203 West 107th Street

In front of our building on 107th Street.

I lived on 107th street with my parents until 1992. We were the only Koreans on our block. Where were the others?

I am reading Louise Bogan’s bio again, connecting with the turmoil of her young life. She recalls her mother as being unhappy and ready to take it out on her family. Her mother had relations with other men while exacting inappropriate feelings from her son. I understand being raised by a mother mired in an unrequited life, but I wish I could extricate myself from her long tail of dissatisfaction and chaos.

When the bare eyes were before me

And the hissing hair,

Held up at a window, seen through a door.

The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead

Formed in the air.

–excerpted from Medusa by Louise Bogan

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

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

 

I Am Four

I am a teacher of four year olds.  It has been my favorite age to teach ever since I started on the early childhood path, as far back to 1987 when I started as an intern at the Columbia Greenhouse Nursery School.

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Happy Birthday Jiwon

Our body holds memories of what happened to us when we were young, albeit some are murky and forget about chronological order.  But they are evidence of what we were going through at the time.   Living with my aunt and uncle, I felt powerless and lonely for my parents,  and though my cousins tried to comfort me, it was not enough.

Even as a little kid you know you’ve got little power to change your circumstances and that’s what really sticks in your craw, and what you remember most about being a child.

 

My life suffocates
Planting seeds of hate
I’ve loved, turned to hate
Trapped far beyond my fate

–Excerpted from “Harvester of Sorrow” by Metallica

 

 

 

 

 

Did You Eat?

One of the Korean things I learned was to ask my boyfriend if he’d eaten lunch.

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Bon apetit ca 1972

When I lived in Seoul during the early 2000’s, I dated some and learned the endearing custom of asking your significant one if they’d eaten lunch.  It’s a kissing cousin to the American “Did you eat yet?”

My boyfriend is good at making lunch so when I’m home I know I will eat lunch.  At work?  Not so much.   It’s a comfort and joy to have someone concerned about your eating habits.  There are so many people who aren’t as lucky.

“Did you eat yet?”

 

Thirst is angry at water.  Hunger, bitter

with bread.  The cave wants nothing to do

with the sun.  This is dumb, the self-

defeating way we’ve been.

––excerpted from “The Self We Share” by Rumi

 

 

 

Where Did We Go?

I don’t remember a lot of trips taken as a kid.  But I know we went to Niagara Falls.

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Niagara Falls, 1977

We drove up in a car and when we got there I puked in a paper bag.  I remember that it was from eating a whole lot of cheese doodles.

I had a feeling when I was young that we didn’t do things that other families did.  My friends who were white seemed to be always going on “vacation”.  It seemed like only white people could go on vacation.   They had the time and the money.

And when I got older, I made it a point to be going somewhere, it was a case of ABV––Always Be Vacationing.   But sometimes you end up in places that make no sense.

 

SUBTERFUGE & DNA

by Jiwon Choi

The whitest girl I ever knew

came from Concord, New Hampshire

she played violin, kept her hair boy short

and wore ear plugs to bed

––the one time my boyfriend came to visit

she really needed them

I went home with her one weekend

and met her family

over baked chicken and green beans I fielded questions

about my parents—what kind of work were they in?

I didn’t answer that their profession was dysfunction

I told my stories instead:

(as my parents’ only child I am good at subterfuge)

they’re in “sales” (not hyper-depressed immigrants moaning

in a dark room)

we vacation in Niagara Falls (one time when I was seven

and I threw up a whole bag of Cheese Doodles when we got there)

and our dishes aren’t all busted up (the Laura Ashley bowls were

the first to go––smashed against the wall)

Before bed while brushing my teeth, I find the diaphragm

on the bathroom sink and the ear plugs make sense.

 

 

 

 

Old Ladies

My Old Ladies have become my inheritance.

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On Classon Avenue

As a youngster I didn’t think about how I was on the road to old ladyhood the minute I came out of my mother’s uterus.

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Still on Classon

The “good night” that Dylan Thomas was writing about is some serious shit.  I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I am afraid of dying.  I know I am dying.

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Three Hats on the go

What the fuck.

Another summer gone, the hills burned to burdock and
thistle, I hold you a moment in the cup of my voice,
you flutter in the frail cave of the finch, you lean to speak
in my ear and the first rains blow you away.
–Philip Levine