Posts by jiwonny

Jiwon Choi is an early childhood educator, poet, and urban gardener. She is dedicated to making and eating her own Korean food, and published her first collection of poetry, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, last year.

Put Your Game Face On

Constructing identity via found objects. Does that sound like your life?

Your face reveals so much: What is my face saying to you?

The work to create your own sense of self that does not rely on other peoples’ ideals and ideas of you is tricky. How do you tell your own story of your vibrancy, agency and boldness without getting mixed up in stereotypes and misinformation?

Note: this DIY face portrait exploration is an ongoing project I am doing with my class of four year olds. We gather appealing found objects aka loose parts, draw and cut out our face shape, and then arrange the objects on our face canvas to create a portrait of ourselves. No glue needed.

Start with a canvas of your own making and then build from there…

I Used to Be Korean

Me and mom (circa 1974) taken at the Rudy Castilla Photo Studio

I forget that my mom used to perm my hair when I was little. She might have done it especially for this photo, taken at a real life studio across the street from our old apartment building on 107th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

The last time I tried to perm my hair, I might have been in college and realized just how straight my hair was because there was barely a ripple in it when I was done with all the rigamarole.

I have long ago come to terms with my long, straight, black hair, and I thank my ancestors for their generous gift every day.

Leaving Time

I am stuck in time. I am out of time. I am nothing but time. Kimpo Airport circa 1971.

The year we left Korea for America, my parents were counting on things being better in the West. Korea was twenty years out of war when we left, but the economic troubles flattened out a lot of families. I look at me at barely three here and know we were also one of those flattened families despite having taken a plane to the “promised land.”

I did not have the same urge for going that captivated my mother. I know she was doing her best for her family when she relocated us, but I wonder at all the things that were lost. I was listening to some guy on the radio bulldog-ishly say his father would tell people over thirty to stop opining their childhood. Of course, his father doesn’t know what he’s talking about while, at the same time, he probably does. But it’s not up to anyone to tell us when to get over our crap. Plus our crap is what fuels our creative energies. I know my muse is not some angel in gossamer, no offense to Clio, but my muse is a bloody, hairy stump under my bed.

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in weakened broth

— from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab-Nye

But I Don’t Want To Let Them Down

Last month I was in the hospital a lot.  Not for myself, but for my Old Ladies.  Not because they had covid-19 at the time, but one for sepsis and the other who was refusing to swallow.

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Old Ladies: Aunt & Mother ca 1970’s

The Old Lady refusing to swallow was my mother who after two weeks of getting fed through a nasal gastric tube had to have a feeding tube put in.  The refusing to swallow apparently is a symptom of dementia.  The other Old Lady, my aunt, is back in the nursing home and seems to be beating the odds (this is where I knock on wood).  The nursing home where my aunt resides is reporting six deaths due to the virus, but from what I can tell from our Facetime chats, she has not succumbed to it.

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Xmas 2013

I am not sure how long I can keep from succumbing to a dementia of my own.  A dementia brought on by the stress of making life-changing decisions for other people on top of the guilt that has been gnawing away at me since I took over the Old Ladies’ care back in 2011.

But I don’t want to let them down.

 

There are people who I know are dead

and people I suppose are dead

and people who I fear are dead

and dead people long forgotten

and dead people who never leave

excerpted from “There Are People Who I Know Are Dead”

by Robert Hershon

 

 

Go Back To Your Country

My father used to be a dentist in Korea.

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Cocktail party (my dad is the dude second from right) 

I remember my father telling me there was a conspiracy against him getting licensed to be a dentist in the U.S. and I thought he was crazy.  But the more I understand of the seventies and immigrant discrimination, I don’t think he was crazy.  Do I have proof that New York University conspired to keep my dad from passing his exams and getting his license to practice?  Not exactly.  But maybe the truth is somewhere in between conspiracy and institutional xenophobia.

We got to NYC when Nixon was still in office and the war in Vietnam was alive and well.  Enter us Korean immigrants into this mix for one fucked up cocktail of Yellow Peril and xenophobia.

I wish my dad would have returned to Korea way sooner than he did.  He could have just returned to his dentist life and my mom could have stayed in New York.   What did she thnk she was going to find in America?  I wonder if the allure of America is just a gimmick.  A trick to bring in the gullible.   Perhaps it’s not an equitable promise for all who heed her siren song?

Amidst the racist rants of “Go back to your country,” I sometimes wish we had.

we, the living

have this compulsion

to walk backwards into the past

as if the past has been waiting all this time

at the kitchen table

for our return

but the past has things to do

a forever schedule of sorting and erasing memories

for how quickly they get hoarded

and become the present

if you’re not careful

–excerpted from “Forever Schedule”  by Jiwon Choi

 

Of Books & Shelves

I don’t consider myself a person of a giddy nature.  By now, I am of a pretty hearty nature, reasonably practical and sane (though can dabble in whim and fancy on occasion, prone to candy shopping and kitty Instagramming).

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At the Strand, October 2019

But seeing my first book of poems on the shelves of the Strand was a thrill.

Continue reading →

Skill, Will And Practice

I have been making literary products since my twenties.  Though I started writing poetry in elementary school, it wasn’t because I was engaging in a commercial enterprise.  I was writing these pieces because I wanted to make something.  I wanted to create.  Did I know back then that I was engaging in art making?  I think I knew.

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Hands create

Certainly I’d not thought to call poems “literary products” during all my years of writing,  but that’s exactly what they are, especially when you take the next step of trying to get them published in print or online.   This is my currency as a poet.

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Scarf 2012

I have been on chapbook and/or full manuscript duty for some years now.  My first book of poems took about five years to put together and I’ve been on this road since.  The mechanics of putting together a book is mysterious even though I’ve done it before.

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My aunt kniiting in the Bronx, 2012

If I were knitting or crocheting a scarf I could say the stitches are the foundation and you could say the loose pages of poems are the bones of your manuscript.  This is a fair analogy.   Though I haven’t picked up my knitting needles in some years, when I did I knew where the craft came from: a combo of skill, will and practice.  But is that all there is?  No hocus pocus from up high or down below?

I’ve been working on my second book of poems for over a year with a current chapbook on the side.  It would be more romantic to say that Athena shot me with her arrow of war power, but I won’t know until I finish the book.

 

Did I mention

I was borne from the ashes

of the Old World

honor and blood

was my civilization

my small nation

a kingdom of big egos

even our bastards

are royal…

–excerpted from “I Used to Be Korean” by Jiwon Choi