’s medical association. He was a colonel in the Army. He published over 200 papers. He spoke multiple languages. He lived a big life. Mostly, he was unique, unabashedly exhausting, often temperamental, humorous, brilliant, and fiercely loyal. It was under this shadow that I lived and tried to measure myself and my accomplishments, and of course, I always came up short. I still do. The complications of his existence were exacerbated by language challenges and his struggles with the truth of race in the US. Dad’s journey was long. Difficult. In almost every sense, it was my mother who made his navigation in the US possible (more on Mom in my next post!).

Dad was the one who had always drilled into my brain that I had to have more, be more, accomplish more, to be treated with half the respect, as he said, because I was Korean, because I was Asian, because I was female. This was the lesson that my father kept repeating, and this was the lesson that nearly broke me, or perhaps did. (I’m since rather patched together on my merry way…)

I particularly remember these ideas when at boarding school. I would not buckle. No. I would not. Because I was not a quitter. I was the daughter of Dr. Tai-June Yoo and the white students who bullied, belittled, had no idea what I did to reinvent. It wasn’t me who was on the line. It was my race. It was my ethnicity. It was my gender. I would not let anyone down. Ever! Tough times. I got sick of living up to everything–and as one does, it led to completely giving up that type of structural existence. Too exhausting. Too narrow. It did not fit. Even if that meant disappointing Dad.

It took me decades for me to see that there are truths to how we learn and function in a nation and that our families messages are to be interpreted according to who we are individually. We can’t be everything to everyone all the time. What we can be however is this–people who slow down and play a game chess now and then, people who try to learn something new, people who try to understand that our own paths are informed by others, but are our own paths full of foibles, mistakes, joys, and unexpected happenings.

Stay tuned.

Maybe one day I’ll beat dad at Korean chess.

Miracles do happen.

 

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Belief and Philosophy Blog Hawai'i Health Self-help

Hawai’i: Health and Eating During COVID 19

To get The Kid through exams I said, hey let’s go to Rainbow Drive In. I’ll be honest, this is where The Kid goes post surf with Uncle N the surf instructor. Uncle N is the main reason that both myself and the Kid are still alive after a year of COVID. You’d think only one of us would have made it through.

Try COVID with a very athletic 13-14 year old. Strategies included installing a punching bag that basically blocks the front door (no other place to put it), ocean nearly every AM  ( a friend took her kid surfing 2x a day to wear him out), and watching stuff like oh…Youtube videos of competitive eating, grilling and frying meat, and hours of Netflix comedy (yes, Dear Reader, I know Kevin Hart and Ronnie Chieng jokes by heart…)

So here is The Kid’s carb load of chicken katsu with rice with green juice.

“Whatever happened to the no sugar healthy thing,” I say.

“Oh, this is special green juice and Uncle N said it is only here in Hawai’i and only in two places and it called Green River. It’s awesome,” says The Kid.

“I thought you were focused on being a health food person.”

“NAH. I figured out I can eat a lot and even a lot of sugar and I’m not losing muscle mass,” says The Kid slurping the green juice down. “My metabolism is good.”

“But it’s your interior health”, I say.

“I’m healthy,” says The Kid.

I had a nice serving of chili over rice.

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Belief and Philosophy Blog Educators Reading & Writing Self-help Teachers

Asian Americans: Education, Achievement, and Confucianism

I am writing this because I think it is important for students themselves (as well as others) who are Asian American, to potentially gain a cultural perspective on a particular philosophy that really underscores an Asian approach to education.

This is Confucianism. Feel free to google as your information may be more informative than this brief post. I am presenting a surgically sliced sliver of it. Those who are experts in the field, in particular, those who have studied the link between Confucianism and Asian/Asian American approaches to education, potentially academics in the field of education, please refute, or correct, as I readily admit I am not an expert. I am apologizing ahead of time as I am chopping up a field of study that has gone on for centuries into a blog post. This is the tyranny of modern information synthesis at play. I feel compelled to give a brief explanation because even this tiny bit of information I have conveyed in the past gave some relief to students as they better understood the dynamics within their own families and communities.

Confucianism and the Five Pillars

Confucius was a philosopher around 500–400 B.C. Confucianism is based on a system of hierarchies that were thought to be necessary in order to run a workable society

  • king to subject
  • husband to wife
  • parent to child
  • older sibling to younger sibling
  • friend to friend

(I believe that gender trumps age, so if you are an older female sibling, you might be called Older Sister, but I believe that your younger brother would still dominate in most matters as adults).

You can see (inevitably?) what the system of hierarchy yields. There are merits to any type of order deemed necessary to provide a society with rules to function, but there are structural inequalities here that present difficulties.

Koreans, Chinese, and many Asians are highly influenced by Confucianism. Sure, a Confucian society can also simultaneously embrace Christianity, but Confucianism runs deep…as deep as…rice and kimchi. In other words, it is foundationally there, deemed necessary for survival, and such a part of how the culture operates that it is seamless, ubiquitous, and accepted as a default barometer of how one should live, how society should function.

Women

Women didn’t come into this Confucian discussion much. So bam, right at the start this is a not a female-friendly type of ideology, but not a single religion existing today was driven by women’s leadership, viewed women’s opinions as worthy of participation within the governance of the organization, or featured women in the majority of its written texts.

Ancestor Worship

This system is also one based on ancestor worship. Confucianism offered no afterlife of heaven, harps, halos, and clouds. No angel wings. It pretty much boiled down to ancestors (note nearest ones are your parents) and I don’t believe there was much about sporting flowing diaphanous clothes or plucking stringed instruments with light streaming down on one’s angelic face. Confucianism is known as a philosophy, but there was also a period when it was followed as a religious practice, in that its principles were used to govern spiritual practice.

Parents as gods

I want you to think about this deeply. If one believes in ancestor worship, what does this make one’s parents, exactly? That’s right: gods.

You worship and do as your parents say and in turn your parents/gods will provide what is needed and so it goes through the generations.

Ponder this. Worshipping your ancestors flies in the face of monotheism. No worries though — it’s viewed now as a philosophy. And I happen to have witnessed how both Christianity and Confucian ancestor worship can be combined. Bow to Virgin Mary, bow to picture of grandparents, bow to Christmas tree. Just keeping the options open! But just hold the thought as we march through this idea…

Imperial Exams or early standardized tests

A significant part of the early system of governance in China and Korea was the Imperial Examination system. Everyone got a crack at passing the exam, and then obtaining a position in government that would elevate one’s family. Here’s where we see, despite it looking otherwise, inequality rear its head.

Who could afford to have a son (no daughter) take time off from the rice fields or woodcutting business to support the family to study all day with the help of paid tutors to pass the exam? Just a hunch, but this was not an easy way to climb the ladder of social and economic success. Because Americans love to hear that rugged individual exception story, I will concede that there were probably exceptions, but for the most part, the people who took and passed the exam would have had to have been from families that could afford to have a child who spent his days studying.

The examination system very much spoke to Confucian principles. Remember, there’s no afterlife in Confucianism, no community gathering in the sky. Once you pass the exam, you have pulled up your family’s financial, academic, social standing in the public sphere, and in the metaphysical realm. You go up, your children go up, and voila, they are worshipping an ancestor (you dead) and you are just climbing higher and higher…dead, but climbing up and up to well, just up and up… Think about this: if you pass the exam — you were more enlightened, not just financially, but spiritually.

Spiritual Ascension

What does this mean in concrete modern terms? An A means you are ascending (way to go — you’re a spiritual elite) and an F? You are lowering yourself spiritually, messing up the ancestor line! Yes, the entire clan — they are all going down-down-down into the abyss of abject failure. All for failing an exam. Because you fell asleep in math class, you are now cursing your line for 1000 years, messing up the ancestor worship! So an F becomes much more than doing lousy on one paper or exam. The student who receives this grade is spiritually descending. Greetings Beelzebub!

You can understand the pressure, drive, ambition, misery, hope, misunderstanding, despair, dreaming, and confusion that often surrounds Asian American academic performance and the relationship between parents and children. An academic letter grade linked to an expectation of spiritual elevation? Let’s face it, does getting an F mean you won’t spiritually ascend? Many would say an or an A has nothing to do with what kind of person you are spiritually. Just get to church/temple/mosque and you will be fine! You will ascend! This is all to let folks know that this getting-a-bad-grade stuff has profoundly different implications for students depending on their backgrounds.

What is baffling to many Asian American students is that given the overlay of Christianity, the American economic system of competition and capitalism, and the lack of clear reference to Confucianism, few understand their own parents’ behavior within their cultural context. Even parents may not quite understand how Confucianism works in their drive to have their children achieve. Most administrators and teachers lump this academic pressure reality into the pile of a 1st generation immigrant narrative, and yes, that it is too — but backtracking a little and understanding Confucianism may help everyone — students, parents, and faculty navigate the highs and lows of academic expectations.