Interview with Portia Choi, Featured Poet at First Friday Open Mic at Dagny’s, May 5, 2023
By: Carla Joy Martin
At First Friday Open Mic on May 5, 2023, Portia shared poems from her Chapbook, Sungsook Korean War Poems and we learned more about the Korean War. I found it shocking to hear all the countries that got involved – it was truly a “world war”!
Q. Please recap for us what countries were involved and which side they were on.
A. The two countries that allied with North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union.
The countries allied with South Korea were Australia, Belgium, Canada, Columbia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Other countries that supported the “South Korean” side were Denmark, Italy, Norway, India, Sweden with medical staff and Japan with naval support and military services.
Q.What did war do to your homeland, its people, and your family?
A. World War II (WWII) resulted in two Koreas. There had only been one country before then. The end of WWII resulted in the beginning of North Korea and South Korea. At the end of the Korean War, in 1953, there was complete separation of families, those in the North and those in the South. There’s almost no further communication between the families since then.
My parents were both born and grew up in northern part of Korea. They had siblings who were in northern Korea at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Our family does not know how many relatives are alive, if any.
I remember talking to an elderly man when I visited South Korea in 1972. He related that he just thinks of his family in the North as being dead, as he has not heard nor knows what happened to them.
The history of North Korea began with the end of World War II in 1945. Read more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_North_Korea
The history of South Korea formally begins with the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945. Noting that, South Korea and North Korea are entirely different countries, despite still being the same people and on the same peninsula. Read more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_South_Korea
Q. How did your experience as a refugee affect your feelings about
becoming an advocate for peace? Can we learn to live in harmony? What
practices may we adopt? What poets may we read to become inspired or
to show us the way?
A, As a refugee, I experienced terror, anguish, uncertainty and hunger. I heard screams and cries. I probably smelled burnt flesh. War is horrible.
I am grateful to the Americans and others who came, risking their own lives, for the freedom of all Koreans.
Peace is very important.
We can live in harmony by understanding and accepting ourselves and all other persons. We can live in harmony by being reverent of all lives.
The poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, has been an inspiration and a mentor. His practice for peace can be found in his poem,
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.
Then we learn
that there is no peace walk;
that peace is the walk;
that there is no happiness walk;
that happiness is the walk.
We walk for ourselves.
We walk for everyone
always hand in hand.
Walk and touch peace every moment.
Walk and touch happiness every moment.
Each step brings a fresh breeze.
Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet.
Kiss the Earth with your feet.
Print on Earth your love and happiness.
Earth will be safe
when we feel in us enough safety.
The first book that I read of Thich Nhat Hanh was Peace is Every Step, The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. He writes of practicing mindfulness for daily self-care and restoration. For example, when hearing a phone ring, one takes a breath and with mindfulness listen to the person calling. He also writes about being compassionate with oneself and others. He writes about dealing with anger.
Here is an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Call Me By My True Names.”
“Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.”
(One can read the entire poem by searching on the web for the poem “Call Me by My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh)
I wrote the following poem for the International Day of Peace on September 21 video of the Peace Initiative, Bakersfield College
Longing for Peace
by Portia Choi
There is a longing for love
to be whole,
to be well.
There is a longing for peace
to be safe,
to be sheltered in a home.
There is a longing to belong.
to be accepted,
to be welcomed.
I am breathing in,
I am alive,
I am breathing out,
I give a part of me to you.
With each breath,
I am committed to my peace.
With each breath,
I am committed to peace for you.
You and I,
we can be a community of peace.
Q. Syndi Austin’s last Open Mic was April 7, 2023. You visited her a few days before she passed away. If you like, describe your last visit with her.
Or share something to our poetry community about Syndi.
A. I was last with Syndi at our worship service’s lunch. She was intelligent as usual. She had made a trayful of a salad made from daikon, a white radish, with carrots and parsley. It was delicious. She said the recipe came from her aunt who learned it from a famous chef. She spoke of her childhood; and how her grandmother gave her a pearl necklace when she was very sad. I connected with her in a way that I had not before. She was a vulnerable child and so wanting to please with the salad.
Usually, she seemed to be “on”. As in performing. She was a wonderful musician, strumming the guitar to her original songs. And more lately, she was writing poetry.
I was looking forward to getting to know her more and sharing recipes and poetry.
She died three days later. At her “celebration of life,” her children had photographs of Syndi. She was gorgeous and gifted.