Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles

When I was sixteen, I modeled fur coats for a furrier.
White men gazed down my neck like wolves

but my mink collar protected me. When I was sixteen,
I was an extra in A Tale of Two Worlds. If I didn’t pour

someone’s tea, then I was someone’s wife. Every brother,
father, or husband of mine was nefarious. They held me

at knifepoint, my neck in a chokehold. If they didn’t murder
me, I died of an opium overdose. Now it’s 1984

and another white girl awaits her sweet sixteen. It’s 1984
and another white girl angsts about a jock who kisses

her at the end of the film. Now it’s 1984 and Long
Duk Dong is the white girl’s houseguest. He dances,

drunk, agog with gong sounds . All around the nation,
teens still taunt us. Hallways bloat with sweaters, slurs.

When I was eight, the boy who sat behind me brought pins
to class. “Do Asians feel pain the way we do?” he’d ask.

He’d stick the needles to the back of my neck until I winced.
I wore six wool coats so I wouldn’t feel the sting. It’s 1984

so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city

without shores. Cast me as that girl who rivets center stage
or cast me away, into the blue where my lips don’t touch

or say. If I take my time machine back to sixteen, or twenty,
or eight, I’d blow out all my candles. Sixteen wishes

extinguish and burn. The boy will never kiss me at the end
of the movie. The boy will only touch me with his needles.


From Oculus. Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.