Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas 2014

My year began in an underheated house several of us had taken on as a major renovation project—a beautiful, sprawling, turn of the century multi-family building. We awoke in rooms where our breath visibly hung in the air, and we reluctantly hauled ourselves out from under our 3-4 blankets and hot water bottles. Somehow we made it through the record-breaking cold of Detroit winter, despite the physical, mental and emotional toll.

Surely our ideology helped us survive, as we carried on the mission of New Work, striving to create a sustainable community and meaningful livelihoods. We shared meals, lots of music, yoga, capoeira, community brunches and potlucks, and neighborhood association meetings.

Spring exploded into gardens, and with lots of support, we built a large garden on Field Street. It was across the street from our neighborhood matriarch, Ms. Grace Durr, and she would watch us work from her porch, let us carry buckets of water from her backyard spigot, and we would bring her whatever was ready to harvest that week—a handful of green beans, collards, broccoli. Little did we know that our beloved Ms. Durr would pass away that Fall. It makes our garden that much sweeter to know that we gave her a bit of enjoyment and nourishment and a place of connection while she was alive. Ms. Durr’s quiet and steady strength touched several generations and many lives as she provided shelter and care and conversation and love from her home of decades on Field Street.

With the heat of summer, I moved on, and prepared for the next stage of my journey: Korea. I left Field Street for the first time since I’d arrived in Detroit in February 2013, and took a respite in Corktown’s historic Spaulding Court, where I enjoyed my fabulous roommates and neighbors, the abundant community garden, our neighbor Brother Nature Farm and baby Wren, and Meiko’s Thursday night food truck parties.

Meanwhile, I had been madly preparing for the next level of Iyengar Yoga teaching, and to my joy and relief, passed in August, to the Intermediate Junior III certification. Only a week or so after the test, we learned that our beloved teacher, Shri BKS Iyengar, Guruji, had passed away, at age 95.  All over the world, several generations of Iyengar teachers and students, as well as yoga practitioners of all traditions, grieved and honored the remarkable life of this most noble soul who revolutionized the teaching of this ancient art, science and philosophy. I am so honored to have been in his gracious presence, and the grieving and celebrating continue.

At the same time, Detroit’s beloved Grace Lee Boggs began to actively decline. After a lifetime of dedication to uplifting the human struggle and articulating visionary leadership, she prepared herself to move on. The community gathered to provide unconditional love and support. Thankfully, Grace is still with us and kicking, and we savor each day with her as she inches toward her 100th birthday in June.

On September 1, after years of planning, I finally made it to Korea. (You can read all about it in other blogposts.) To summarize, I devoted myself to many hours of study daily, in a most humble effort to regain my first language. I way underestimated how much time and energy this would take; I still feel like an ignoramus as soon as the conversation becomes  the least bit sophisticated. I also visited several alternative communities doing some fascinating work which I will detail in another letter, and met lots of artists and activists. I also offered what I knew of Iyengar Yoga to a community of eager students who have not had adequate opportunities within Korea to advance their studies. We bonded and appreciated each other deeply. Finally I got to reconnect with many family members, who collectively served as surrogate parents. And so, I am ending the year in Korea.

This was an awakening year on the American clock of the world, a year in which the brutality which is and always has been America was made abundantly clear to the entire world through the much publicized police slayings of unarmed black men: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, to name just a few. A Korean friend, lifelong activist Eugene Soh, took one look at the footage of Ferguson protests and observed, “This is not a police force—this is the militarization of the state.” After decades of dictatorships, Koreans know from military regimes, so they know one when they see one.

Our global current reality is that as circumstances become more extreme—more unemployment, more poverty, increasing gaps between rich and poor, shrinking natural resources—those in power will feel more threatened and become more violent. These circumstances require each of us to speak out, for if we do not, we will be co-opted into complicity with the status quo.

The bleakness of our times braces us like a cold but refreshing blast of winter air. It is what it is. Our minds can trick us (“the house is not actually on fire, it’s just a spark, we can contain it…”) but our bodies speak truth, our bodies know what is real. How will we respond to this reality?

Herein lies the hope of the New Year. The only hope, let’s face it. So, dear friends, what will you manifest in 2015? How will you respond to increasing militarization of America, to the ongoing sanctioned killing of black and brown bodies? What beautiful movements of resistance, survival, and healing will you enact this year? What will you grow? What will you create? What words and gestures will you use towards what end? I eagerly await your responses.

Meanwhile, I close with the observations of the great James Baldwin, whose writings are more relevant than ever these days: 

"The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen... Perhaps it can't be done without the poet, but it certainly can't be done without the people. The poet and the people get on generally very badly, and yet they need each other. The poet knows it sooner than the people do. The people usually know it after the poet is dead; but that's all right. The point is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world."

As we gather spiritual strength, hope, and faith in these (now shortening) winter nights,  let’s get on with the work. And may it be beautiful.

In love and struggle,

Sister Hong Gwi-Seok (Peggy Hong)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Black in Seoul: Love, Hate, and Objectification

Badass Yoga Nun hit the dance floor Saturday night. Every once in a while I need a good 2-4 hours of sweating on a dance floor to speed up my metabolic and metaphysical processes. In the wake of the Michael Brown trial in my solitary rage, I had been needing a physical outlet to vent—some pounding music and enough energy around me to support and inspire. I had not had an opportunity to dance in Korea, given the class and age segregation inherent in Confucianist Korea. Where is a 51 year-old yoga nun supposed to get her dance on? I’m told a lot of clubs not only have dress codes but also age caps—no one over 30!

Whatever….I decided to chance it at a queer-friendly party at a club in the foreigner district, Itaewon. Queer communities are more welcoming and less conservative as a rule, so I thought this might be the best setting to step out. On the other hand, I hadn’t been around White people in months and I immediately felt triggered. The armor I had been unconsciously shedding came back on, like the smoke that filled the basement bar.

Once inside, I had work to do. I stormed the dance floor like a banshee, unwilling to wait for the crowd to get drunk enough to dance. I was out there alone seemingly forever, old and unashamed, but eventually a few folks stepped up and sort of bounced mildly with drinks and cigarettes in hand.

Things got exciting when a spontaneous cipher began with a few gay Brown men voguing and a sister who joined them. Spectators whipped out their cameras and filmed the scene. I love ciphers for their unpredictability and the spirit of participatory democracy, but this one disturbed me after a while, because no one else was joining. It turned out to be a performance rather than a community dance-in. a racially charged exhibitionist/voyeur event.

In the wake of Michael Brown’s trial, a friend posted on Facebook, “If only white people loved Black people as much as they love Black culture.” To be Black in Korea is tough. In addition to a tradition of colorism and homogeneity among Koreans, there is an idolatry of White culture borne of an unhealthy relationship with the USA after more than a half century of occupation, and to Koreans, to be American means to be White. It seems Koreans have internalized some of the worst parts of White culture, based on mainstream media and a conservative military. And that equals both a fascination and a fear of Blackness.

Yet Black culture is highly sought out. African American hip-hop fills the airwaves here like it does all over the world, and I’ve connected with the African drumming and dance communities, as well as the Capoeira Angola community in Seoul. I’ve met artists from Burkina Faso, able to make a living here, performing and teaching, and hanging out with their Korean girlfriends. It all feels a little Josephine Baker-ish, and the long tradition of Black artists from Nina Simone to James Baldwin who left their homes to live where they could financially support themselves and live in a less overtly hostile environment.

On one hand, I love the universality of art and how it brings people together. On the other hand, I abhor exotification and cultural appropriation. This tension manifested on the dance floor, as the White and Asian crowd surrounded the Black dancers. Itaewon is also filled with Korean women in their microskirts hanging out with their White boyfriends. The interracial mingling goes beyond this trope, but this particular dynamic concerns me the most, because of the dominance of global whiteness and the fraught history of the USA in Korea. The walls of the Itaewon club flickered with videos of Black bodies—the less clothing the better, the air throbbed with Black voices, and now a cipher surrounding Black dancers.

Meanwhile, Michael Brown. And so many others whose names we may or may not learn, Brown and Black folks, victimized by systemic White supremacy.

What does it mean to love Black people, especially Black youth, especially Black male youth, and treasure them the way White culture treasures White youth? For those who claim to love Black people (“my best friend/boy or girl friend is ___”), how can you tell when you lapse into objectification, appropriation, and exotification of Black folks?

In America, we are Black or we are White. The extreme violence that surrounds us forces us to choose: we cannot be in-between. Society chooses for us, actually, and because Asians have been slaughtered in hate crimes just as African Americans have been, we are also Black. Think of Vincent Chin, Chai Vang, and just this month, Sao Lue Vang,

And yet, in Itaewon, are Koreans more White than Black? How does this manifest in how Koreans treat Blacks? How does this show up in how Koreans treat other Asians—the recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, their browner neighbors from sunnier countries?

May we Yellow and Brown folks embrace Blackness as a political, social, and cultural stance of solidarity. May we not idolize, idealize, exoticize, objectify, or exploit other people of color. May we love all our children and protect them from harm. May we link arms and stand together with fierce compassion. May we dance together on the sticky concrete dance floor in a basement bar in Seoul. May we shift the gaze from voyeur to participant. May we all take on the vulnerability and power of Michael Brown together.

Monday, November 24, 2014

한국어의 시: Poems in Korean

One of my goals has been to be able to write with ease in Korean--not just simple notes and emails but essays and poems as well. Here are my first Korean poems. I feel abashed about them unlike my English language poems that I dash off and toss onto this blog. They are very simple and somewhat child-like, and very earnest. I present them in both languages here, although the feelings and images and phrasings are strictly Korean, so the English translations may be somewhat awkward.

서울의 가을                                                                         

1호선을 타고 밤에 집에 올 때
한강이 나에게 말한다

지하철 안
뜨뜻한 자리가 나에게 말한다

나의 발밑에서 말한다

노랑잎이 머리에 떨어진다
“잘 다녀 왔니?”

모퉁이 가게 아저씨
아침마다 말없이 미소로
인사를 건네준다

어디를 가도
자꾸 들린다
“어서 돌아오세요 - 
우리는 널 기다리고 있었다”


나는 돌아왔다


riding the #1 line home at night
the han river speaks to me
“so, you’re back now”

on the subway
the heated seat says

wonmi mountain
under my feet, says
“come on over”

the gingko tree
drops yellow leaves on my head
“you’re back from your travels?”

the uncle at the corner store
wordlessly greets me every morning
“how are you?”
nodding his head

everywhere i go
i keep hearing
“welcome back -
we’ve been waiting for you”

i’m here

서울 사진 축제에서 

서울의 옛 모습이 담긴
낡은 사진들을 보고있다  
사람들은 지나가고
나는 사진들을 혼자서  
바라보고 있다 

여기 계시나요?
우리집이 어디로 사라졌을까요?

여기 서 있는 나도
나무 뒤로
아니면 군중 속으로 사라졌다

나는 사진 속에 여전히 남아 있다
아주 오랜 어느 옛날에


i am gazing
at old photos of seoul
people walk past me
i remain alone
still staring

are you here?
where has our house gone?

i’m here too
behind a tree
or vanished into a crowd

i remain in the picture
once upon a time long ago

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


The idea of a hometown always struck me as odd. Growing up in two different nations and having lived in five different states, no particular place felt like a definitive home. I’ve always prided myself on my adaptability, feeling like I’m a citizen of the world, who could make her home anywhere. I sometimes felt a bit jealous of folks like my former husband, who had an unflagging loyalty to his hometown, New York City, where he was born and raised. He longed to go back one day but I couldn’t really relate.

When meeting new people who asked me where I was from, I always answered, “I’m not from anywhere.” I explained that I was born in Korea, grew up in Hawaii, went to middle and high school in Western New York, and spent my adulthood in New York City, Nashville, Milwaukee, and now Detroit. “Are you from a military family?” folks ask. No, just the daughter of an ambitious professor who sought out the best research environments for his physiology experiments, and whose children also became un-rooted, free, detached.

But in my 51st year, it has changed. If you are my Facebook friend, you may have noticed some changes on my timeline. Maybe you don’t recognize my new (old) name, my birth name, which became my middle name when my parents moved us to Hawaii and gave us perky, all-American monikers. My last name is still “Hong,” pronounced with a long “o” as in “go,” but Korean-style, it precedes my given name, Gwi (“rare”)-Seok (“stone”).

But if you look further you may see that, for the first time, I have a hometown: Seoul.

Everywhere I go I feel like I’m with family. Sure, I’m still the oddball, spiky gray hair and crooked vintage glasses. I’ve failed to protect myself from the sun like the good ajumma I should be, so my face is dark and freckly. My clothes are fucka-mucka, raggedy-ass as always, and as soon as I open my mouth, people get confused. Nevertheless I am recognizably Korean, and people treat me as such.

In the USA, no matter where I go and how many decades I live there, I will always be regarded as an outsider. People will always approach me with the friendliest of intentions and ask me “where are you from?” silently implying, “and when are you going back?” Let’s face it: Asian in America = Foreign.

I feel like a bonobo who had been living among chimpanzees, having been separated from her colony, and having habituated to the new species, forgot what it meant to be a bonobo. I didn’t realize until now how I have had to brace myself all these years, protect myself from the next microaggression, bear a continual sense of unconscious inferiority, and feel like an outsider looking through a curtain which I could never completely lift.

Sure, I’ve been back to Korea for short spurts, and a slightly longer stint back in my college days, long before I was ready to take on the responsibility of being Korean. But not until now I did not call Seoul my home.

The concept of “hometown” is very important to Koreans. 고향, ko-hyang, is where you go for every holiday. One of the most beloved folk songs in Korea is about ko-hyang, and everytime my mother heard it, she would cry, after decades as a naturalized American citizen. My mother wanted to come back to Korea to retire in the countryside, and to die, but never did make it. Along with ko-hyang is “우리 나라,” Uri Nara, “our land,” which in English feels yucky and jingoistic, but in Korea, is spoken by all as a way of defining culture and history, the positive and the negative.

Psychologist Joy DeGruy tells a story about being in Lesotho, and speaking at a gathering (listen to the end of the full-length talk, 1:15:00). The audience was trying to understand the concept of being African-AMERICAN, when a woman from all the way in the back of the hall walked forward and stated, “I am from Lesotho. Lesotho is my home. Even if I am not living in Lesotho, Lesotho is still my home. You are African. You will always be African. Did you think we would forget you? We mourned Martin. we mourned Malcolm, right there beside you. You are African, 300 years from home. We just wondered when you would come back."

Is this ko-hyang that I have been missing all these years? Is this the restlessness I have felt my entire life? Is this what has been burning in me and driving me to create? To make poems and songs and dances and babies and communities? Is this why I had to marry, and then leave my marriage? Why I felt compelled to leave Milwaukee, and seek a home in Detroit? Is this why I am back in Korea?

When American friends expressed enthusiasm and support for my Korean sabbatical and referred to this trip as “going home,” or going to the “motherland” I recoiled a bit. Until now I did not feel this allegiance to Korea or anywhere. I still think of Detroit as my chosen hometown, and until now, felt sure I would live out my days in Detroit with a big community garden and a yoga school. I continue to feel a soul connection to Detroit and miss the city and community, But my long-term picture has just now become a mystery.

Just a sliver of an almost-new moon hangs in the Seoul sky. I never expect fulfillment and even bear suspicion in the face of comfort, satisfaction, and completion. But I feel a sense of circling back, after half a century, a Saturnian revolution, a sense of (dare I say it?) wholeness, living here in my hometown.

Today I said my first goodbye to Korea, in the form of my Korean language teacher, after turning in my final exam. We both wept, and embraced. What? It’s just a class, right? And Koreans aren’t supposed to hug. But something deeper is going on which I cannot yet explain.

Now, more than halfway through my sabbatical, I grieve the prospect of leaving, as I clutch the Han River stone I keep in the pocket of my quilted Korean pants. What’s to become of this new sense of belonging? Not sure yet. We shall see.