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
One of the Korean things I learned was to ask my boyfriend if he’d eaten lunch.
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
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
I had a family in Korea. I had roots.
I wasn’t always alone as I am now.
I had a family
My parents left Korea in the early seventies and I am sorry for that. I wish I could have grown up with my big extended family and lived an uncomplicated life as a regular Korean person.
And then there was two
As a displaced person, I worked to extend my dysfunctional nuclear family to include the friends I managed to keep. And it was a smart thing to do because life is a better time when you are connected to good people.
But I’ll always have my Old Ladies.
it was still
where it had all begun.
––excerpted from “A Feeling” by Robert Creeley
Find order in the universe.
What to order?
I was an expat in Korea for some three years. I was there to visit my parents who’d gone back in 1997. When I got back to New York in 2005, one of my first stops was the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal.
My Own Private Idaho
I realized right quick that I needed to establish some traditons for myself: Oyster Bar & Noodletown.
The oyster of the world
The thing about being a displaced person is that you are caught up in a lot of other people’s stories with yours being put on the back burner. Living in Korea for the years that I lived there was both a challenge and a gift, but I knew I couldn’t stay forever.
Tradition: Singapore Mai Fun
I am sad about that. I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed, married a Korean guy, and set up house.
I’d probably be up in my ass with babies and laundry.
But then I wouldn’t have met this guy.
I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill – that lies –
I saw the sun – his plunder done
Crouch low to guard his prize.
––Emily Dickinson, “11”
Coming and going.
Last Day, September 1974
Here I am on the last day of living with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Seoul. I had been living with them after my parents emigrated to the US and decided to send me back when they realized they couldn’t take care of me and themselves at the same time.
This was the day I was leaving my favorite cousins and a life of being connected to my Korean skin.
How many times do I have to say “goodbye?”
Skin remembers how long the years grow
when the skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird…
––excerpted from “Two Countries” by Naomi Shihab Nye
I don’t know why I’m wearing gauchos with a blazer. This seems wrong.
Best dressed in Central Park
But no big surprise because the Seventies strikes me as being about misguided choices, especially the decision to emigrate to the US from my first home, Korea.
There are a bunch of old photos of me in a crowd of somber looking grown-ups at the airport. I am with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and there’s my grandmother who had already said so many goodbyes looking tired and dazed. She knew what was coming.
The Seventies were a hardship for my parents and they sent me back to live with one of my father’s older brothers who had three children. Maybe I could have just stayed on as his fourth. It seems a betrayal of sorts to say so, but my parents could not handle the burden of a child while trying to turn their Korean life into an American one.
You’d think I’d have written more poems about this time in my life by now, but I haven’t. It’s a dilemma for sure.
When you became American you watched that movie thinking you were Dorothy but no, you were the house torn from its foundation and the years you spent trying to fit in were the flying monkeys.
–– excerpted from “In Korean Years” by Jiwon Choi