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.
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
My mother grew up during the war. She was 13 when Chinese communists and Korean dis-loyalists colluded a hostile takeover of her homeland.
After war (AP archives)
After having to leave the north where she was born, she never saw her home again. She never really talked about it, but I don’t think she knew what happened to her parents. And many of her siblings perished and were lost from her.
I remember mama
I didn’t grow up in war directly, but I was privy to the damage that it caused my mother as the pain and anger weeped out of her.
As a Korean child of Korean immigrants, I have conflicted feelings towards the Chinese and Japanese (along with the despot Kims of the North). And I have trust issues with white Americans, too. These conniving powers hell bent on destroying a small nation that just wanted to be left alone.
But what a phoenix Korea turned out to be: from the ashes born a creature of resilience and determination. Yes, we are.
War, illness and famine will make you their favorite grandchild.
You’ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie.
You’ll chop onions and pieces of your heart
into the same hot skillet.
Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope.
Your husband will kiss your breasts every night
as if they were two gravestones.
––excperted from “What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl” by Charles Simic
How badass my grandmother had to be to live her life.
Jiwon and Grandma, 1972
There were so many goodbyes in her lifetime: Loss of children, husband, and home.
My father’s mother
She had grit galore. The notion of “grit” has become trendy in these recent years, but really it’s what we’ve had to have in order to live through shit. Like a war. Sorry, you don’t get to claim you have grit until you’ve had to overcome bad shit.
What grit looks like
If you are claiming you have grit because you got over breaking up with your lover, losing your favorite shirt or not getting invited to brunch, let’s find another word for you: Oh I know, how’s about “pettifogging”?
and please not another sob story
about your dog, pony or wife…
it’s time you learned to grin
and bear it
-––excerpted from “Koreans in Proverbs: Expect a Petulant God” by Jiwon Choi
It’s not like I miss it that much, but it’s the only home I know.
Up on 107th Street
Our block had a catholic church on it with a statue of the Virgin out front. I went to the adjacent catholic school for a year. Could have been first grade. My uniform was burgundy and white, I think. I remember knee-high socks were involved. Not to mention the nuns and their rulers.
It wasn’t the hairiest block by far––ghetto light vs. ghetto heavy? One time there was a fire across the street in my friend’s building. The orange fire seemed to go all the way up to the night sky.
Years later I would read a NY Times article listing my block as one of the worst. That’s according to the police. I guess they would know.
Homes where children live exude a pleasant rumpledness,
like a bed made by a child, or a yard littered with balloons.
To be a child again one would need to shed details
till the heart found itself dressed in the coat with a hood.
Now the heart has taken on gloves and mufflers,
the heart never goes outside to find something to “do.”
And the house takes on a new face, dignified.
––excperted from “Where Children Live” by Naomi Shihab Nye