native tongue: poetry and prose

I’m calling this a then and now, but it’s probably closer to a translation. I remember reading a list of writing exercises (in middle school, I think), that suggested writing poetry, putting it away for a few months, then turning it into prose, putting that away, and turning that piece back into a poem. It has taken me just over a decade to try this. [For the record, I am choosing to see this not as a sign of some inherent need to procrastinate, but of (a) having an excellent memory and (b) setting really long-term goals, then following through.]

Anyway, as I mentioned before, I’ve been writing through The Undeniables since the beginning of November. (See the terrible first piece here. Or read a piece I’m actually a little proud of.) Coming up with topics has been kind of a struggle, the same struggle that has been a really convenient excuse not to write fiction for the past two decade or so. (I was a very prolific author in early elementary school.)

Today, I forced myself to submit a piece to a lit mag, something that has been on my calendar for the last three months (long-term goals, not procrastination). Instead of pulling together some of my Undeniables fiction (procrastination, goal fail), I ended up turning in a spoken-word piece, and I was going to cheat and post it to my Undeniables blog, too, but pretty much the only requirement of the Writers Workshop is that you write every day, so instead I turned the poem into prose. Fin introduction.

native tongue
(April 25, 2011)

It’s that ‘compliment’ that I know is going to make me angry:
‘Wow! You speak English so well. You’re so — eloquent! Where did you learn to talk like that?’

Where did I learn to talk like that?
Motherfucker, I was born here.

I study poems like the lines of my hands, devour novels like short stories, curl up at night with the Oxford English Dictionary tucked under my pillow –-
Actually, that was hyperbole, exaggeration used as rhetorical device.
Have you seen the Oxford English Dictionary? It’s, like, real real big

If you slept with the OED tucked under your pillow, you’d wake up with a crick in your neck and a spine as stiff as the one you pressed your cheek against.

That was wordplay, asshole.

I do double entendres, too.
I have earned my poetic license,
spent my hours behind the wheel,
passed your accent tests, too.

You — do you know what this language has cost me?
I am first-generation Chinese illiterate.
I cannot read my grandfather’s poems.
I live 6,776 miles away from the ashes of my grandmother’s bones.
And I am still searching for a way to write the word ‘home’ in a tongue that feels like my own.
I am still searching for cracks in the concrete to sink my naked roots in.

Maybe that’s why the word ‘diaspora’ depresses me.
Every time I hear it, I think of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind.

They can’t go home again.
I can’t go home again.
And I know I will write this poem again.

I know I will write this poem again
So maybe my rage is displaced —
I am aiming my anger at easy-target bigots
Instead of facing the fact that sometimes I resent my parents, for turning their backs on Taiwan,
for leaving behind tea and rice for Coke and Big Macs,
for the pursuit of an American dream built on San Francisco railroads,
built on Chinese workers backs.

Maybe I’m tired of seeing the banana in the mirror,
yellow on the outside, white on the inside,
split between a culture I’m surrounded by,
and one I don’t even really know.

Maybe I’m afraid to face my disappointment in myself,
for choosing to study French instead of Chinese;
I cannot read the stories my grandmother told to her four children.

And maybe I’m embarrassed by my shame,
embarrassed to be embarrassed when strangers mispronounce my name,
the way I mispronounce the phrases my parents spoke as schoolchildren,
the phrases they would speak if they went home again.

They can go home again.
But I — I can’t go home again
And I know I will write this poem again
In English,
which I speak
so well.

native tongue
(December 22, 2011)

Every time someone comments on my writing or the way I speak, I feel myself controlling my reaction. Most times, I accept the compliment at face value, but I’m always aware of undertones, or of the way faces register surprise. These days, most people are sophisticated enough to know they’re not supposed to ask where people “are really from,” but the question is still there, their faces comical as they desperately try to control their expressions and mask their curiosity.

Once, when I was on vacation in China, I overheard an older white couple struggling with chopsticks and trying to figure out if they could procure other utensils. When I offered to help, in fluent English, the woman practically jumped, like I was a secret agent sneakily blending in with the locals. (For the record, no Chinese person ever mistook me as a native, even before I opened my Coke-drinking mouth.)

The woman carefully pulled her eyebrows back to their normal resting place, thanked me for the offer, stuttered a bit, and finally settled for commenting on how eloquent I was.Eloquent. I hate that these strangers have imbued such a beautiful word with the dark stain of their own ignorance. I imagine running into that same woman on a street in California, wonder if she would speak slowly and loudly to me, then jump the same way at my rapid-fire, unaccented response.

During that same trip, I cursed my own inability to blend in, the way my tongue felt clumsy trying to wrap around the sounds my ears were used to hearing; there was some kind of disconnect in my brain that I just couldn’t get around, a physical metaphor of the vast gap between how I’d imagined my return to the Motherland and the hourly reminders that I was a foreigner here, too.

I jotted down fragments of thoughts in a notebook I had shoved into my back pocket, composed a few lines of what later became a spoken-word piece grappling with hyphenated identity. At the time, though, I was bitter that even my sense of loss was expressed in English, that I couldn’t document the things I was feeling in the language I grew up with but had never mastered. As a poet, being functionally conversational is not much better than not being able to speak a language at all; the nuances of words, of their tone, the complexities of their accreted meaning — all of the things that make language beautiful — are swept away when you’re using words as crude tools, enough to get by on. I wanted art. I wanted poetry. I wanted to be able to read the poems my grandfather composed during his own twenty-something existential crises.

The word “diaspora,” from the Greek for “scattering, dispersion,” has always had a haunting quality to me. All I can think of is people being thrown to the wind like dandelion seeds, incapable of finding their way back to their roots. My own parents’ journey to the States was already an echo of their own parents’ migrations: China to Taiwan to San Francisco, following the paths of so many others who, to the bai ren, all look the same. Even the stories start to sound alike, so that the second-generation kids, eager to bust out of another family history lesson and rejoin their American friends in pickup football, start to conflate the details into one shared narrative. We gave up our family to come here. To make a better life for you. To provide you with opportunities. So you could vote. So you could be free. So you could have a career, daughter. Get an education. Study hard. Make our sacrifice worthwhile.

For them, the storytellers, fate has already been sealed. Their greatest fears are realized when they finally understand that they, too, have lost the poetry of their native tongue. Their American schoolchildren do not hear the melody of their words; their alphabet-blinded eyes cannot recognize the beauty of delicate brushstrokes, the visual puns and secret messages waiting to be discovered. What use, then, is it to speak in metaphor, to imprint their daily banter with idioms?

The irony is deep, generational. I have taken the poetry of Chinese away from my parents, robbed them of an audience; they, my birthright voice, by surrounding me in a culture that promised success and demanded perfect diction as its price.

Somewhere, floating above our heads, dandelion seeds are being tossed in air currents, desperately seeking fertile soil to sink in shallow roots.

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T+N: Books and circles

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation.

I’m in the process of packing up my apartment, or perhaps more accurately, I’m rediscovering my blog as a way to procrastinate, instead of packing up my apartment. I’ve only been able to bring myself to pack up one of my bookshelves — the one in the living room* — and haven’t touched the three in my room. I’m pretty sure that once I do that, my room will no longer feel like a living space.

This (23 months) is the longest I’ve lived in any place since leaving home for college, and I think it’s become pretty apparent that my nesting instinct involves surrounding myself in the comforts of poetry and prose. I prefer buying books used, but if I read a book and have any kind of emotional reaction to it, it becomes really important for me to hold on to that specific copy, which probably explains why there are now more than four bookcases worth of books for me to pack up and transport to my new home.**

I originally posted this note, “Books and circles” on Facebook, on July 7, 2010, after visiting my mom’s cousin. I was in Taiwan for just under three weeks, in between my two AmeriCorps terms:

When I was eight, I read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I have this vivid memory of being sprawled on a living room floor in Taiwan in what I thought was a family friend’s house, completely caught up in the story, then trying to finish the entire series before I left the country. I remember getting to the part about Aslan and the stone table in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and figuring out it was an allegory, and that was the moment where I realized authors are badass because they can, like, do things with books and words and metaphors, and readers are all, “Hey, I was just reading this story about animals, but it’s actually not even about animals.

Today, I went with my mom to see her cousin, whom she thought I hadn’t met and whom I didn’t recognize. The first thing she said was that she remembers the first time we met, when I was lying on the floor reading while all the other kids were playing. (Me: “Yeah, that sounds like me.”)

I asked if I had been reading the Chronicles of Narnia, but she didn’t recognize the titles or author until my mom repronounced “C.S. Lewis” in a Chinese accent, and then my mom’s cousin walked into a bedroom and came back and presented me with the boxed set that I’d read 16 years ago. Later in the conversation, my mom mentioned that people call her cousin Zhang 老師 (teacher), and that name fit into the memory and explains why I thought I was with non-family.

Now everything makes sense, and the universe feels oddly tidy.

Also, my aunt (Chinese people don’t bother with numbering and removing cousins, thank you very much) is an amazing woman who’s dedicated her life to helping other people, and it was lovely to meet her for the first time again.

P.S. Anne Fadiman’s essay “Marrying Libraries” in Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader, about how she and her husband joined their collections, is a great piece about many book-related things, including how individual books become imbued with the memories of the times you read them.

[Actually, I think I’m attributing something Mark Z. Danielewski said at the Festival of Books to Fadiman, but when he said what he said, it reminded me of her essay, and I don’t have that book or a transcript with me to check exactly what words either used. (Embarrassing admission: I checked Amazon to read part of the essay and googled my #latfob livetweeting, but the essay cuts off on the preview, and I didn’t tweet what MZD said.)]

This note was supposed to be shorter than it’s becoming. I could easily tack on something about meeting my mom’s other cousin’s husband in England, who owns a used bookshop, and knowing he was family even though he was technically an elderly English gentleman I’d never seen before and hadn’t heard of until a few weeks earlier. Or about talking to him about C.S. Lewis, too. Or about how I came down to breakfast a few days later and a first-edition Great Expectations was just sitting there, next to a plate of scrambled eggs. Or about Ex Libris or about reading as a kid and having to be “woken up” from books, which Fadiman talks about in the preface. But I have a boxed set to go browse.

Summary: Books are important.

-30- Facebook note

Update: I just reread this note and was amused that I mentioned using the Internet to figure out whether I was referring to the right texts. I think that impulse is heavily influenced from years of copy editing and fact-checking, which in turn was both influenced by and magnified by an unhealthy need to be right. I’m working on it, I swear.

My mom’s cousin passed away a few months later. She was battling cancer when we went to visit and was a little low energy, but she was still making sure that they people she helped were taken care of. Along with all of the people she helped through her church, she had a huge influence on my closest two cousins when they lived in Taiwan for a year as kids. After we talked about The Chronicles of Narnia, she asked about what I do, and it was the first time I had a conversation about my job with a member of my family and felt like they got it. My mom was there, of course, and I think she finally got a clearer picture of why I had decided to enlist in a second City Year. My parents have always been supportive and always tell me they just want me to be happy, but from my aunt, it felt like she was actually giving me her blessing to continue working with students.***

I now have my own copy of Ex Libris, a serendipitous stick-everything-in-a-box book sale acquisition. I was thinking about the essay “Marrying Libraries” the other day when one of my new roommates talked about filling our new living room with bookshelves so that we can read each other’s favorites and merge our book collections. I had a really awkward moment of intense discomfort, followed by a “we’re not there yet” conversation. This is one of my best friends, one of the first people I came out to, one of the only people I’ve ever let touch me with bare feet (this is really just illuminating more of my neuroses than helping me to make my point). As I said above, I prefer buying used books, and I’m a huge advocate for borrowing and lending books  — but I’m not ready to intercalate anyone’s books with mine yet. And, in a hugely nerdy way, I realized that “Marrying Libraries” has become my benchmark for choosing someone I want to spend my life with. When I’m ready to call my books ours, that’s when I’ll know.

* Living room bookcase consisted of theory books, memoirs, anthologies and assorted books I bought and haven’t gotten to sorting yet. It was also supplemented by two file boxes with more books, courtesy of a few dangerous stick-everything-in-a-box-and-pay book sales at The Last Bookstore’s warehouse and the UCLA English department’s reading room. These were also, one might say, books that haven’t entered into the circle of trust and are therefore allowed to be out in the open.

** There’s a huge backyard and space for people to come over and sit and there are citrus trees in the backyard and there’s lavender in the front yard and a kitchen nook with adorable carved benches! Dinner parties! Sangria in mason jars in the backyard! Urban gardening! Herb-infused everything! I am very excited! Can you tell!?

*** My mom called and retroactively gave me her blessing a few months ago and told me she was proud of the work I’ve done. I think the turning point was watching the Heroes graduation video I cut together; you can’t see the Heroes and not understand how important youth development work is. They are one of the most inspiring groups of people I have ever had the privilege to spend time with.

T+N: Meaning of life and stuff

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation. The excerpted paragraph was from a freakishly long (1,833 words, if you’re curious) … Continue reading

T+N: Digital communities, social media and cyborg anthropology

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation. This was originally a Facebook note (posted Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 9:53 a.m.), … Continue reading