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
I don’t remember a lot of trips taken as a kid. But I know we went to Niagara Falls.
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.
My Old Ladies have become my inheritance.
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.
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.
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.
I can barely go a day without having noodles. Can you?
Make mine noodle
I am full of noodles as I write this post. I had somen noodles for breakfast. I whooped it up with sesame oil, sesame leaf and kombu broth. And yesterday I had fettucini with artichokes and pine nuts at Quartino, a sweet little spot on Bleecker Street.
And more noodle
And the evening before we had a spot on spaghetti with meat sauce at home.
But I am an equal opportunity eater of noodles as I will consume instant noodles with just as much verve and pleasure. Treasure.
Dried kimchi flakes
I got this instant ramen bowl at a local bodega and was beguiled by the promise of kimchi. Well, it’s really kimchi “flakes” for what it’s worth. But I slurped that shit up like there was no tomorrow.
My DNA is noodle.
Noodles with Sesame Leaf
1 bunch somen noodles
3 sesame leaves, julienned
2 cups broth (dashi or anchovy)
- Fix noodles as directed, al dente.
- When noodles are done, pour hot broth over the noodles.
- Add sesame leaves and add soy sauce, sesame oil and sesame seeds to taste.
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
Louise Glück wrote that the “woman’s body is a grave.”
The Animal of Truth
You’ll get no arguments from me.
I’ve been watching my aunt sink ever more into it.
In this light
I can see the animal of truth
unleashing equal parts delirium
What can Time take
that you have not already
let go? Sight, sound, taste
returned to the next in line.
How expert you have become
in looking into the space
behind your eyes.
— “Animal of Truth” by Jiwon Choi
For some seasons now, I’ve been saving zinnia seeds to sow the next year. I can’t believe how a tiny seed can hold this wealth of beauty and grace.
Always looking ahead
Though I am a just one gardener growing on a very small scale, I claim my right to collect and save seeds so that I can play a part in crop biodiversity, and to keep the seed free. I don’t mean “free” in terms of I’m giving them away, but free from corporate control, free from copyrighting and patenting like how Monsanto does.
Mother of zinnias
And the question of seed sovereignty and control is one that we urban gardeners can answer. The practice of seed collecting has been around ever since humans could identify what a seed was, and for the agribusiness goliaths to make it a crime for small farmers to keep their own seed is criminal.
The life force of the seed is the life force of the people, and when big companies take that away from us, they are essentially killing us.
In 1995, Indian Agriculture was reoriented from being focused on National Food Security, which rests on the livelihood and ecological security of our small farmers, to being focussed on corporate control and corporate profits, which are made possible by the corporate written rules of “free” trade, trade liberalization, and globalization. Enabled by these rules, agrichemical giants entered India and started to control the seed sector. Where once farmers grew, saved, and replanted seeds, they were now forced to buy seed-chemical packages that allowed companies to extract super-profits from farmers through royalty collection.
–Dr. Vandana Shiva, April, 24, 1995
And since 1995, almost 300,000 farmers in India have committed suicide.
Live seed or die.
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