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.