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Passing in the Middle Kingdom: I Never Liked Redheads

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


I see—

red hair and pale flesh straddling you.

I awaken,

sweat, kick in the dark.


I remember:

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

slow, slow.




long commutes, silent returns

a chase that devours.

Back to back

fast, fast.



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.


Belief and Philosophy Blog Divorce Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: The Forgetting

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…


The Forgetting


I descend, my body splits, and I roar to recover

quickly, urgently,

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.

Belief and Philosophy Blog Divorce Poetry Reading & Writing Self-help


Cut the Cord

I cut the cord of connection

of belief

of desire

of obligation

of responsibility

of care.

I cut the cord knowing that

indifference casts myself into an unknown.

I cut the cord knowing

it no longer matters.

I cut the cord understanding intimacy

is not violent, it is knowing.

I cut the cord knowing to be seen

I need to see myself.

I cut the cord.

I cut this cord to move into

the world as my full self.

Everything I need to navigate life—

I have.

Every symbol I have

Comes from a reflection of my


I cut a cord and know that

on my own I am full

on my own I am free.

I cut the cord without fear.

I cut the cord.

© drstephaniehan #cutthecord

Divorce Educators Reading & Writing Self-help

Write Your Divorce Story: Four Steps

There are four steps you need to take or at least strongly consider doing as you ready for divorce. Everyone is different, so understand that I am giving advice based on my personal experience and circumstances. I found there wasn’t much out there for women who were divorcing–unlike the wedding industry.

So here are my four steps:

  1. Legal representation: You need a lawyer, so interview them.
  2. Shared business, financial, and legal documents: Assess what you have shared together–everything from bank accounts to airlines miles and get handle on all joint holdings/assets.
  3. Counseling: Get counseling for yourself and/or your dependents and you may want to seek a counselor for both you and your soon-to-be-ex too about exiting.
  4. Start Writing: Journal and write your divorce story for your legal file. Remember to consult your lawyer about the submission of this document.
Belief and Philosophy Blog Divorce Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: An Ocean Ago

I haven’t read poetry in public over the past decade, so in March when I had the opportunity to do this with The Literary Cypher run by LP Kersey and Obsidian Pen Publishing, it was really fun! Poetry is community and the expectations around reading and writing poetry, at least for me, are much different than writing prose. I read some poetry from my manuscript Passing in the Middle Kingdom, which is, if you have been tuning in, what I am also blogging about–specifically ideas of creative process.

The point here is to show you or anyone who may benefit from writing poetry how a poem unfolds, and how and why writing poetry can help us answer and ask questions.

This poem An Ocean Ago was written and submitted to Great Ocean Quarterly in Australia. They ended up taking another one (I’ll blog about that later), but it gave me some confidence that they had liked it, although admittedly, this poem was dramatically rewritten over the course of a decade. I was living as a Korean American expatriate in Hong Kong who was four generations in on the Hawai’i side. Most Asian Americans pivot between two countries: the US and the country of their ethnic origin. When you throw that third country in, stuff gets a little different, also when you throw in another country due to a partner. So you start dealing with 3-4 countries and you start to see how reductive life can be if you insist only upon a dichotomy and polarization of two sides. We can’t and don’t live that way anymore. We all inhabit a global economy. All I can say is there is a nuclear accident in Japan and the stuff washes up off the Oregon coast, what does that mean? One planet everyone…yep…

When I first wrote it, I was really trying to understand what I was feeling about marriage, motherhood, and place. I had gotten it in my brain, as writers do, that if I write something a certain way, then I would will my life a certain way. This is both true and not. You cannot write you love someone if you do not love someone, and suddenly start to love someone. You can write to convince yourself you love someone, but this only goes so far. I was trying to write into this question. So the first draft was me desperately trying to write and through writing, rationalize my situation, no matter what. Later, I became more comfortable saying there was confusion and finally, no. Love gone. The poem turned. It worked out. Writing confirms what we know and allows us to search inside of ourselves.

This poem was also about memory, about a road trip to Arizona when we first met, about aging and what this means, about pregnancy and the movement between Hong Kong and the US, back and forth, on and off for years. There was always a rather frantic dynamic, this is a polite or euphemistic way of describing what can only be said to be harrowing. I know now such feelings are linked to living with and under trauma. I live very differently now. My body is recalibrating. For anyone who has lived in this way–I will tell you this: Just. Step. Away.

Also the thing about aging is that it is linked to death, of course. What it means to die. How we die. Why we die. Fear of dying. We all die. You will not be saved from the truth that we will all perish. Every person you see, every tree or sign of life that you witness or experience will perish too, just as you do. You can do whatever you want to try to stop this: pray, exercise fanatically, get plastic surgery, have a child, find a new partner, move to a new home or city, get a new job, but guess what. The Big D is coming for you. And the flag the Big D is waving says this: Take No Prisoners.

That’s right. The END is real. SO…what does Dr. Stephanie Han say about this?

Be real. Be kind. Be fair. Here’s the poem below–


An Ocean Ago


A shower runs down my husband’s back.

Torks, twists, a broken spine.

He hoists our child on to his shoulders.

A shift in his gait. Silver hair thinning.

An ocean ago.

We floated in a blue pool

he held me up to a red rock sun.

Will you love me

when I can no longer lift you to the sky?

So late, so fast,

an ocean ago,

a splash, a belly, a pink bikini.

Liquid pooled between my legs,

the current pulled.

Our baby fought the crossing.

His arrival, our return.

An ocean ago,

money crushed the fetal grip,

trash floated, we swam the harbor

of age and loss, panicked

through tubes and wires.

Tread water, refuse to drown.

We searched for an elixir,

discovered gray vapor death.

Will you love me?

Let me lie, I said,

I do.





Belief and Philosophy Blog Divorce Educators Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: Building the Great Wall

To continue this creative process explication of poetry and writing, I’ll be going through the poems I wrote and discussing the background a bit. This is really to show anyone interested in poetry how some poems are constructed. I’m not big on “oh it’s this magical thing…I wait and boom from the heavens, I feel words rushing through me”. If that’s you, more power to you, and that’s great. I get it. But I’m a teacher and believe that words can remake people’s lives. So I am going to break down the process a little so that anyone can try writing and not be intimidated by the creative process.

A version of this poem “Building the Great Wall” appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. The garden and the wall in Mui Wo had become a metaphor for the complexities of a collapsing marriage and living as an expatriate in Hong Kong. As the title of my poetry collection indicates, it was often assumed when I was living there that I was Chinese (I must have a pan Asian bog standard face, what can I say?), but while Asian life was while somewhat familiar given my own ethnicity, Hong Kong was also a challenge given my feelings about patriarchy, nation, and the pressure of capitalism.

Disney here in the poem refers to the building of Hong Kong Disneyland which I once researched while working on a story. The construction of that project further killed off the lone pod of sousa chinensis, the dolphin that has the distinction of symbolizing Hong Kong. Since it appears that all effort has been made to kill it off given pollution and prioritization of construction it makes no sense. Then again, the bald eagle was the US symbol and hey, that almost went extinct too. It appears killing off important wildlife may be a habit of nation-building. Perhaps it makes sense given the people of Hong Kong are valiantly struggling to speak their minds and be free as those in Beijing are silencing them. There are always parallels in the natural world of whatever is going on or vice-versa.

The center not holding–that’s the William Butler Yeats reference to The Second Coming.

Pictograms–this refers to the writing of characters. There is no Chinese alphabet. I’m not sure how this might link to widespread literacy and thus the construction of a modern nation and a free press, but given you must spend an inordinate amount of time memorizing how to read and write, there is something to be suggested about what this may mean for the vast majority of those who are illiterate. There is pinyin, but who knows. This is for the people there to decide. I’m a pro-alphabet kind of gal. Alphabets warm my literate heart and Korean, I’ll be blunt, has an awesome easy alphabet that anyone can memorize really quickly. There’s none of that silent E nonsense in a Korean alphabet. I’m for ease with reading. This is not possible with Chinese.

Tiger cubs. During the time I was there was this huge uproar about the Tiger parent mentality which I think in retrospect, is nothing short of shallow and limited. I’m for knowledge acquisition and curiosity, but there is a direct link here to saving face and I’m not a big fan of that. I can understand how we all get roped into this as parents. But I admit my parenting really shifted, and far more so after the divorce. This Tiger stuff seems really silly and limited to me now. We all die. And so what. And then what. Blue ribbons do not stop you or your family members from death!

Oh, the opening about digging a hole to China. Back in the ancient days of oh, the 1970s, people would make jokes, like oh, you are digging a hole to China! Gosh darn that is hilarious…hahaha. Golly, that hole is so deep! The phrase worked for the poem, I thought. I like there to be a light heartedness at times.

Regarding ashes and falling down, I thought about the nursery rhyme ring around a rosy which has to do with the Black Plague and has nothing to do with gardening, but somehow the garden did become connected to death or an end. Because in the end you might have an edifice or a symbol, like a garden, but it means absolutely nothing if there is nothing inside of the edifice. These material symbols are simply that–very temporary. Don’t want to get all Ozymandias on you, but monuments, buildings, stuff that is material is temporal. I repeat: WE. ALL. DIE.

The building of the wall involved borrowing money and then trying to get someone in the village who would build it given the village headman’s control over the building works. Like many places in the world, there are a few people with a monopoly who then control the market and make it very difficult for construction to proceed. I made friends with the parent of my child’s friend who was then married to a man who was unafraid of building the wall without the consent of this village headman. This village headman was really a pain and not a nice person. I don’t believe that anyone really likes him. He’s still the headman. How can you recognize him? He wears big glasses and adapted a Bruce Lee haircut for awhile. He also biked around with an umbrella in the sun, rather Victorian, and given he was super tan it looked a little weird, what can I say? The main thing is that most people didn’t like him. So I got introduced to my kid’s friend’s dad Big Black Boss. BBB worked with another man Uncle Pork Chop. Uncle Pork Chop and Big Black Boss got the job done. When a few kids laughed at the name Uncle Pork Chop my kid got really pissed off. Uncle Pork Chop also got skinny during the time we knew him so the name didn’t fit after awhile. To conclude, the wall got built.Yet while the wall was raised, nearly everything regarding the interior of what was inside the wall and house was falling, crumbling or collapsing.

And what was it that was being attempted by trying to erect a wall? Staking a claim to permanence? Protection? Money? A nice house and a garden mean nothing if there is nothing to hold the center. The garden became a fanatical obsession for my ex who would spend the entire weekend sifting through the sand cleaning it out for any particles of glass or garbage. It was supposed to be because the garden was an investment–like the house. Everything got boiled down to money. It was more than an action to save money, it was really an arena to exert control.

When my child was small he would attempt to go out into the heat and dig for awhile, imitating his father. Later, he would watch from inside the glass window. It was painfully isolating and the remembrance of this is very stark. The Kid and I would sit inside most of the day, the two of us, in what was a kind of forced togetherness because in reality, we were trapped in the house while the ex worked on the garden with absolutely no interest in what we were doing inside at all. My son was told his father wanted to spend time with him, but truthfully, he spent most of the weekend watching his father from the glass window. When you are a young child you do not want to garden. You want to pretend you are a superhero and maybe do about 10 minutes of gardening, but definitely not with an adult who yells if you are messing anything up.

Myself, I was bored out of my skull and had zilch interest in gardening in the heat with carpal tunnel. At one point I tried to discuss Voltaire’s idea of the garden and how myself and the child were actually the garden that needed tending, hoping that the text reference would kick in some kind of critical analysis about the situation, but to no avail. The end result was a beautiful garden, completed a few months before a terrible divorce.

Interestingly enough, now in Hawai’i I have been doing a bit of gardening. I do this because it is fun to see the plants grow. It’s not humid. It’s not about an investment. I don’t keep anyone hostage in my house and expect them to look at me while I garden lol. My carpal tunnel is better. So yes, the self was cast aside to build the wall in the past, but now, I realize, there are no walls.

Did you know that you get to call yourself a Great Man if you visit The Great Wall? It should be updated–Great Woman. And add to that if you manage to survive the building of any wall, you deserve the title.


Building The Great Wall


Selves were cast aside to build

The Great Wall.

Boulder after boulder, year after year.

Digging a hole to China killed us.

Nuance foiled. Poetry lost.

Foul water gallon gulped.


Unearthed: a pig’s head, a bicycle,

the rubble of new lives.

Dollars grabbed on bruised knees.

Foreign bodies.

Poison shot through our veins.

We screamed. Our child wept.

The doctor said, it was no emergency,

we had air conditioning.


Great Walls rise on sorrow’s wrinkles,

tiger cub egos, pictogram drama.


An emperor’s whim.

Climb to be a Great Man?

For what does a Woman ascend?

Astronauts spoke, myths remain:

The Great Wall snakes before the moon.


A Middle Kingdom center never holds.

Great walls are sandy tombs.

Extinction a Disney sea

of pink dolphins, a lost phoenix

with shellacked wings.

Sailors fear the pancake edge.

Barbarians lurk behind the wall.


Yet Great Wall desires scale link by link.

Sewage lines yield smoggy fevers,

frangipani strokes our cheeks,

connects pipes to dreams,

and the corpse rot of papayas.

We watch passionfruit ripen

as purple stabs our hearts.

A trick, a brick, a boulder, a trap.

We crumble, tumble to our ashen end.

Buried in greatness, we all fall down.