My father used to be a dentist in Korea.
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 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 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
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”