I like to say we left at first light
with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,
my father fighting him off with firecrackers,
even though Mao was already over a decade
dead, & my mother says all my father did
during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,
which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe
around Piano Island, a place I never read about
in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family
says they took me to, & that I loved.
What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?
To have forgotten the faces one first kissed?
They ask if I remember them, the aunts, the uncles,
& I say Yes it’s coming back, I say Of course,
when it’s No not at all, because when I last saw them
I was three, & the China of my first three years
is largely make-believe, my vast invented country,
my dream before I knew the word “dream,”
my father’s martial arts films plus a teaspoon-taste
of history. I like to say we left at first light,
we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous
kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces,
& the Hong Kong mafia was after us. I like to say
we were helped by a handsome mysterious Northerner,
who turned out himself to be a kung fu master.
I don’t like to say, I don’t remember crying.
No embracing in the airport, sobbing. I don’t remember
feeling bad, leaving China.
I like to say we left at first light, we snuck off
on some secret adventure, while the others were
still sleeping, still blanketed, warm
in their memories of us.
What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me
for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,
a dirty, bad son, I cried, thirteen, already too old,
too male for crying. When my father said Get out,
never come back, I cried & ran, threw myself into night.
Then returned, at first light, I don’t remember exactly
why, or what exactly came next. One memory claims
my mother rushed into the pink dawn bright
to see what had happened, reaching toward me with her hands,
& I wanted to say No. Don’t touch me.
Another memory insists the front door had simply been left
unlocked, & I slipped right through, found my room,
my bed, which felt somehow smaller, & fell asleep, for hours,
before my mother (anybody) seemed to notice.
I’m not certain which is the correct version, but what stays with me
is the leaving, the cry, the country splintering.
It’s been another five years since my mother has seen her sisters,
her own mother, who recently had a stroke, who has trouble
recalling who, why. I feel awful, my mother says,
not going back at once to see her. But too much is happening here.
Here, she says, as though it’s the most difficult,
least forgivable English word.
What would my mother say, if she were the one writing?
How would her voice sound? Which is really to ask, what is
my best guess, my invented, translated (Chinese-to-English,
English-to-English) mother’s voice? She might say:
We left at first light, we had to, the flight was early,
in early spring. Go, my mother urged, what are you doing,
waving at me, crying? Get on that plane before it leaves without you.
It was spring & I could smell it, despite the sterile glass
& metal of the airport—scent of my mother’s just-washed hair,
of the just-born flowers of fields we passed on the car ride over,
how I did not know those flowers were already
memory, how I thought I could smell them, boarding the plane,
the strange tunnel full of their aroma, their names
I once knew, & my mother’s long black hair—so impossible now.
Why did I never consider how different spring could smell, feel,
elsewhere? First light, last scent, lost
country. First & deepest severance that should have
prepared me for all others.
From When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen, published by BOA Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Chen Chen. Used with permission of BOA Editions.
About this Poem
“I’m tired of the dominant immigration narrative, the one that romanticizes the United States as a land of opportunity and fails to recognize the deep sorrow many immigrants confront, leaving a home country—even when it’s a real choice to do so. I’m also tired of what has more recently become the dominant coming out narrative, the happy tale of full acceptance that marginalizes the experiences of those who aren’t so fortunate to have supportive family. This poem is an attempt to hold heartbreak close.”
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017).
Date Published: 2017-03-22
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/first-light