Sometimes good things can get even better.
I’ve always loved Janet Wong’s A Suitcase of Seaweed — it’s my favorite among her poetry collections. First published by Margaret K. McElderry Books in 1996, it explores her Korean and Chinese heritage and what it was like growing up in America.
When Janet was a Poetry Potluck guest back in 2012, I praised the relatable truths in A Suitcase of Seaweed, shared “Grandmother’s Almond Cookies,” and enjoyed hearing about her paternal grandparents. How wonderful to have a PoPo (grandmother) who was the “Boss of Dessert”!
In February, Janet published A Suitcase of Seaweed & More (Yuzu/Pomelo Books, 2019), which contains all 36 poems (+ 3 prose pieces) from the original book as well as lots of new text (backstories, musings, prompts). I loved learning about what inspired the poems, and appreciated the way she extended their themes and widened their contexts. I know her appealing prompts will get readers thinking, talking, maybe even writing their own poems and stories.
In “Love at First Sight,” the first of Janet’s Korean Poems from Part One, she imagines her parents in the early days of their courtship. They somehow met while her father, an American soldier stationed in Korea, would purchase fresh food for the troops from her mother’s family farm. Her mom could not speak English, and her father did not know Korean, but somehow they managed to communicate. It seems love has its own language.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
I like to imagine Mother
when her face was full and smooth
and she wore her hair in a long braid,
and I like to imagine Father
with his crooked smile and his crooked crew cut,
wearing an American uniform,
running after her
in the narrow dirt streets
of her Korean village,
as she rushes away
her long braid
wagging like the tail of a dog
that has found
a fresh bone.
Janet’s prompts for this poem:
Think of your parents or any loving couple that you know.
What do you think brought them together?
What things make them a good couple?
It just so happens I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot recently. April 9th was the 5th anniversary of my mother’s passing, and we lost my dad earlier this week at age 104. My parents had been married 66 years.
Janet’s poem made me recall how my parents first met. It’s best to let my father tell you in his own words. This is from an autobiography we helped him write when he turned 100:
I first saw Margaret at a friend’s get together and was introduced to her. I think I must have fallen in love with her because I kept thinking about her while at work. I decided to ask her for a date. Our first date was going to see a movie at Wahiawa Theater.
We enjoyed going for rides in the rowboat my brother John and I built at Lake Wilson, Wahiawa, and sometimes fishing for bass. I admired her for being an industrious, hard working person. She never knew what the word “relax” meant. We loved playing family hi-lo poker on Saturday nights. We went to church every Sunday. I always complimented her for being the best-dressed female in our church. At times after we were ready to go to church she would parade before me in her nice outfit and ask me if I would take a second look at her if I saw her for the first time.
Every evening when I visited her she would make me a fried egg sandwich. Afterwards when I headed home their German Police dog named Mickey would escort me close to my home and turn around and go back home to Muliwai Avenue.
She had some favorite Hawaiian songs — “O Makalapua,” “Kaneohe,” “My Yellow Ginger Lei” — were some of them. She also liked the Korean version of “Toselli’s Serenade,” which I used to sing to her. Another favorite was “Nighttime In Nevada.” She always made me play “St. Louis Blues” on the uke for her.
So for my father it was love at first sight. He was ten years older and a divorcé with two young children, but somehow those nightly fried egg sandwiches and his serenading did the trick.
Dad also mentioned admiring Mom whenever he spotted her in her WAC uniform, driving a Jeep around Hickam AFB, where they both worked for awhile. Maybe like Janet’s mother, he couldn’t resist a natty dresser in a military uniform. 🙂
Over the years, there was much joking between them — my mother saying that marrying him was the ‘worst’ decision of her life (he was stubborn, could be cantankerous and inflexible). My father said just the opposite about her. Their unique yin-yang relationship somehow worked. She was upbeat and sunny, an optimist who could mitigate his sometimes moody “artistic temperament.”
She was a good cook, he was a champion eater. He was devoted to my mother and was lost without her. He often said that marrying her was the happiest day of his life.
So, a little bit of laughter, the right song, farm fresh food, chance meetings — love has its own language.
A Suitcase of Seaweed & More resonates with me on so many levels. Rereading the poems with all the new material Janet added has made me reflect on my ethnicity and personal identity, especially in light of today’s diversity movement and the earnest efforts to foster more tolerance and inclusion in our society. These days, being non-white, an “other,” has become more challenging and worrisome. Racism is out of the shadows, uglier than ever. Sometimes the divisions seem insurmountable.
I always thought I knew who I was, but when I left Hawai’i for England back in the late 70’s that changed. My experience was like Janet’s: when non-Asian people looked at me, they lumped me together with other Asians, unable to distinguish between Korean, Japanese, or Chinese. It was the first time I felt defined by other people’s racial perceptions and biases.
In London, I was often mistaken for a Japanese tourist (merchants were nice to me, thinking I was a big spender who carried lots of cash). Others took wild guesses: are you Filipino? from Singapore? Some assumed I couldn’t speak English (this actually happened in New Hampshire, too!) — pretty ironic since I went to London to teach high school English.
So, I explained I was from Hawai’i. Do you speak Hawaiian? Well, no. My parents are both Korean, but I don’t speak Korean and have never visited Korea. What are you, then?
I’m American. Oh. Sometimes this was good, sometimes not. How to prove I wasn’t an “ugly American?” It wasn’t until I left the U.S. that I was able to understand how the rest of the world sees us. I learned that quality of life is not necessarily defined by money. Many Europeans think all Americans do is work.
I do think “fear of the other” is fueled by American egocentricity, willful ignorance, and lack of exposure to other cultures, a brand of close-mindedness that endures for generations. Ironic for a nation of immigrants, isn’t it?
Education and fostering meaningful dialogue, one on one, is an important step forward. Books like A Suitcase of Seaweed & More can help accomplish this. Asian or not, we’re able to see parts of ourselves and relate to the experiences described in the poems about our families, friends, customs, and identities. Ultimately, we are more alike than we are different. These kernels of truth are what make us all human.
Good things can get even better. I didn’t think it was possible, but now I love A Suitcase of Seaweed even more. Thank you, Janet!
Now, enjoy “My Yellow Ginger Lei.” I like imagining my dad playing his ukulele and singing this to my mom.
How did your parents meet?
Do you see yourself differently in light of what’s going on in our country today?
A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED & MORE
by Janet Wong
published by Yuzu, an imprint of Pomelo Books, February 2019
Poetry for ages 9-12, 99 pp.
📕 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 📕
Janet is generously offering a brand new signed copy of A Suitcase of Seaweed & More for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT) Wednesday, May 1, 2019. You may also enter by sending an email with SEAWEED in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
🌎 SOARING EARTH GIVEAWAY WINNER! 🕊
We are pleased to announce that the winner of a brand new copy of Margarita Engle’s new verse memoir, Soaring Earth, is:
RUTH BOWEN HERSEY!!
🎉 CONGRATULATIONS, RUTH!! 🎈
Please send along your snail mail address to receive your prize. 🙂
Thanks to everyone for entering this giveaway!
The lovely and talented Carol Varsalona is hosting the Roundup at Beyond Literacy Link. Be sure to pop on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the bloggy world this week. Enjoy your weekend. Can you believe Poetry Month is practically over?
*Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.