Belief and Philosophy Blog Educators Reading & Writing Self-help Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Wearing Glasses

I try to wear my glasses as much as possible in photos to encourage girls to wear glasses. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was 8 years old in the 3rd grade. I distinctly remember excitedly telling my friend that I was going to get glasses; she did not share my enthusiasm. I was so happy to get glasses! My 4th grade picture is me in gold wire frame glasses with tape. Dad did this for me. Years later Mom laughed and I said how could you let me walk around with this tape on my glasses. Dad said it was perfectly fine and good that I made do with those glasses. At the time, I was pleased he fixed my glasses in this way. I had no idea I was living out the Asian nerd social misfit stereotype. Both Mom and Dad wore glasses. I think to some degree, we were a family of nerds, so no one cared and it was about fitting in with each other rather than the outside world, which is often what close family dynamics are like.

The summer of 7th grade I got soft contact lenses. It’s a miracle I didn’t develop a massive eye infection. Every now and then my mom would ask if I was sterilizing them, which for me at the time was throwing the entire case with saline it it into a big pot of boiling water. I said to her, oh yeah, I did it. Haha. You know, like I kept up with all of my grooming, like washing my hair. I will not describe in detail the day the flakes of dandruff came out from my comb, but it would be fair to say that I was not the nicely groomed 7th grade girl all the time. Yes, there were times when I went through some greasy haired grubby moments. I wore a hat on those days. Ick. But telling the truth here…

The thing that I enjoy about NOT wearing glasses is feeling free of the sweat on your nose, which is why, even if I have and wear sunglasses, I’m not always keen to do so. I’m at the point where I need glasses over my contacts, and with the prescription this or prescription that I have a lot of different kinds of glasses that I am circulating between for near and far sightedness, for sun or not in sun. I have terrible vision.

Many young women students refuse to wear glasses in my classes. They squint, they simply feel too self-conscious to wear them. I reveal to them what a friend who wears glasses told me: women who wear glasses usually fare better when asking for raises or negotiating financially. After I heard that one I wore my glasses all the time. Not sure what study there is on this, but hey, it can’t hurt. I also told the girls this. Can’t say that more of them wore glasses, but maybe in the future.

To those who teach young girls and wear glasses: Wear them! With pride! With joy!

Belief and Philosophy Blog Divorce Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing

How I Began Passing in the Middle Kingdom

I began writing what would become “Passing in the Middle Kingdom”, an unpublished poetry manuscript I started the summer of 2008 when I moved to Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong from Los Angeles. The manuscript was a finalist for the Wilder Prize and most of the pieces have been published in various drafts. It is a very clear document of the collapse of my marriage, the longing for clarity, the fatigue and joy of early motherhood, and the desire for home and belonging.

At the same time I wrote the poems I had kept a blog. The blog became quite popular showcasing a bucolic lifestyle that seemed strange for people to have in Hong Kong. Blogging was new back then. The blog was a marked contrast to my poetry. We are always more than one side. I think of it as the simultaneity of joy and sorrow. The wicked hope for deliverance. Those early days in Mui Wo were a time of turmoil and indecision. I was hopeful that life would unfold in a way that I see now, is most ordinary, but also for many, including myself, terribly elusive.

The poems came from a place of uncertainty and hesitation, a moving into a foreign space both literally and emotionally of motherhood, marriage, and Hong Kong, and the very real necessities of compromise, self, and longing. While I consider myself to be fiercely devoted to narrative and fiction, it is always to poetry, and its somewhat fluid space that I return when I have no words to express my feelings. Poetry clarifies surface ambivalence to reveal the ferocity of who we are and how we dream. Poetry is highly subjective, very much dictated by personal experience in what we cleave to in terms of style and reading preferences.

I wrote this manuscript when I doubted my very existence as a writer. I wrote this after I declared I would quit writing. I wrote because I could not stop writing.

My child was about 15 months and not yet walking when I showed up in this small village off the South China Sea. I had lived in Hong Kong prior and was very reluctant to return. I wanted an oven. I didn’t want to live in a high rise. I also got seasick from ferries so didn’t want to live on the Outer Islands, but with an oven and no high rise that was two out of three, and I learned all sorts of ways of battling seasickness and came to ride the ferry into town with relative ease.

My father accompanied me to Hong Kong, and after a few days of wandering the village, translating the Chinese characters and nodding at the scenery left me with this advice: “Keep writing. Your child will leave you. All children leave.”

As my father pulled out in a taxi to head to the airport, I could see the barest expression of worry on his face. He had escaped the postwar blight of Korea and had succeeded at every turn. He had a research career, chaired a division, provided for his family, and lived out his Confucian obligations. For what! His own American born daughter, given every privilege in the world had angrily rebelled against absolutely everything and had nothing to show for it except life in a small flat in a rural village with water buffalo ambling down the path and a spouse who had barely made a living in the US! America! Nightmare! I cried when Dad went and then there was me and the keyboard, and so life began in Luk Tei Tong, Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong. Such is the tale of migration and family.

This piece “Expatriate”  was written after we had moved to a new house in Sun Lung Wai. I had started my doctoral studies. I had made an uneasy peace that I would be spending my life in Hong Kong. I felt extremely isolated. I was not an Asian language speaker and on my mother’s side, was far more deeply rooted in the West Coast and Hawai’i. I was Korean, not Chinese and the cultural differences between the two are wide. My appearance suggested fluency in an Asian language–I had none. I was an Asian woman married to a white British man and with this were a host of assumptions–mostly, that I had elevated my social being by marrying someone white. I found this offensive. I wasn’t a banker and wasn’t much of a shopper. My sister once said she hated going into malls with me because I start to act weird, and for the most part, she’s right. I’m not my best self in a mall. If I get too absorbed in the dynamic my breath can even become short, I get lost staring, what starts as a 15 minute journey ends up being hours long and I become overwhelmed. There are many malls in HK, but luckily for me, there were no malls in Mui Wo.

On this day of the poem I distinctly remember my son was wearing his preschool shirt from the local village school. We were walking with a helper, one of the many Filipina and Indonesian women that serve as the engine for Hong Kong’s middle class households with their labor and time. My son hated going to Chinese school, though to some degree, he got through a few years. When they announced exams for those who were age 5  it was time for him to be pulled out! I thought he would spend his entire life in Hong Kong. He moved West at the age of eight, although Hawai’i is arguably not what people conceive of as the West at all. And so, another generation of migrants in my family. The truth is now he will look back and search, not for the land I had left behind–the US, but the land he left behind–Hong Kong.

Within this idea of home was the memory of the cornfields, seas of them, going on and on. I spent seven years as a child living outside of Iowa City where I went to church, looked up at the stars, and wished for nothing to change, so aware, as young children are, of death and inevitable loss. Anyone who thinks young children don’t think about death has not spent much time with young people.

I have never lived in Hawai’i permanently before I relocated part-time in 2015, full-time in 2018. It is where my mother’s family landed in 1904 and yes, it is now home.



I amble up the path,

follow a beauty crinkled by a jealous sun.

She pushes a cart of pried up puzzle pieces,

grows rubber trees, dreams of birds’ nest towers,

and money pouring into golden cups.

I close my eyes to palm trees, smell the green.

The day’s heat stalks.


A flash: cornfield carpets,

gray barns praying to cerulean skies.

Heavens split: pearly clouds stream a god

I abandoned the further I moved from home.


My child scales piles of rubble:

Careful. Watch the cart!

I remind him snakes lurk beneath trash.

He bounds ahead, fast-fast

to the only home he knows,

a village I made his world.


One day he will search

for a land to belong to,

in quest to discover

all known and left behind—

a place, pencil mark, country,

a dream existing

only in the memory of why.


Belief and Philosophy Educators Reading & Writing Teachers

Adventures in Teaching and Girlhood

In the spirit of uploading content on a daily basis my recognition that this will take more than I had planned out, I will be excerpting my manuscript Passing in the Middle Kingdom, explicating the story behind the poem in hopes that people might be encouraged to scribble their own. I’m a believer in creating text and how this can change your life. I began writing this collection of poetry/prose, a type of hybrid work, honestly, in 2008. That’s right. It’s not 2021. It’s been rejected by many people. It also has had nearly all of the content published and the manuscript itself was a finalist for the Wilder Poetry Prize.

I’ve taken one poetry workshop, but my most acute memory of studying poetry was in high school. The most intense moment from that class was writing about my racial identity, a poem called Barbie Wish, and me praying like anything as the teacher read the poem out loud that people would think it was the other Korean American girl. Not me! LOL. I have a lot of fondness for that teenage girl who wrote that and know what it takes to write that stuff. When teenagers write their truth to power, faculty should stop shutting them down. I can’t even tell you how many people shut young students down.

Adventures in Substitute Teaching

I had the opportunity many years ago to substitute teach at an orthodox Jewish girls school. The girls were pretty out of line–I’m not sure where you get the ideas of behavior drawing down ethnic lines because these white wealthy Jewish girls were standing on chairs, shouting, being totally out there! I had them write something creative and this is when it got interesting.

They were sharing and reading it out loud when the headmistress came in for a visit. One girl was reading her story which involved working as a spy, parachuting from an airplane. She apparently spent the summer living a life straight out of a Bond movie. It was fantastic. All the girls listened: glued. Headmistress walked in to listen. After it was over we’re clapping and headmistress yelled at the girl for LYING! She said, you must tell the truth! The truth is that you went to heritage camp and met other Jewish kids and sang around a campfire. Or something like that. The class went silent (myself included, I was smiling and enjoying it the entire time, until Bummer Boss Headmistress walked in).

I was very sad for that girl. After school I did a brief one-on-one meeting with the headmistress who complained that the girls were so out of line she couldn’t get anyone to take the full-time job because they kept quitting. She was so frustrated and said that thank god, that after they all got their periods they calmed down. Or is it that the community further squashed their lives to the ground? Hard to say. I could see the big thumb smashing that girl’s imagination out of her brains right then and there! You think headmistress might see the connection between silencing the girls and the girls jumping on chairs. They were running around in their ankle length skirts and yelling outside having fun. But it was clear that once they got their period, the big headmistress rules would reign. People make excuses in the name of culture, but they need to cut it out. All cultural expectations and rules are rooted in patriarchy which is tied to silencing women. Don’t dream! Don’t make up stuff! Don’t imagine a new world! What a great imagination that young girl had. I’d be surprised if she was able to rebel, but part of me hopes that one day she will think about that huge tale she spun that day in class, the headmistress yelling and just maybe, think about what she used to dream about–jumping out of planes, working as a spy, living a life that everyone around her wanted her to deny.

I hope that parents register their daughters for girls’ creative writing classes this summer with Reema Rajbanshi grades 11/12 and

Ishle Yi Park grades 9/10!

My desire to see girls respected and their imaginations encouraged was partially a result of what I used to see in classes. These are fantastic women authors and writing instructors who will encourage your daughter to write imaginatively and beautifully.

Register at

Blog Educators Gods and Pineapples Listen and Watch Reading & Writing Teachers Video

Learning How Korean Americans Shaped History

Last month, I presented a two-part lectures series for the Council of Korean Americans on the events and personalities crucial to shaping Korean American culture and history over the last 100+ years. I made it accessible to those who don’t know any Korean American history. I also believe the big step we must take is to understand that WE CREATE HISTORY! Record your experiences. They’re historical!

Dr. Han explores the various narratives of “Korean America”, examines how this immigrant community has evolved as it is intersected with mainstream America, and shares how Korean Americans are contributing to the United States and the world. Part I of this session covers 1882 Diplomatic relations between Korea and the US, the early days of immigration, and the Korean War.

Belief and Philosophy Blog Educators Reading Reading & Writing Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Names and Titles

I thought it would be good for people to know the general story of why I use the title “doctor” professionally. Many people who have PhDs in literature do not go by this title. Creative writers who have PhDs don’t use it much either. To do this, I have to do a bit backtracking in terms of my educational journey.

PhD Journey

I started my PhD by default. I was supposed to be hired to teach in an MFA program. The head of the division had said this based on my publication credits and awards and promised me the job. The chair of the department vetoed this as I did not have a book out. As a carrot, the division head offered the chance to pursue my PhD, to be the first student from this program. He promised me money, full ride, money for overseas travel, and a professor imported from the West. I did my PhD in Hong Kong.

It was a win-win in the end. As a candidate I didn’t require a lot of ramp up as I was older, already teaching, and had basic writing chops down. I had cut my way already through most of the literary canon as I’d been writing for a long time and so wouldn’t be grinding it out in that way. They needed seasoned teachers to teach undergraduates. I had a US passport and in Asia this carries more weight than those from many Asian countries. Still, I had an Asian face, passing as I did, in the Middle Kingdom, which subsequently became the title of a manuscript kicking around: Passing in the Middle Kingdom. They needed a first student who would be able to work with a new single faculty hire and a student who would complete the program. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. But I mulled it over for a few days and accepted. It’s now some period of time, so I feel I can be rather candid about most things like my schooling.

Schooling History

As a Korean American, even if I’m 4 generations in on one side and call Hawai’i a type of ancestral home thanks to Christianity, pineapple plantations and general colonial expansionism, I grew up in a heavily Confucian household thanks to my father who embodied, back in the day, all elements of old style Confucian elitism. There were yangban. There were sangnam. We were yangban. Dad called me sangnam if I neglected to take off my shoes in the house, longing as I did as a child, to fit in with my peers.

I was in my late 20s before I understood how people walked around with shoes in their house. A raconteur used to tell me stories about traveling and parties at Peggy Guggenheim’s back when I was working as a film producer’s assistant. He explained you take off the outside shoes and then you wear slippers in the house. But you could also wear your shoes around the house and then have different kinds of indoor shoes so basically, you’re just in shoes the entire time you are in the house. It was enlightening, but I thought to myself, very uncomfortable: who could keep track of all of these shoes?

I digress…

To my dad, there was Kyung Gi High School and Seoul National. There were MDs and PhDs and that was that. Period. JDs were also okay, but the only time I ever heard my Korean speaking grandfather comment was when I said I wanted to be a lawyer and he replied shaking his head: “Wheeler Dealer”. So much for law in the eyes of the Ancient Yoo Clan. My father was an MD at age 24 and the sole winner in his nation of a scholarship to the PhD program of his choice. He got his PhD in biophysics at U.C. Berkeley. The clan was exceedingly scholarly and this extended to the women. My aunts in their 80s and 90s sat faculty as university professors and one was the first Korean to graduate from the Paris Conservatory. High level academic achievers. I can’t say they were a joyful bunch. Or cheerful. Or happy. But they believed in credentialing. Dad was the living example of someone who would have done great in the Imperial Exam system, and so I was really shaped by this framework.

Alas, I did not have this tenacity as demonstrated in this fashion, inclination-perhaps, nor this brain style.

Phillips Academy Andover and U.C. Santa Barbara

On my own accord, I went from Iowa to Phillips Academy Andover, a school that I thank for many aspects of my education, it fundamentally shaped me, but one that I have come to see, caused much trauma. (I basically cut off all ties from everyone from that period of my life until a few years ago). I have a lot to say about this experience and write about it periodically and believe it was connected to my long tenure teaching prep as an adult. This school threw me into the fire of European American ideas of achievement, supremacy, intellect, and values. I thrived and survived and hobbled out. I had to relearn and deprogram a lot and came to see it finally came full circle only in the past few years. Prep schools are primarily designed (whether they realize this or not) to support the hegemony of existing attitudes. It’s hard on young students of color.  Anyway, I went onto Barnard College, completely burned out from boarding school. Depressed. Dropped out. At one point in the summer, I took a class at City College of New York. Years on, I started taking classes at the University of Memphis.

I transferred into U.C. Santa Barbara as it was near Los Angeles where I had been living and I had liked it on a weekend jaunt I had made there with a boyfriend and U.C. Berkeley wouldn’t take transfers in January and I would not wait another 4 months. Classes were great at Santa Barbara, I loved my classes. I did the extra reading. I finally did well on history exams–I had basically skated by in high schools with C’s, but by my late 20s the frontal lobe parts of my brain were dropped in, so I could make the connections and analysis. Late bloomer much. I was slow out the gate, but per an earlier post, you are talking about someone who didn’t learn the alphabet until age 6. Again, this was not because I was a bilingual Asian wiz kid at all. My brain just didn’t kick in that stuff.

I had wanted to study in a specialized writing program at Santa Barbara, was told to seek out this opportunity, but when I went in for a faculty interview and told her I got a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and wanted to study poetry, she made fun of the fact that I hadn’t read the Romantic poets, mocked me for reading Joni Mitchell lyrics, and laughed out loud at me. She was those types who kind of rattles around thinking she is smart for saying mean things. She’s probably still on faculty. I didn’t bother applying as this is the person who would read the application. Yet there were some key faculty that gave wonderful classes in other departments and I really enjoyed my time there, unlike most of the classes I took at Barnard and Columbia as I took at both colleges.

The students at SB were equally academic, but they did not think of themselves as elite. So what happens is that sometimes people don’t take themselves quite as seriously. What private institutions in the East do is train you to think of yourself as someone who will TAKE OVER THE WORLD hahaha while everyone else, any public university grad, in particular, will yes, grovel and cower at your feet. You think I am joking? I have taught and taken classes now at SO MANY places I can be very honest about this. Even the most middling level private school/university students often feel themselves to be infinitely superior to the riffraff of public institutions. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’m being honest here–that’s how people think.

San Francisco State University and University of Arizona

To continue: I got onto PEN Emerging Voices fellowship–that was fantastic. Life-changing. My most meaningful creative writing knowledge experiences were not within the context of my MA or MFA program. Later, I went onto San Francisco State University where I had wanted to do the MFA. One of my supposed mentors of the program ‘accidentally’ signed my rejection for the MFA because she had a stack of papers she was inking and didn’t even bother looking at the names. She said, “I’m so sorry, if you had told me you were interested…I never read any of the names of the papers.” Wow. Good to know teachers pay attention. I hung up the phone on her and haven’t spoken to her since. No hard feelings at this point, but no delusions either. I learned a few things from her as I have from every teacher. What I really liked from this program were the lit classes. Very good professors. I got the MA. My lit professor said, don’t let anyone stop you. I thank him for that. So I then went to VONA–a reassuring experience and was highly encouraged to get the MFA. I am so grateful and am thrilled that some of my students are VONA students. VONA changed my outlook. With this boost of confidence, I decided to go to the University of Arizona after turning down a free ride at ASU that was offered after I won a writing prize, and then rocked up to find I had no funding (my fault too, had no idea there would be official letters and promises and all of that) and was told by the then chair to look in the Yellow Pages for a job! Talk about a bad way to start off a relationship? Bad vibes much? Gee, what a piece of advice. Yet, I believe that some of the classes I took there changed my writing profoundly and I remain thankful for certain instructors who went out of their way to make sure I had some guidance. I also met some role model women through a Women of Color organization who have sustained me to date and my kid’s godfather! And the UA Asian American Faculty Staff and Alum Association came through with the money and that’s why I got through. $$$ matters. I have given money back to them and will do so always as a result. In short, my relationship with education, despite all of my teaching and reading and writing and time in such institutions was never that easy. My school relationship and the world it is has been my life in so many ways.

City University of Hong Kong

At the time I started my PhD, I was in Hong Kong and I was teaching part-time. The Kid was about to start preschool. I was not certain of what I was going to do, but had wanted to sit faculty for creative writing and thought, okay, at least I can get the PhD and the division head had said, Listen, Steph, it’s a terrible time in the economy, you may as well do this–finish the degree and eat your ramen noodles and why not. Haha, he said. So ramen it was.

This was how it began. My decision to do the program was met by resistance from my ex who had previously wanted to do a PhD and who then told me when I told him that I would do it that to never ever forget that he was a better writer than I was. (Competitive, much?) There were no pep talks in the household to do this PhD to put it mildly. But I did it anyway. One of the biggest bonuses of the program was my ability to recruit my former student to join the program and he did! Hooray! He’s a solid writer and teacher. There was stupid political stuff as there always is in PhD programs, probably because the stakes were seriously low. People lied. Obfuscation ran wild. Mentoring and the like was sporadic, inconsistent, and random. When and if it did appear, I was so glad because there is nothing more lonely than reading literary theory on your own in the dark, which is, let’s face it, a lot of very interesting ideas written very poorly. Later I found out that one of my supposed mentors had used me in some overthrow maneuver to oust someone from the department and then another didn’t tell me about a job because a spouse wanted it. Then somehow they were in cahoots together. Really? I mean, stakes small or what? Creeping around for that? Anyway, they were helpful in their own ways, but no love lost. Those were early days of that program. I had some solid colleagues in the trenches and really learned from their research too. Despite this kind of petty nonsense, it was an important time in terms of how it allowed me to move into a different way of critical analysis and gave me a vocabulary and lens. I wrote a good dissertation. I stand behind it. I recast the definition of Asian American. I defined Asian American literary aesthetics in the novel and yes, if you pull out the dissertation filed in 2014, I predicted trends we are now seeing. I’d say, I know my stuff and that’s a good feeling to have.

PhD and Writing

I began to use the title as I could see that “doctor” which I started kept people who might have challenged my existence, particularly in educational institutions, in the name of race or patriarchy, slightly at bay. As an Asian woman of small stature there have been countless times I have been dismissed, belittled, discredited, or ignored. I don’t like having to defend my existence. This stopped some of it.

Interestingly enough, I’ve also had people slag off (ever so politely, surreptitiously, or yes, sometimes obnoxiously) the fact I have a PhD in literature. OK, I’m gonna say it: this often comes from fellow creative writers who have MFAs. Really? Why bother? Come on, people. PhD or no PhD, MFA or no MFA–writing is writing and credentials are deeply exterior markers that don’t reflect depth of thought, but reflect instead a certain experiential happening which is absorbed or not, dependent on the individual. I’m critical enough about my writing to say this: some of it is good, some of it is mediocre and some of it is just plain bad. There are plenty of people who have no degree at all who are far superior to me in craft and knowledge of literature. And there are plenty who are not.

Did you get the memo? There are no winners in art.

There may be superficial temporary winners in the game of accumulating capital, but in the end we all die and that’s that.

Everyone comes to writing differently and the writing expectations from either field also vary. All good. I say this politely. Impolitely, I say this: Come on, get over it. We all learn from each other. Again, we’re all going to die anyway.

Dr. Stephanie Han

But back to doctor….Having taught many young women, I thought Dr. Stephanie Han was also good to model academic achievement. Or as my journey shows, the meandering ways we acquire knowledge and struggle and still persist. It’s also gender neutral in the sense that I was always called MRS. overseas. In Asia, people don’t use MS. only MRS. and MISS and now there is MX, but good luck with that being used around the globe in my lifetime. In general, I can be Dr. Stephanie Han and then once people are in class over the age of 18, I can be plain old Steph and that suits me fine.

And so, that’s the reason for Dr. Stephanie Han and Questions? Comments? Please feel to raise them.


Belief and Philosophy Blog Divorce Reading & Writing Self-help

grateful, I am

I don’t always fill out the ole Panda Journal, but I like to kick off my day with a bit of thinking about the good stuff. I got these Panda journals for myself and The Kid. For a minute we both did them. I’d say, “Hey, let’s Panda this morning.” But now, alas, it’s just me. Anyway, I realize I had done self-talk like this on and off during my life. But what divorce taught me was that there’s a lot to be grateful for. I will always remember the ways that people helped out and remain very grateful for this.

You are burning to the ground when you divorce–your entire life turns to ash. You cannot do anything about this destruction emotionally, in the sense that you have to accept this death of who you were.

What I learned is that you can rebuild and you do this by thinking about what’s great in life. I’ll be honest. It’s pretty easy to be thankful where I live now, even if I am aware that yes, this is the place with the highest cost of living and the lowest wages.

Because I wake up thinking the air I breathe is CLEAN. The water is CLEAN. If you think that’s ridiculous you never lived in a polluted place before! Those two things are enough to get me started. Be grateful and thankful. It can shift your mood. Try it!