The Korean word for heaven is ha-neul nara, a kenning that translates literally to "sky country." It was a word often used by potential immigrants to describe the United States.
My grandmother hoards gold dollar-coins, the heavy discs etched with Sacagawea's over-the-shoulder glance, an infant son tied in a blanket to her back. She doesn't know who Sacagawea is, or Lewis and Clark, or figures from most stories we read in elementary school. Instead, the Bible and Hollywood sculpt her history. Over dinner she'll re-enact the events in The Ten Commandments: she raises her arms, as if in victory, to summon the Pillar of Fire and split the Red Sea, her small hands pushing apart two walls of water so that Charlton Heston can arrive safely on the bank. "Yes," she'll nod, soup dripping from her chin. "That's exactly how it happened."
My Korean is weak. I understand only pieces of what she says. But from her cycle of stories, familiar nouns and images emerge. 1953: Pregnant with my mother, my grandmother flees south, my aunt strapped to her back. (At this point, my aunt will point to her bowed legs, the calves that curve outward below the knees, as evidence of this journey.) There is always a boat, a river, and a fire. My grandmother runs toward one and away from another but someone, perhaps my grandfather, grabs her hand to pull her back. I don't know why. There are men, Korean men and American men. She tells them her name, or that she's pregnant, but I never understand how or if they respond. Often, the stories end with her turning around to find her husband has vanished.
Heaven. Sky Country. In America, the streets overflow with milk and honey.
For stealing day-old donuts, my mother is fired from her first American job, cleaning offices in a downtown Los Angeles high-rise.
Still, this is America. America is good, she says. You don't know how good you have it here.
I return to Los Angeles for New Year's. My grandmother asks where I live now and tries to pronounce the words: New York. Is it hot or cold there, she asks. Is there Korean food? Is there a church? She asks if New York is where President Bush lives, then what will happen if America loses the war. Would I raise the Iraqi flag, give up English for Arabic? I want to tell her it's not that kind of war, but I don't have the words. She cackles. "You don't know," she says.
My grandmother speaks Korean but, a child of colonial Korea, reads and writes in Japanese. Now, of course, she conducts her life in English. She worries what I'll do with an English degree, not because of the "adjunct situation" or the overall decline of the humanities, but because she knows countries are not the concrete, black-outlined shapes that seem so permanent when we open our textbooks. She knows how history can wipe away a person's language. She's been the real civilian I can only try to imagine when I read articles in the newspaper over hot coffee.
It's my grandmother who ran, four months pregnant, five-year-old daughter clasped to her back. It's she who pleaded and begged, who prayed that a soldier would listen when she screamed her name. It's her home that was severed by an arbitrary line, her family, like a brittle branch, snapped down the middle.
After the traditional dinner of dumpling soup, my grandmother calls me over, unzips the small pocket on her backpack. She takes out a wrinkled manila envelope. Inside are one hundred gold dollar-coins. She's been collecting all year, trading for them at the Mexican grocery and the Hollywood Park racetrack. I thank her, but tell her not to go through all the trouble, that they aren't worth more than paper money. She shrugs. "You don't know," she says.
Because they have never seen anything like it,
the city children weave through the barracks calling us
to come see. Our stories of fireflies in Japan
must echo in their young heads, how we'd picnic
in summer heat to watch the lit bodies punctuate
the dark. Better than Christmas, we'd told them.
So when they pull us into the Utah night, how to tell them
these pulsing clouds are not fireflies, but moths. Still
we chase them through the desert fields, the children
cupping small fists around moon-whitened wings
that collapse, not from the children's touch, but the sheer
pressure of air. My mother would say the fireflies
are the lights of soldiers killed in a war far away,
their spirits now wandering the earth in search of home.
But these are not fireflies. How to say fireflies
don't come to Utah, how to say how close, or far,
we are from home? How to say where we are
at all? My daughter catches one, its brief body torn,
and flickering in her palm. I teach her the word hotaru,
firefly. Together we trace the letters in the dirt
with our fingers. But the next morning, when she
peeks outside, she cries to find the characters gone,
the name on the earth already erased by the wind.
My grandmother pours salt
into my right palm, places thin slivers
of garlic in my left. She explains
something about blood, how to salt
the raw bird to drain its fluids,
but my mind already wanders:
I watch the chicken shrivel but compose
instead the grandfather I've only met
in story: daybreak, he's just finished
mopping up in the buildings
that sculpt this city's skyline, but it's
someone else's view of Los Angeles.
The immigrant sees, not the postcard-perfect lights,
but the scuffed tiles, dust-lined desks, the darkening
throats of toilet after toilet.
Home, he tiptoes upstairs not to wake
his daughters, holding his shoes
like a thief. He's fired
for stealing a roll of toilet paper, a can of soda
for my mother. Children are nothing
but trouble, my grandmother says,
shaking a wooden spoon. My mother claims
the story otherwise: it was she
who accompanied father to work, she
who stole a box of stale donuts, she
who lost the family's first job. Grandmother
shrugs and repeats the same
conclusion. Never have children, she says,
though her expression is hidden
by the steam now rising from the pot.
It's a simple recipe: boil until the meat
falls from the bones, easy, like a girl
shedding a summer dress.
Last night, I cooked for friends.
After dinner, my friend handed me
his one-month son, who only
blinked when I nudged my thumb
into his fist. Earlier, washing the pale
bird, I struggled to keep the body
from slipping through my hands: I held
its small-fleshed form under cold water,
pulled the giblets out the round hollow
between its ribs and was surprised
to be surprised when it didn't
make a sound.
-from Sky Country, BOA Editions, 2017, selected by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
PROMPT: As in Christine Kitano's "Chicken Soup," write a poem in which you describe the making of a dish and the world that surrounds that dish. If you can't think of a particular dish, per say, worth exploring, perhaps you once learned another sort of craft that had a similar backstory to it, ie sewing, painting, gardening, etc...anything that you make with your hands. Don't limit yourself just to this thing you learned to make; focus, too, on the elements around its making. Maybe the person who taught you how to make your prize puttanesca was dear to you. Maybe WHERE you learned how to carve a turkey is important to you in some way. Perhaps something significant in history occurred the day you learned how to tie grape vines. Tell us that story with as much imagery and music as possible. And have fun!
BIO: Christine Kitano was born in Los Angeles, CA. Her mother is a first-generation immigrant from Korea, and her father is nisei (second-generation) Japanese American. Christine earned an MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) from Syracuse University and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. She is an assistant professor at Ithaca College where she teaches creative writing, poetry, and Asian American literature. Research interests include 20th-21st century American poetry, Asian American literature, immigrant poetry, and critical theory. She is the author of the poetry collections Sky Country (BOA Editions) and Birds of Paradise (Lynx House).