She was born in “The Land of the Morning Calm,” and her life changed as the result of war. Now Dr. Portia Choi resides in Bakersfield with quite a story to tell, one she pens through poetry.
“I am your mother, Oaksun, I will protect you and hide you from the soldiers. I will look for you, so you cannot see the shattered arms. I will cuddle you to sleep,” read Korean-American Poet and Peace Advocate, Dr. Portia Choi from her book of original poems, Sungsook, Korean War Poems.
Her younger self is the narrator of that poem, talking to her doll.
Dr. Choi was just two years old when the Korean War started, an event that left Dr. Choi, her older sister and mother, homeless refugees.
“My mother made a doll out of rags and scraps of cloth,” Dr. Choi recalled. “At the refugee camps, they would call me Oaksun’s mother. Because I would be happy [carrying it around]. You know, little kids are happy. Middle of war or not.”
Dr. Choi and her family reunited with her Methodist minister father in Los Angeles six years later. During those years, she learned English and American culture, made friends, obtained a medical degree and master's in public health from UCLA, and nurtured her love for poetry.
“It wasn’t until my late twenties, I had gone to school, focused a lot of time and energy on a career, that feelings came up for me, that I was still not happy,” Dr. Choi said. “So I got counseling, which helped me get in touch with my feelings, and I remembered being a young child in Korea.”
Dr. Choi said the memories took the form of poetry, which helped her cope with those feelings.
“If we look at our own suffering and sadness and grief, really look at it. Just look at it like a beautiful flower, or a sparkling gem, then you really can enjoy a lovely flower and sunshine,” Dr. Choi said.
A new dawn broke in Dr. Choi's life in 1996, when she moved to Bakersfield with her husband and two sons to work for the Kern County Department of Public Health.
Attending poetry workshops at The Arts and Spirituality Center at Mercy Hospital, opened Dr. Choi up to the poetry culture in town. There she met Alexa Mergen, who helped Dr. Choi put together her poetry book published in 2013, Sungsook, Korean War Poems. She also met Gita Lloyd, who illustrated the cover.
“Sungsook is actually my given name when I was born,” Dr. Choi said.
Along the way, Dr. Choi met her poetry mentor, Helen Chan Lee, other local Koreans and American Korean War Veterans, who she also has honored in her work.
These days, Dr. Choi devotes herself to poetry and peace events. The past ten years, she’s helped run First Friday open mic at Dagnys Coffee, which during the pandemic has been over zoom. She also made April’s National Poetry Month in Bakersfield an annual thing, where she has helped highlight local poets.
“I’m so pleased when someone comes up to me at open mic and says, ‘this is the first time I have read my poem in public,’” Dr. Choi said. “It gives me such a wonderful feeling that we are not alone. We are connected, every one of us.’”
Dr. Choi also founded and runs Kern Poetry, helped the Arts Council of Kern name the first two Kern County Poet Laureates, Don Thompson and Professor Matthew Woodman, and she helps put on local events for UN International Day of Peace which is coming up September 21.