Alicia held every piece of my poems — of childhood, of difficult youth, of immigrant life, of my spiritual journey — as if finding a pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46) that she would sell everything she had to purchase. She held them from this angle and that. Flipped it inside and out. Carried them along with her on her long hikes. Like a fine diagnostician of maladies with an x-ray precision, Alicia would point to places I had not adequately emotionally and spiritually metabolized. She was gently pushing me to attend to the “me” behind the words I so well crafted, as a defense, to draw attention away from myself. My poems were a window into my life, from the story of my earliest trauma to immigration, to painful experiences of alienation, to the profound joy of re/covering my spiritual path.
Through the gifts of the poems and the gifts of our attention to the poems, we were becoming friends. I wrote to Alicia once, “For our friendship I am grateful. In a way, we have a very strange friendship. It feels like an upside-down friendship. We shared so much with each other through writing — soul baring/soul bearing — but I don’t even know whether, like, you are a vegetarian, or you drink wine or drink at all, or whether you like particular kind of food, or drink coffee or tea... you know? I long for a day when we can fill out those other delightful aspects of our friendship. To be able to enjoy a meal together ... ” (Mar 1, 2021)
To which, Alicia responded with a poem that began playfully (excerpted):
The sum total of a person whose soul you already hold, but the mundane details of whose life remains a mystery
1. Proximate realities: the list of things unearthed due to your location from the center
pescatarian / orange hues; for a long time: blue / tea. coffee so fragrant so bitter so no / wine brings headaches and sneezes / alcohol makes me hungover / but, I still drink beer…
I did not know that Alicia was an immigrant from Tobago. When I wrote my first poem about my 10-year-old experience of immigrating to the U.S, she connected to the sense of the “land flowing with milk and honey” kind of hope that we both had in our journey as immigrants. We both began our lives here believing in this new start we are given, unjaded, belly full of promises we ingested not knowing how this immigrant life will shape and make us. Often, we tuck away our genesis stories as immigrants. No use for them when we are busy fighting for our lives and protecting our loved ones and our communities. Or, we are busily living our lives in all-consuming ways in a reality that often has no room for the dreams of our hearts, however deferred they may be. We have come to be embarrassed by our exuberant desire that in America, we can be more. Yet, in her very first poem she shared, she wrote about her childhood memory of pretending to be American in her Tobago neighborhood (excerpted).
Even before we arrived, we were already here ...
My older sister Jacqueline and I each selected
Hair without kink
Reaching our shoulders
Outside on the concrete red porch steps
We smiled wide
Just like the Black girls on TV
flicked our hair
Our wig hair
Over our shoulders
We were American
Just like the girls on Sesame Street
With American accents
Nasal not resonant
Dialect ironed letters over-pronounced
The neighborhood boys pitching marbles in the yard
Jason, Kenneth, and Nigel (where are they now?)
We’d fooled them
Pretending to be our own cousins
In Tobago for a visit
In her poetry, I was reminded of the flowing (blonde) hair that my sister and I used to mimic flicking this way and that. We tied a long towel over our heads and pretended to be in a Miss Clairol or some shampoo commercial. I thought only Koreans did that. Her poem brought out both the delight of childhood play and the sinister colonial legacy for both Trinidad and Tobago and South Korea that shaped our childhood imagination. How is it that we have similar experiences but were separated by thousands of miles away growing up in a different universe? The all-encompassing shadow of the U.S. empire formed us even before we set our foot in the American soil. And yet, this memory — innocent, playful, and trusting — tells us a story of another home, another place we call home. We live dancing rhythmically between this home and that. We live in the dance which has become our home. Perhaps Alicia and I saw each other in that dance as we shared our stories. Perhaps we can release the unattainable quest for the perfect elusive home and come to know in our bodies that we have many places that we call home. And perhaps, being friends is one such home, that place of hospitality where we are received as we are, scars, tattoos (though I have none), and sagging breasts and all.
The first poem I read of Su’s was a reminder that she and I are both immigrants. That we come from somewhere else, settlers in this violently settled land. Both of us started off our journey here with a naïve excitement — uncomplicated, uninformed, and unexamined.
Su wrote in that poem:
[My mother] lays down quietly, next to me, and asks
“What if we just forget this whole thing, and stay here?
We can start over here, in Korea and not go to America.
Tonight is the last chance to change our mind. What do you think we should do?”
A non-question question to a 10-year old.
How will I face my friends to whom
I had been bragging about my good fortune,
to go to America because
I was special. I felt special. Everyone said so. Because
over there, I will become someone,
Over there, she wrote, I will become someone. And, I was struck by how it is that at the time of her emigration, which was the year of my birth, we were unknown and unimagined to each other, yet during the course of our lives, we would inhabit the same longing to become someone in a new space, and place. Here was the sense of being known without needing to utter a word… our truths bouncing closely along together. In those early sessions, I would learn that Su is slow to trust by her own admission. In those early sessions, Su would learn that due to complicated circumstances in my home, I was re-grieving the loss of my sister and that grief showed up, like roughly broken glass, in my poems. Again, I had no choice — or so it felt to me — in whether or not I was seen.
But. I did have a choice. I keep forgetting that our writing practice is not the original site of our friendship. First, there was dinner, with a few other companions, that stretched into the evening. There Su told of her mother, grieving her mother’s death, and the profound impact of being her mother’s caregiver and the tenderness of that loss. There she offered the gift of her own vulnerability and that made her trustworthy to me.
Our writing offered us unencumbered windows into each other’s lives; we don’t yet have the full picture, but who ever does? Over time, more and more of who we are: unapologetic queers making a way in this place that is keen on denying us, unfolds. I watch us navigating our remembered past, yes and also our strange present. Asian and Black. Raced, in the U.S., in ways that tell us who we should be to each other and here we are, being who we are to each other, with compassionate attention. I think of our “racialized otherness” heightened and tangible in this settler colonial space and how we’ve each embodied that otherness, along with our disillusions, to build places of belonging for ourselves and others.
(Su & Alicia)
Alicia to Su: “I really do love having a spiritual-soul-sister-mentor-playmate. Thank you for being in my life in all the ways that you are. My anam cara, arriving at exactly the right time.”
How will we transcend this cloistered pandemic moment that allowed for intimacies to flourish — intimacies that are usually interrupted by the busyness of the world? How will we respond to being shaped and reshaped by the inbreaking of the “real world”?
Maybe we’re both waiting for the subtle shift that signals that the “great drifting apart” is on the horizon. The horizon remains unblemished. Promising, like the arrival of dawn after a night of unrelenting rain.
What is this “stuff” of becoming friends and can it withstand the test of ordinary time? We hope so. We believe so.