Friendly Advice

how long will this go on
hold my taco 
i have to call my mother
she was expecting me for dinner
but i got on this bus
and we're just lingering on this street
that is on fire
did we go to hell? 
Los Angeles, 1992. (Over your dead body)

”People in L.A. are now very aware that there’s another part of town than the West Side or the Hollywood Hills, even if it’s a part they don’t understand or are afraid of,” said Joel Kotkin, a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy in Malibu. ”If there’s a positive to come out of the riots, it’s that we understand there’s a problem.”

”Now, it’s O.K.,” said Seung Choi, owner of the Korean Soup restaurant in the mall, who recalls the ”terrible, really scary” days of April 1992. ”But business never came back up.”

”When that day happened, it made it much worse for us,” said Pam Gray, who is now the first assistant manager of a new Parts USA auto parts store built by the Pep Boys chain at Florence and Normandie as part of the recovery effort; five years ago she was nursing a newborn baby. ”You had to drive a million miles to get to a grocery store.”

”On a collective basis, I’m not sure our city has heeded the lessons very well,” said John Mack, the head of the Los Angeles branch of the Urban League. ”There are some individual, spectacular examples of progress. But there’s been too much of a tendency to make it a spectator sport.

”L.A. can become America’s Bosnia, or it can become America’s example in democracy. We’ve all got to extend ourselves a little.”

–excerpted from the NY Times article, “Legacy of Los Angeles Riots: Divisions Amid the Renewal” by Todd S. Purdum, April 27, 1997.

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

I Write, Therefore I am Korean

My second book, out now from Hanging Loose Press

My first book, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, took me about five years to put together. This second book, I Used To Be Korean, took a little bit less time. But, golly gee, book writing just takes a long time, huh?

I wonder at how people put out all their volumes and collections. I am amazed at the speed of their output and it brings me to wonder about my snail’s pace. I do honor and respect my output for what it is: I am a preschool teacher who up ’til last July was trying to take care of my Old Ladies. But they are both gone now and “every day is like Sunday; every day is silent and gray.” That should leave me more time to write, you say? Well, in theory, yes it should. But it’s not working out that way.

I think about Harley Elliott, a poet whom I trust to set me straight on the way of our finite human condition. I do mean the way we deal with being alive and how we make the most of our time on earth. Harley has published 11 books of poetry with two books out in 2020!: The Mercy of Distance (Hanging Loose Press) and Creature Way (Spartan Press) so he must know about finding the way to more writing.

I think of Bob Hershon who wrote about fifteen books throughout his writing life. His work is a body of knowledge connoting confidence, a savvy outlook on life with little second guessing. I admire that kind of knowing. Bob’s way of seeing the world. You may not be born with it, but it can be borne within you. It’s been almost two weeks since Bob passed and I am just coming to terms with knowing that we won’t be hanging out in his backyard, sipping on reasonably priced wine whilst ducking wayward acorns from those sassy Boerum Hill squirrels.

I know I will honor his memory and legacy by writing as much poetry as I can.

In memorium, Bob Hershon, poet, publisher, friend and eternal student of the School of Keep On Keeping On:

A Bad Dinner

by Bob Hershon

They gave me a bad dinner, not to make me a stranger
–Betsy Sheridan’s journal

They pelted me with rocks, not to take their love as my due

They burned my poems and papers, not to permit my self-love to

mount

They denounced me to the FBI, so I would not grow smug, in

comfort

and take their good will as a given

They pulled out my eyelashes, so I would not blink in amazment

They blew their noses in my socks, so I would not strut

They carved my name on a headstone, not to forget that I was

one of theirs, and they begin to carve the dates

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.

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.

persimmon

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

 

 

 

 

 

Resilience

My mother grew up during the war.  She was 13 when Chinese communists and Korean dis-loyalists colluded a hostile takeover of her homeland.

Korean War People

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.

mom & me

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

 

 

 

 

 

Did You Eat?

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

lunch-e1536589782531.jpg

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