The beginning is always difficult. The immigrant worked his knuckles to the bone only to die under the wheels of the railroad. One thousand years before him, his ancestor fell building yet another annex to the Great Wall— and was entombed within his work. And I, the beginning of an end, the end of a beginning, sit here, drink unfermented green tea, scrawl these paltry lines for you. Grandfather, on your one-hundredth birthday, I have the answers to your last riddles: This is why the baboon’s ass is red. Why horses lie down only in moments of disaster. Why the hyena’s back is forever scarred. Why, that one hare who was saved, splits his upper lip, in a fit of hysterical laughter.
Today in hazy San Francisco, I face seaward Toward China, a giant begonia— Pink, fragrant, bitten By verdigris and insects. I sing her A blues song; even a Chinese girl gets the blues, Her reticence is black and blue. Let’s sing about the extinct Bengal tigers, about giant Pandas— “Ling Ling loves Xing Xing…yet, We will not mate. We are Not impotent, we are important. We blame the environment, we blame the zoo!” What shall we plant for the future? Bamboo, sassafras, coconut palms? No! Legumes, wheat, maize, old swine To milk the new. We are Americans now, we live in the tundra Of the logical, a sea of cities, a wood of cars. Farewell my ancestors: Hirsute Taoists, failed scholars, farewell My wetnurse who feared and loathed the Catholics, Who called out Now that half-men have occupied Canton Hide your daughters, lock your doors!
Soak in a hot bath; arrange my futuristic hair, then, the futon & the cushioned tatami. Cut orchids, cut fruit. Set the table for plenty, (but there is only one of me). And here you come— a cricket’s dance in the woods— in a fog-colored zoot suit. Your eyes are red & bleary. I am practicing good purity. I do not get angry. But here comes my father with the tiger’s claw. He paces and frets; I get no rest. The caged animal must be released. Here comes my mother with the serpent’s touch. I know the dim mak: the touch of death, I know the softness of the temples, the groin, the heart. Here come my sisters with the lizard’s tongue to expel the secret in a moment’s hiss. But they are slow on their haunches. I shall strike first. The weir-basket was a snare; the fish within were dying. You promised me fresh fish. You promised unconditional love and providence. Here comes my brother with the ox’s heart to explain the world in a plum’s pit. He is not your kind. You don’t understand his plight; nor does he your fomenting silence. Tiger’s claw, serpent’s touch, lizard’s tongue, ox’s heart. The caged animal is released. I believe in the touch of life. I shall keep my secret always. Although you have lost your way, you have never forsaken me. you have been whole. you have been good.
War chariots thunder, horses neigh, the barbarians are coming. What are we waiting for, young nubile women pointing at the wall, the barbarians are coming. They have heard about a weakened link in the wall. So, the barbarians have ears among us. So deceive yourself with illusions: you are only one woman, holding one broken brick in the wall. So deceive yourself with illusions: as if you matter, that brick and that wall. The barbarians are coming: they have red beards or beardless with a top knot. The barbarians are coming: they are your fathers, brothers, teachers, lovers; and they are clearly an other. The barbarians are coming: If you call me a horse, I must be a horse. If you call me a bison, I am equally guilty. When a thing is true and is correctly described, one doubles the blame by not admitting it: so, Zhuangzi, himself, was a barbarian king! Horse, horse, bison, bison, the barbarians are coming— and how they love to come. The smells of the great frontier exult in them.
an essay on assimilation
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn't pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men are measured.
Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
How we've managed to fool the experts
in education, statistic and demography—
We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.
Indeed, they can use us.
But the “Model Minority” is a tease.
We know you are watching now,
so we refuse to give you any!
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
The further west we go, we'll hit east;
the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn't hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!
Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
peered down from his kiosk in heaven
and saw that his descendants were ugly.
One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge
Another's profile—long and knobbed as a gourd.
A third, the sad, brutish one
may never, never marry.
And I, his least favorite—
“not quite boiled, not quite cooked,”
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—
too listless to fight for my people's destiny.
“To kill without resistance is not slaughter”
says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.
So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack “the patriarch”
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
and G.G. Chin the infamous,
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
survived by everybody and forgotten by all.
She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
it swallowed her whole.
She did not flinch nor writhe,
nor fret about the afterlife,
but stayed! Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!
There was blood and guts all over the road. I said I’m sorry, darling, and rolled over, expecting the slate to be clean; but she came, she who was never alive became resurrected. I saw her in a dream…a young girl in a qipao, Bespectacled, forever lingering, thriving on the other side of the world, walking in my soles as I walked, crying in my voice as I cried. When she arrived, I felt my knuckles in her knock, her light looming over the city’s great hollows. Hope lies within another country’s semaphores. The Goddess of Liberty, the Statue of Mercy— we have it all wrong—big boy, how we choose to love, how we choose to destroy, says Zhuangzi, is written in heaven—but leave the innocent ones alone, those alive, yet stillborn, undead, yet waiting in a fitful sleep undeserved of an awakening.
You go home one evening tired from work, and your mother boils you turtle soup. Twelve hours hunched over the hearth (who knows what else is in that cauldron.) You say, “Ma, you’ve poached the symbol of long life; that turtle lived four thousand years, swam the Wei, up the Yellow, over the Yangtze. Witnessed the Bronze Age, the High Tang, grazed on splendid sericulture.” (So, she boils the life out of him.) “All our ancestors have been fools. Remember Uncle Wu who rode ten thousand miles to kill a famous Manchu and ended up with his head on a pole? Eat, child, its liver will make you strong.” “Sometimes you’re the life, sometimes the sacrifice.” Her sobbing is inconsolable. So, you spread the gentle napkin over your lap in decorous Pasadena. Baby, some high priestess got it wrong. The golden decal on the green underbelly says “Made in Hong Kong.” Is there nothing left but the shell and humanity’s strange inscriptions, the songs, the rites, the oracles?
The dead piled up, thick, fragrant, on the fire escape. My mother ordered me again, and again, to sweep it clean. All that blooms must fall. I learned this not from the Dao, but from high school biology. Oh, the contradictions of having a broom and not a dustpan! I swept the leaves down, down through the iron grille and let the dead rain over the Wong family’s patio. And it was Achilles Wong who completed the task. We called her: The one-who-cleared-away-another-family’s-autumn. She blossomed, tall, benevolent, notwithstanding.
Are you the sky—or the allegory for loneliness? Are you the only Chinese restaurant in Roseburg, Oregon? A half-breed war orphan—adopted by proper Christians? A heathen poidog, a creamy half-and-half? Are you a dingy vinyl address book? A wrist Without a corsage? Are you baby’s breath Faced down on a teenage road in America? Are you earphones—detached Left dangling on an airplane jack to diaspora? Are you doomed to a childhood without music? Weary of your granny’s one-string, woe-be-gone erhu Mewling about the past Are you hate speech or are you a lullaby? Anecdotes requiring footnotes An ethnic joke rehashed How many Chinamen does it take—to screw How many Chinamen does it take—to screw A lightbulb? Are you so poor that you cannot call your mother? You have less than two dollars on your phone-card And it’s a long cable to Nirvana Are you a skylight through which the busgirl sees heaven? A chopping block stained by the blood of ten thousand innocents Which daily, the same busgirl must wipe off Does existence preempt essence? I “being” what my ancestors were not Suddenly, you’re a vegan vegetarian! Restaurant is a facticity and Getting the hell out—is transcendence Was the punch line “incandescent”? Was a nosebleed your last tender memory of her? Did he say no dogs and Chinawomen? Are you a rose—or a tattoo of fire?
A lament for Don (1958-2011)
Gaze gaze beyond the vermilion door
Leaf leaf tremble fall
Stare blankly at the the road's interminable end
Reduplications cold cold mountains
Long long valleys broad broad waters
Tears are exhausted now shed blood
Deep deep the baleful courtyards who knows how deep
Folds on folds of curtains
Gates trap infinite twilight
Walk walk through waning meadows
Steep steep toward ten-thousand Buddhas
Knuckles blue on the balustrade
In the land of missing pronouns
Sun is a continuous performance
And we my lover are nothing
How free and lush the bamboo grows, the bamboo grows and grows
Shoots and morasses, fillies and lassies and shreds and beds and rows
O phloem and pistil, nodes and ovules
The bamboo grows and grows
Her release, her joy, her oil, her toil, her moxie, her terror, her swirl
Dig deeper into soil, deeper into her soul, what do you find in my girl
Thrash of black hair and silken snare, face in the bottom of the world
Bound by ankles, poor deer, poor sow, O delicate hooves and fascicles
Dead doe, dead doe, dead doe
Wrists together, searing red tethers, blood draining from her soles
O choir, O psalm, O soaring fearsome tabernacle
The bamboo grows, the bamboo grows and grows
Through antlers and eyeholes, O sweet soul, O sweet, sweet soul
Thin green tails, purple entrails, the bamboo grows and grows
She flailed and wailed through flimsy veils, through bones and hissing marrow
Nobody to hear her, but wind and chaff, a gasp, then letting go
They loved her, then stoned her, buried her near her ancestors
My mother, my sister, my soul
Shimmering mesh, a brocade sash, hanging on a distant oracle
Springboks dance on shallow mounds, echoes, echoes, echoes