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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.

Buried.

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.

Slavery?

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.

 

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

Writer’s Block (an excerpt from Write Your Divorce Story)

Writer’s Block

When my lawyer asked me to deliver the story in a few weeks I easily agreed, but when it came time to begin I procrastinated. I told anyone who asked that I was spending all day writing, but hours would pass and all I would have were a few hastily written words and doodling. I drank lots of coffee. I tried different pastries at a new cafe down the block. I listened to Oprah Winfrey podcasts. I watched YouTube self-help videos and every single one made sense to me, a clear sign that I was not listening to any of them. I scrolled through job postings. I didn’t write.

Writers call this writer’s block. Writer’s block translates into this: you would rather do anything other than write for any number of reasons. I think of writer’s block as a pause, a break prior to sitting down and writing. Anything can be accomplished in the stead of writing, but my personal favorite is dabbling in a myriad of small busy tasks and errands such as, oh, making sure that there are an even number of chopsticks in your kitchen drawer. The point is busyness, not completion. Instead of writing, I went for a month to high intensity training classes where I lifted sandbags and collapsed on a sweat-drenched stinky mat. My child observed me from the sidelines and told me I was the second worst person in class. I coped with my severely grieving child, wrote a book proposal (no sale), desperately looked for employment, planned an inter-island move, emptied the contents of my apartment, procured new housing, bought a car, shuttled the kid to lessons, and learned the rather complicated process of transporting rodents (pet guinea pig) in containers between islands. 

I spent considerable energy mitigating my soon-to-be-ex’s attempt to seize control of our jointly owned property thousands of miles away. I noted the lack of safety bars on my windows prior to his arrival to sign papers and pondered various arguments that might lead to an unexpected drop from an open window. Since divorce is a worst-case scenario, you think in such terms, and my anxiety refused to be quelled despite my counsel’s pragmatic take that my death would be inconvenient for my ex, and therefore unlikely. My Hong Kong lawyer repeatedly advised me to update paperwork to transfer my share of the home to my parents, so that in case of my death before the sale of my house my interest would be safeguarded for my child. He was quiet when I asked him why he advised it, and simply repeated his concern. He repeated it at least three times. Maybe four over the course of a week. Yet I could not muster up the energy to go through a title change. I was still reeling from the physical effects in the run-up to the final days before the divorce: strands of white hair appeared, my left hand could not stop shaking,  my eye seemed to permanently twitch, and insomnia was perpetual. I called my lawyer from a parking lot of a hiking trail about some paperwork issue, but was so frazzled I couldn’t track what he was saying, and asked him to repeat what he said at least three times before crying in the parking lot. He commented that I was not in the best mental state and that I would have to count on him to move everything forward and I agreed. I changed the locks, moved into my mother’s apartment, got a prescription for sleeping pills, and dropped to the skeletal weight I last claimed after a bad case of bronchitis in the run-up to my wedding. 

Was I writing? Nope. How could I write it? I was living the nightmare! Never mind writing about it! Why was I being asked to write this! What? This was worse than a dissertation! The story remained unwritten. Nothing was more unappealing than writing the narrative of how I got to this position of near-collapse. Days, then a few weeks passed. I would start, then stop. I was so bereft and adrift that I did not know how to begin to write what I knew even then, was the most significant story that I had lived in my adult life. How could I encapsulate my lived experience in mere words? How was I to possibly condense the most significant and turbulent relationship of my adult life into something manageable and readable?

An excerpt from WRITE YOUR DIVORCE STORY. This is a prescriptive non-fiction book designed to help you author your divorce story. You can use this for your legal file and/or your personal record. Write your truth to power and author your life. Register at drstephaniehan.com

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

How I Began Passing in the Middle Kingdom

I began writing what would become “Passing in the Middle Kingdom”, an unpublished poetry manuscript I started the summer of 2008 when I moved to Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong from Los Angeles. The manuscript was a finalist for the Wilder Prize and most of the pieces have been published in various drafts. It is a very clear document of the collapse of my marriage, the longing for clarity, the fatigue and joy of early motherhood, and the desire for home and belonging.

At the same time I wrote the poems I had kept a blog. The blog became quite popular showcasing a bucolic lifestyle that seemed strange for people to have in Hong Kong. Blogging was new back then. The blog was a marked contrast to my poetry. We are always more than one side. I think of it as the simultaneity of joy and sorrow. The wicked hope for deliverance. Those early days in Mui Wo were a time of turmoil and indecision. I was hopeful that life would unfold in a way that I see now, is most ordinary, but also for many, including myself, terribly elusive.

The poems came from a place of uncertainty and hesitation, a moving into a foreign space both literally and emotionally of motherhood, marriage, and Hong Kong, and the very real necessities of compromise, self, and longing. While I consider myself to be fiercely devoted to narrative and fiction, it is always to poetry, and its somewhat fluid space that I return when I have no words to express my feelings. Poetry clarifies surface ambivalence to reveal the ferocity of who we are and how we dream. Poetry is highly subjective, very much dictated by personal experience in what we cleave to in terms of style and reading preferences.

I wrote this manuscript when I doubted my very existence as a writer. I wrote this after I declared I would quit writing. I wrote because I could not stop writing.

My child was about 15 months and not yet walking when I showed up in this small village off the South China Sea. I had lived in Hong Kong prior and was very reluctant to return. I wanted an oven. I didn’t want to live in a high rise. I also got seasick from ferries so didn’t want to live on the Outer Islands, but with an oven and no high rise that was two out of three, and I learned all sorts of ways of battling seasickness and came to ride the ferry into town with relative ease.

My father accompanied me to Hong Kong, and after a few days of wandering the village, translating the Chinese characters and nodding at the scenery left me with this advice: “Keep writing. Your child will leave you. All children leave.”

As my father pulled out in a taxi to head to the airport, I could see the barest expression of worry on his face. He had escaped the postwar blight of Korea and had succeeded at every turn. He had a research career, chaired a division, provided for his family, and lived out his Confucian obligations. For what! His own American born daughter, given every privilege in the world had angrily rebelled against absolutely everything and had nothing to show for it except life in a small flat in a rural village with water buffalo ambling down the path and a spouse who had barely made a living in the US! America! Nightmare! I cried when Dad went and then there was me and the keyboard, and so life began in Luk Tei Tong, Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong. Such is the tale of migration and family.

This piece “Expatriate”  was written after we had moved to a new house in Sun Lung Wai. I had started my doctoral studies. I had made an uneasy peace that I would be spending my life in Hong Kong. I felt extremely isolated. I was not an Asian language speaker and on my mother’s side, was far more deeply rooted in the West Coast and Hawai’i. I was Korean, not Chinese and the cultural differences between the two are wide. My appearance suggested fluency in an Asian language–I had none. I was an Asian woman married to a white British man and with this were a host of assumptions–mostly, that I had elevated my social being by marrying someone white. I found this offensive. I wasn’t a banker and wasn’t much of a shopper. My sister once said she hated going into malls with me because I start to act weird, and for the most part, she’s right. I’m not my best self in a mall. If I get too absorbed in the dynamic my breath can even become short, I get lost staring, what starts as a 15 minute journey ends up being hours long and I become overwhelmed. There are many malls in HK, but luckily for me, there were no malls in Mui Wo.

On this day of the poem I distinctly remember my son was wearing his preschool shirt from the local village school. We were walking with a helper, one of the many Filipina and Indonesian women that serve as the engine for Hong Kong’s middle class households with their labor and time. My son hated going to Chinese school, though to some degree, he got through a few years. When they announced exams for those who were age 5  it was time for him to be pulled out! I thought he would spend his entire life in Hong Kong. He moved West at the age of eight, although Hawai’i is arguably not what people conceive of as the West at all. And so, another generation of migrants in my family. The truth is now he will look back and search, not for the land I had left behind–the US, but the land he left behind–Hong Kong.

Within this idea of home was the memory of the cornfields, seas of them, going on and on. I spent seven years as a child living outside of Iowa City where I went to church, looked up at the stars, and wished for nothing to change, so aware, as young children are, of death and inevitable loss. Anyone who thinks young children don’t think about death has not spent much time with young people.

I have never lived in Hawai’i permanently before I relocated part-time in 2015, full-time in 2018. It is where my mother’s family landed in 1904 and yes, it is now home.

 

Expatriate

I amble up the path,

follow a beauty crinkled by a jealous sun.

She pushes a cart of pried up puzzle pieces,

grows rubber trees, dreams of birds’ nest towers,

and money pouring into golden cups.

I close my eyes to palm trees, smell the green.

The day’s heat stalks.

 

A flash: cornfield carpets,

gray barns praying to cerulean skies.

Heavens split: pearly clouds stream a god

I abandoned the further I moved from home.

 

My child scales piles of rubble:

Careful. Watch the cart!

I remind him snakes lurk beneath trash.

He bounds ahead, fast-fast

to the only home he knows,

a village I made his world.

 

One day he will search

for a land to belong to,

in quest to discover

all known and left behind—

a place, pencil mark, country,

a dream existing

only in the memory of why.

 

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

grateful, I am

I don’t always fill out the ole Panda Journal, but I like to kick off my day with a bit of thinking about the good stuff. I got these Panda journals for myself and The Kid. For a minute we both did them. I’d say, “Hey, let’s Panda this morning.” But now, alas, it’s just me. Anyway, I realize I had done self-talk like this on and off during my life. But what divorce taught me was that there’s a lot to be grateful for. I will always remember the ways that people helped out and remain very grateful for this.

You are burning to the ground when you divorce–your entire life turns to ash. You cannot do anything about this destruction emotionally, in the sense that you have to accept this death of who you were.

What I learned is that you can rebuild and you do this by thinking about what’s great in life. I’ll be honest. It’s pretty easy to be thankful where I live now, even if I am aware that yes, this is the place with the highest cost of living and the lowest wages.

Because I wake up thinking the air I breathe is CLEAN. The water is CLEAN. If you think that’s ridiculous you never lived in a polluted place before! Those two things are enough to get me started. Be grateful and thankful. It can shift your mood. Try it!

 

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

Write Your Divorce Story and Stand Up Now

Aloha,

This is me three years ago. I had boarded a plane from Hong Kong utterly shattered. In fact, I had missed my layover flight from Seoul to the US despite being right at the gate — they were calling my name over and over on the loudspeaker (I found out later) and I was on the phone completely thrashed and talking to a friend and didn’t hear anything. I had to spend the night in the airport. Everything was shut. I finally found the overnite hotel there and checked in for about 5 hours. I took this picture when I got on the plane and sent it to my mom saying, “Mom, I deserve more out of life.”

I landed in Hawai’i, called around and talked to a few lawyers and my ex was served papers when he stepped off the plane about a month later.

FLASH FORWARD

This is me a few weeks ago. I just got out of the water near Waikiki. Three years is a lifetime.

If you would have told me I would feel this good back then, I would never have believed you. I am not the same person. I went through a massive transition. One of my old friends said that obviously, my entire system got rewired when I divorced and she was right. I really do like my life so very much.

Life is not problem free, but the big problem (the ex) is GONE. And I came to see that he was, in fact, the physical real-life manifestation of my doubt, fear, insecurity, and anxiety. I had married my nemesis. Yep.

Worries do come up. Like about 3 months ago I was worried. OH no, the Kid XYZ. My business XYZ. My family XYZ. Will I…Should I…Will I…

You know once you start that train of doubt it gets really crazy.

SNAP OUT OF IT

Then I thought about it very deeply and said this: STEPH SNAP OUT OF IT.

And weirdly, I did within a day or two. Why?

Because the person who would keep Steph in that old zone of bad vibes and fear is no longer around!

YOU GOT THIS

So I said to myself: STEPH, YOU GOT THIS. No need to feel that doubt because why should you? The person who exemplified doubt and made you feel it every second of the day is no longer around.

I stopped doubting.

STAND UP NOW

This kind of bossing myself around worked really well when I went out surfing because I was just trying to stand up and hesitated and then I yelled out to myself: STAND UP NOW!

And then I stood up!

There are days when I am just thinking WOW. I feel awesome. Because for the most part, I do. I am not going back to that old picture ever again. EVER. I realized over the past year that what started this change was not simply the divorce itself legally, but it was rewriting my narrative and writing down the story of what I believed. When you write your truth to power you change your life.

Inserting my story in my legal file affected all aspects of my divorce process, most importantly, my emotional well-being.

#writeyourdivorce #drstephaniehan #womanwarriorwriter

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~empowering women through narrative~

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