How I Got That Name
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!
From The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty by Marilyn Chin, published by Milkweed Editions. Copyright © 1994 Marilyn Chin. Used with permission.
Marilyn Chin was born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. The author of six poetry collections, she currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Date Published: 1994-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/how-i-got-name