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Belief and Philosophy Gods and Pineapples Hawai'i Health Poetry Self-help

Hawai’i: Stars and Pines

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.

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Belief and Philosophy Divorce Health Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing Self-help

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: Genus Mui Wo

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,

declare citizenship,

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.

I’m pedestrian,

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,

obedience, fear.

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.

fin

 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.

I stay.

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.

Categories
Belief and Philosophy Educators Reading & Writing Teachers

Adventures in Teaching and Girlhood

In the spirit of uploading content on a daily basis my recognition that this will take more than I had planned out, I will be excerpting my manuscript Passing in the Middle Kingdom, explicating the story behind the poem in hopes that people might be encouraged to scribble their own. I’m a believer in creating text and how this can change your life. I began writing this collection of poetry/prose, a type of hybrid work, honestly, in 2008. That’s right. It’s not 2021. It’s been rejected by many people. It also has had nearly all of the content published and the manuscript itself was a finalist for the Wilder Poetry Prize.

I’ve taken one poetry workshop, but my most acute memory of studying poetry was in high school. The most intense moment from that class was writing about my racial identity, a poem called Barbie Wish, and me praying like anything as the teacher read the poem out loud that people would think it was the other Korean American girl. Not me! LOL. I have a lot of fondness for that teenage girl who wrote that and know what it takes to write that stuff. When teenagers write their truth to power, faculty should stop shutting them down. I can’t even tell you how many people shut young students down.

Adventures in Substitute Teaching

I had the opportunity many years ago to substitute teach at an orthodox Jewish girls school. The girls were pretty out of line–I’m not sure where you get the ideas of behavior drawing down ethnic lines because these white wealthy Jewish girls were standing on chairs, shouting, being totally out there! I had them write something creative and this is when it got interesting.

They were sharing and reading it out loud when the headmistress came in for a visit. One girl was reading her story which involved working as a spy, parachuting from an airplane. She apparently spent the summer living a life straight out of a Bond movie. It was fantastic. All the girls listened: glued. Headmistress walked in to listen. After it was over we’re clapping and headmistress yelled at the girl for LYING! She said, you must tell the truth! The truth is that you went to heritage camp and met other Jewish kids and sang around a campfire. Or something like that. The class went silent (myself included, I was smiling and enjoying it the entire time, until Bummer Boss Headmistress walked in).

I was very sad for that girl. After school I did a brief one-on-one meeting with the headmistress who complained that the girls were so out of line she couldn’t get anyone to take the full-time job because they kept quitting. She was so frustrated and said that thank god, that after they all got their periods they calmed down. Or is it that the community further squashed their lives to the ground? Hard to say. I could see the big thumb smashing that girl’s imagination out of her brains right then and there! You think headmistress might see the connection between silencing the girls and the girls jumping on chairs. They were running around in their ankle length skirts and yelling outside having fun. But it was clear that once they got their period, the big headmistress rules would reign. People make excuses in the name of culture, but they need to cut it out. All cultural expectations and rules are rooted in patriarchy which is tied to silencing women. Don’t dream! Don’t make up stuff! Don’t imagine a new world! What a great imagination that young girl had. I’d be surprised if she was able to rebel, but part of me hopes that one day she will think about that huge tale she spun that day in class, the headmistress yelling and just maybe, think about what she used to dream about–jumping out of planes, working as a spy, living a life that everyone around her wanted her to deny.

I hope that parents register their daughters for girls’ creative writing classes this summer with Reema Rajbanshi grades 11/12 and

Ishle Yi Park grades 9/10!

My desire to see girls respected and their imaginations encouraged was partially a result of what I used to see in classes. These are fantastic women authors and writing instructors who will encourage your daughter to write imaginatively and beautifully.

Register at drstephaniehan.com

Categories
Blog Educators Gods and Pineapples Listen and Watch Reading & Writing Teachers Video

Learning How Korean Americans Shaped History

Last month, I presented a two-part lectures series for the Council of Korean Americans on the events and personalities crucial to shaping Korean American culture and history over the last 100+ years. I made it accessible to those who don’t know any Korean American history. I also believe the big step we must take is to understand that WE CREATE HISTORY! Record your experiences. They’re historical!

Dr. Han explores the various narratives of “Korean America”, examines how this immigrant community has evolved as it is intersected with mainstream America, and shares how Korean Americans are contributing to the United States and the world. Part I of this session covers 1882 Diplomatic relations between Korea and the US, the early days of immigration, and the Korean War.

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Blog Reading & Writing

1982. Phillips Academy Andover. Barnard College. Vincent Chin. Asian America.

Aloha…Ye Olde Blog will begin again…

When I saw this #stopasianhate video I am reminded of where we are now, socially and politically as a society, but also, who I was at the time when I first became aware of how racism is systemic (Vincent Chin lived in the auto making industry area, people were anti-Asian and mired in Yellow Peril ideology about the auto industry, and so they killed him for being Japanese—he was Chinese).

1982 was the year I graduated from PA and headed to Barnard College was the year that Vincent Chin was killed. I took a semester off from Barnard and was interning at the Asian arts and lit magazine BRIDGE. It was in some ways, the beginning of an awareness of an AA identity, but it would take many years of struggle to understand the concept and what it meant.

As a cross between a 1st and 4th generation AA my narrative was never a neat one.

Most AA at college then, the two schools were both separate (Columbia/Barnard) back then, were 1st and 2nd generation. The vibe is very different generationally. I was introduced to AA as “this person who does not speak Korean” and was given circus freak show status. I half expected people to yell at me for betraying my ancestors. My mother, however, doesn’t speak, and what most young people then did not understand is the complexities of immigration patterns.

In retrospect, I should have gone West to university (where I ended up living) where there were entire Asian American Studies programs. But Andover was and probably still is East Coast centric and the idea of being in a student body of Asian Americans didn’t occur to college counseling. Even now, the first thing I tell most Asian Americans when I meet them who feel at a loss and are mired in private institution blues is this: go West. Numbers matter. If you’re in an environment where the Asian community has been entrenched for awhile, at the very rock bottom least, you are not a complete freak show. (Obviously, I was really scarred by it. I haven’t been in a non Asian majority environment in 15 years… I lived in HK and now in Hawai’i–hard choices for some, but for me it was a good decision).

Years later, I would meet up with a PA friend in HK, Chinese descent, who was naming all the racist girls in her dorm–as I recall the most popular and elite white pedigreed girls of our class, and I realized she had deep trauma from that time period she had carried with her. She unloaded. While we are not in touch too much, I realized that it was this weird time and space moment… she needed to tell someone. We compared notes and concluded the college counselor we both had was racist. She was a racist for sure! We both could see this as adults! It felt weird to hear that after decades and confirm my teenage self wasn’t wrong to feel so at odds and discouraged by this authority figure.

As I prepare a history lesson for the Council of Korean Americans, I am reminded how the collective idea of Asian America is what makes me who I am. It is the global as manifested within an American identity. And what is it that we share, truly across these groups? Not language, not food, not religion, not history.

What we share as Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Hmong, Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, Japanese – people who are American but who can claim ancestry from Asia, is an awareness and experience of racism, discrimination, the yearning for a dream of self and the cruel understanding of Empire, Nation and Myth.

That’s what makes us, that common thread, in the end…Asian American.