Categories
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 Divorce Hawai'i Health Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Self-help Woman. Warrior. Writer.

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.

 

Dream:

a journey down a silken road tropic solitude

walks in cold forests

slow, slow.

Poetry.

 

Truth:

long commutes, silent returns

a chase that devours.

Back to back

fast, fast.

Money.

 

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.

 

Categories
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.

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

CUT THE CORD

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

interior.

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

Categories
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.
Categories
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.