No line, no we want to be kids again. We want to be friends. No worries where the punctuation ends. No in over your head. The birds got bones but still they bend. Ain’t hollow yet. Once. Poems playdough they, they won’t know. They forget and so we get to relive. We spring. We get to sing. Off key, off beat, off these swings. The knot knowings. These speakers wheeze. Music. He’s funny man. He sleeps. He’ll wheeze. We see. Once we were glad all at the top &. Sing. Say, sycamore. We’ve seen these things. We found stuck down in celery heart God. We’ve seen flowers saying let me be. We get to say see this this is not a test. See/saw. Saying this is not a drill. Birds pecking for oil. We get to see this. We see you, men on the moon. Once in a sycamore. Your best shot, Doctor, Doctor. My arm bone connects to my shoulder bone. I’ve got a bad case. I get chills. We hear. Voices. Once we were glad all at the top. We end stop. We begin to wheeze. We seize. We grow these wings. Fly but forget to be. In a sycamore. We sang. At the top. Once, we put words in our mouths.
Extimacy of a collective trauma
The patent fear upon which we let rest our biases creeps upon us like a network of knowing cells. A drop of Pom spreads throughout a white shirt in the wash, forces slipping red beads all along its spindled fibers. The TV blares the capillary action of a whitewashed war. We tremble until polished anchors shed tears for the truths they will not say, and these flow out with the washing. Thin plastic shirts slip over us like a pleasure smooth enough to choke on. They flood down with leaflets gone unread to the sewers, push fatbergs and jetsam, microfibers coalescing as a network we cannot see. Red elastic spurts slip over us like a pleasure smooth enough to choke on. We discard bodies as if they were our own. Our skin grows into its own stain, is its own reverse, its insides outed and unready for a wretching, sicklife world. The only thing left the soldier took up close was his very own self. If only God could have made that seem more true. Discard- ing these hells as if they were my home.
The first result on YouTube when I search “extimacy” is a woman who has put on a variety of wearable technologies for a year and has not taken them off. She is at a loss but is excited to try out something called a mood sweater. What she is wearing has not given her extimacy, which she describes as allowing people (including herself) an insight into—I guess—her unconscious, which, confoundingly, she also calls her self. I wonder what she calls the technologies. She is a data scientist.
That is not the extimacy in my poem, and yet my alarmed reaction to the video is emblematic of what I wrote about in the poem. Extimacy, a Lacanian concept, is just what mathematicians call a mapping, a (topo)logical collapse between what we so often suppose are fixed opposites, self and Other. Such an encounter with what is “strange to me, although it is at the heart of me” can indeed be transcendent, but it is also sure to be terrifying. The extimacy in my poem is that of the mood sweater’s surveillance capitalism, of the so-called War on Terror, of coded messages, and of ecological collapse. A collapse of the binary keep, self/Other, that happens again and again. But these traumas are collective; the Other here is big. Illegible as it may be, this poem is one of witness and protest, not memoir.
Jacob J Billingsley: I’m a queer bipolar poet in St. Louis, and I write most often when I am manic or hypomanic. I aestheticize worry and hurt. I love deceptive syntax. I don’t know if writing is a way of transcending or transceiving. I have a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Missouri. I serve on Carve Magazine’s poetry committee. This is my debut publication.
Content warning: science-fictional medical abuse, body horror, transmisogyny
Endgame Girl Form
In the year 20XX a great cataclysm overcomes humanity. The cataclysm is of indiscernible nature, gender, and political inclination. Some believe the cataclysm to be God. Others believe it to be the first mother’s hatred. Still others refuse to acknowledge a difference.
In the future the only women left are invented: structurally exquisite automatons of diamond and titanium designed to survive the harsh conditions of the post-apocalyptic gender atopia. Women are wired from “birth” for adornment and armament, women are lab-grown in chambers filled with heat and weight in a brutally cost-efficient but chemically identical approximation of the real thing. Differences can only be discerned by experts under great magnification that reveal curved growth lines, microscopic gas bubbles, increased likelihood of osteoporosis and urological conditions.
Future breed women make abominations of language, and are thusly denied publication. Language is born out of utility, a mechanism to convey battle strategy by meme. Women are our soldiers for the permanence, the vessels of contrived ingenuity into which We (the protagonists, the Player Characters) place our attempts at perpetuity.
[i h8 / th future. i h8 th way it wud desire smth / from us, as if / it had a will. smth like hunger / born from th h8treds of men. i h8 / how it resurrex / dead names, like “destiny” / and “vitruvian .” h8 how it keeps making us. i promise / i wont let it get away with this.]
Portrait In Saw Wave
(after Lauren Bousfield and Ada Rook)
smth abt an imprecise distortion of / form and msg. smth abt noise. smth abt / disruption of respectable comm / -unication. smth abt illegibility. smth abt hurtin ur ears. smth abt liking / the hurt. smth abt liking hurting u. / i like hurting. / im gonna peel my face out of the sticky plastic sheet of white noise. / an shes gonna look slick an brand new an / made up all ovr an beautiful an / im nvr gonna make sense / to u. thunder makes a noise with a name / but on the video its jus clippin brutality. / listen its like this, / u understand form thru the empty / space. u understand color by the / diffrence. you build rhythm out of the broken / and remade silence. / pause. repeat. pause. / this is the world of things meant to exist. / the world of / i am where i am supposed to be. / im not / where i should be. im not here to live in it. / im the dis / -rup / -shun / of canonic structure. / im the thing that cant be heard. / im the noise.
Girl is a Cup
I. Girl is a cup. Girl is a vessel towards something. Girl is a thing to be filled with something else, poured into as another thing is evacuated. Girl is shaped to carry something alien.
I am a small oat milk iced latte which is a vessel named after its contents, rather than what it is (which is a cup filled with cold slaking), and after the contents are emptied the purpose of the vessel is void, and it is stripped of a name and discarded. Plastic carcass decomposing in an empty Starbucks.
II. Rain on the mountain basin is a name. Swelling the eroded pelvis of saltwater. The accumulation of violence made into a new face, even in stone. The water keeps falling cold. The mountain basin imagines the raindrops are still, and that she is racing towards heaven, a fantasy of being elsewhere.
Two girls hold their hands out to each other. They locate love outside the body, in fluids and salt. I want to hold you. Come into my hands. I want to hollow out and carry you. I want holding to be every kind of touch.
I was six years old and terrified of the thought of swallowing an apple seed. Feeling her root gutrot into my womb, weave latticework hunger into my lungs, something parched and cynical coming up my throat. She would grow through me like a sin, make herself known like bitterness. “This is what could have happened,” she says, before the world ends. “This is how it could have been different.” Sweet and crisp and all inside you. Don’t you hate it? Don’t you want to tear it down?
I am with a girl I have loved wrong. We are wine drunk and bludgeoning each other with tendernesses and indulgent sentimentalities. We are the last survivors of womankind. We are crushing grapes for tomorrow, somehow, even though tomorrow won’t come. I hate the way we became. The way we leave thick streaks of ourselves on the windowsills for the mice to come and lap. The way we still tried to love when we didn’t know how. The way she clutches my hand as if to say: Imagine. We could have so much more than this.
Nora Hikari is an emerging poet and Asian-American trans lesbian based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Perhappened Magazine, ANMLY, and Ogma Magazine, among others, and her poem “Deer-to-Fish Transition Timeline” has been nominated for the Best of the Net award. She can be found at @norabot2.0 on Instagram, and at her website norahikari.com.
There’s too little light in this room, I have something to tell you –
Lean closer, I’ll write more quickly, I promise, I love you –
don’t cry –
over the kitchen counter today, clearing scraps, I started
Out the sliding door, I could see the unkempt grass bullied by a fleeing wind –
and I was sad for the future, I thought of all the things he is, now.
If emotion is useless, then each tear is: not exorcism, not process, but how I can’t do anything else; inflammatory mediators throwing flags into the brine of the future, the future, the future, the future, the future is dripping onto the counter, and in the fading light we can still taste the salt and say, at least –
a love you can choke on, and get, heavy – wearing, grinding at least –
so close now, your face, ear and the future
Shane Neilson is a disabled poet, physician, and critic. He lives in Oakville, Ontario. He completed his PhD in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in 2018 (focus on disability studies) for which he received the Governor General’s Gold Medal. A previous book, Dysphoria (PQL, 2017) was awarded the Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry in 2018. He is the festival director of the AbleHamilton Poetry Festival which just successfully completed its second run. His poems appeared in Poetry Magazine in April of this year. Work from his latest book, New Brunswick, has appeared on Verse Daily.
Content warning: abortion, unsanitary/maggots, suicide, incest, sexual violence, self-harm
Sometime after 2014, Lee Soho created a character by her birth name, Kyungjin, to play with the scars of a self who is no longer herself. She wrote “Blowfish Soup” (included in this folio) that launched a series of poems called “Kyungjin’s Home,” reprocessing her relationship with her sister Sijin through persona.
The first draft of this series felt to her like “the diary of a crazy bitch raging at the world,” thereby prompting more poems that elaborate on Kyungjin’s arc throughout the five-part collection. These poems I have selected for “WRITING OURSELVES / MAD” are presented in the order they are in the book but intentionally pulled from different sections to create a new friction.
Simply put, Kyungjin is a distortion of the past and present, truth and fiction. Diary entries with non-existent dates, unreal acts of ultraviolence, and even a made-up news article comprise Catcalling. Yet the feeling of autobiography may overwhelm all the apparent artifice.
In her acceptance speech for the Kim Soo-young Literary Award, Lee Soho said she couldn’t have disclosed anything if not for poetry because it specially allows for a variety of interpretations. Given the context of this folio, I thought content warnings would be appropriate, but I also worry that I—as neither Kyungjin nor Soho—may be limiting the scope through which these poems could be interpreted. I for one accept whatever anecdotes Lee Soho chooses to tell me in confidence, and I promise the “facts” hardly affect my translation of the text itself.
Lastly, the content behind these warnings does not exist merely to trigger traumatic memories. “My poetry may be uncomfortable for some people,” Lee Soho said, “but I intend to keep writing with the belief that it can provide a great consolation for others.” We can be simultaneously some and others.
죽겠다고 고백한 날 동생도 고백했다.
너 사람 죽여 봤어? 성녀인 척하지 마 너도 중절 수술한 적 있지 자궁에 혹도 있을 거야 더러운 년
그러니까 약을 꼬박꼬박 먹었어야지 멍청한 년아
그날 우리는 미역국 대신 복어국을 먹었다. 각자 방에 가서 먹었다. 아무리 발라내도 복어에는 독이 있을 것 같아. 우린 죽을지도 몰라. 우리는 복어국을 먹고 부르르 떨었다. 며칠 뒤 복어 냄비에 구더기가 들끓었다. 우리는 그걸 국자로 퍼먹었다. 똑똑히 들어. 내가 꼭 너보다 먼저 죽을 거야. 구더기를 씹던 동생이 말했다.
지긋지스하게도 오래 사네 죽겠다더니 아직도 살아 있잖아?
걱정 마 니가 죽으면 나도 그때 죽어 버릴 거야
나는 동생의 살가죽을 덮고 동생 방문 앞에 섰다. 방 안에서 비닐봉지를 얼굴에 쓴 동생을 봤다. 행거에 걸린 허리띠로 제 목을 조르는 동생을, 눈앞에서 대롱대롱 흔들리는 동생을 봤다. 방바닥에 말라 비틀어진 하루하루를 지우며, 나는 흔들리는 동생의 목에서 허리띠를 풀었다. 노크를 한다.
죽겠다고 고백한 날 나도 고백했다.
똑똑 너 사람 죽여 봤어? 성녀인 척하지 마 너 같은 게 제일 더러워
The day I confessed I wanted to die little sister confessed too.
Have you ever killed anyone? Don’t pretend to be a saint You’ve had an abortion too huh You probably even have a cyst in your uterus Dirty bitch
That’s why you should’ve taken your pills every day you stupid bitch
That day we ate blowfish soup instead of postpartum soup. We ate in separate rooms. No matter how much I debone it I feel like the blowfish will be poisonous. We might die. We ate the funerary soup and shuddered. A few days later maggots swarmed in the blowfish pot. We ate them up with a ladle. Listen up. I’m going to die first no matter what. Chewing on maggots, little sister said,
You’ve been alive for an awful long time
You’re still here Didn’t you say you wanted to die?
Don’t worry When you die I’m going to die right then
I covered myself in little sister’s skin and stood in front of her room. Inside I saw little sister wearing a plastic bag on her face. Little sister choking herself with a belt on a hanger. I saw little sister dingledangling before my eyes. Erasing the days that dried up on the bedroom floor, I loosened the belt from the neck of my swaying sister. I knock.
The day she confessed she wanted to die I confessed too.
Knock knock Have you ever killed anyone? Don’t pretend to be a saint You’re the dirtiest kind there is
내가 요즘 신인들 시집을 자주 보잖아. 잘 들어 시라는건 말이야 미치는 거야. 지금 네 상태에서 한 발자국 더 나아가야지. 독자들을 니 발밑에 무릎 꿇게 만들어야지. 선배들 니들 좆도 아니야 이런 마음으로 나도 뛰어넘어야 하는 거야. 그래 알지 너 시 잘 쓰거든? 시를 못 쓰면 내가 이런 얘기 하지도 않아. 근데 니가 가족 시를 쓴다는 그 행위 자체에 매몰되어 있는 거 같아. 니가 이해를 못하는 거 같으니까 예를 들어 볼게 너 제일 좋아하는 시인이 누구야. 그래 최승자처럼 되고 싶다며, 근데 넌 최승자가 될 수 없어. 다르거든 이 세상에 최승자는 최승자 하나야. 니 시는 말야 뭐랄까. 끝까지 안 간 느낌? 더 갈 수 있는데, 지금보다 더 극단으로 가야 한단 말이야. 예를 들어 볼게 극다능로 간 시인이 누가 있을까 그래 최승자.
내가 보기에는 말이야 니가 착한데 나쁜 척을 하니까 그런 거라고. 그게 진짜 너라고 생각하면 독하게 밀고 가란 말이야 미친년처럼. 시의 끝에 매달려 있으란 말이야. 거기서 한 발짝 더 나아가란 말이야. 말해 봐 넌 어떤 시인이랑 싸워서 이길 거야? 어떤 시인이랑 겨룰 수 있다고 생각해 니가. 니 시는 말야 솔직히 아직 아무도 못 이겨.
You know I read a lot of debut collections these days. Listen, being a poet means going crazy. You need to go one step farther from where you are right now. Make the readers kneel at your feet. Kill all your literary heroes and jump over our dead bodies. Yeah, you write good poems. If you weren’t any good I wouldn’t even bother saying this. But I think you’re stuck in a rut writing about your family. Since you don’t seem to understand, I’ll give you an example. Who’s your favorite poet? That’s right, you said you wanted to be like Choi Seungja, but you can’t become Choi Seungja. Because you’re different. The only Choi Seungja in the world is Choi Seungja herself. Your poems are like, how do I say this. They haven’t reached the edge? You could go farther. I’m saying, you need to be much more extreme than you are now. I’ll give you an example of a poet who went there. That’s right, Choi Seungja.
The way I see it, it’s because you’re nice but you act like you’re not. If you think that’s really you, stick with it! Like a crazy bitch. I’m telling you, hang on the edge of poetry. Then take another step forward from there. Tell me, which poet are you going to fight and win against? Who do you think you can compete with? Your poetry, to be honest, can’t beat anyone yet.
마이 리틀 다이어리 —우리집
1987년 4월 6일 애를 만들었다
부엌칼로 불알을 떼고
똑똑히 봐 시진아
애는 같이 만드는 거라 했지
이제 눈 감고도 만들 수 있겠지
한 번 해 봤으니까
이제 안에서도 할 수 있겠지?
My Little Diary — Our HOME
April 6, 1987 I made a child
Outside the house
I cut off my balls with a kitchen knife
and lowered my pants
Look closely Sijin
A child is something you make together
You can make it with your eyes closed now
Now that you’ve done it once
you can also do it indoors right?
마이 리틀 다이어리 —경진이네
2월 19일 배냇저고리를 입고 면사포를 썼다 동생과 나는 하나의 웨딩 케이크에 꽂혔다 단칸방, 우리는 침대에서 말을 아꼈다
2월 20일 처음 보는 변기와 잤다 언니를 낳고 언니를 동생이라 부르고 우리는 응애응애 울기 위해 엉덩이를 맞는 연습을 했다
창의적으로 매 맞는 수업료 만오천 원
연기를 더 잘할 수 있으면 좋았을 텐데
더 거친 숨소리 더 거친 교성 더 유연한 다리 우아한 다리 마른 다리 위에 젖은 다리 매끈한 다리와 울퉁불퉁한 다리 넘쳐 나는 다리 위에 엉킨 다리들 휩쓸려 가는 다리들 수몰된 우리의 다리들 무너지는 흔들리는 우리, 우리의 다리들
2월 22일 밤이 계속되자 꼭 감은 동생의 눈 자정의 입맞춤에도 깨지 않았따 동생에게 물었다
난 몇 번째야? 대답 대신 약지에만 나를 걸고 배배 꼬았다
언니는 참을 줄 몰라 꼴릴 줄만 알지
2월 23일 동생의 엄지와 약지만 골라 꺾었다 빨면 편히 잠들 수 있었다
2월 24일 엄지보다 더 큰 엄지를 다리 사이에서 찾았다
2월 25일 동생은 나를 엄지 위에 태우고 흔들다 쓰레기통에 버려지는 모습을 사랑했다 사랑은 언제나 끝물이 클라이맥스니까 우리가 가장 좋아하는 바로 그 장면!
2월 26일 레버를 눌렀다 동생은 빨려 들어갔다
나는 여기 없어요
2월 27일 동생이일기를쓸때 나는낯선우리에대한시를쓴다 지긋지긋하게우리로묶이는그런 시를
My Little Diary — Kyungjin’s HOME
February 19 I wore baby clothes and a bridal veil Little sister and I were stuck on top of the same wedding cake Single room, we spared our words in bed
February 20 I slept with a toilet I just met I gave birth to my big sister and called her little sister and we practiced being spanked so we could cry waa waa
Fee for a class on being punished creatively 15,000 won
I wish I could’ve faked it better
Rougher breaths rougher moans more flexible legs elegant legs skinny legs below wet legs smooth legs and bumpy legs legs for days below tangled legs legs being swept away our submerged legs our legs crumbling like bridges shaking us, our legs our bridges
February 22 Because the night continued little sister’s eyes were shut She didn’t wake up even at the midnight kiss I asked her
How many were there before me? Instead of answering she wrapped me around her ring finger and twisted me some more
You don’t know how to wait, big sis You only know how to get horny
February 23 I snapped little sister’s index and ring fingers only I could fall asleep easily when I sucked on them
February 24 I found a thumb bigger than a thumb between legs
February 25 Little sister let me ride her thumb She loved the way I looked being shaken around then tossed in the trash because the very last drop of love is its climax Our favorite scene!
February 26 I pulled the lever Little sister got sucked in
She cried out
I’m not here
February 27 While my little sister journals I write a poem about an unfamiliar us Yet another poem where we’re squared into us
마이 리틀 다이어리 —시진이네
2월 27일 의사 선생님께 이시진 올림
2월 26일 일기장에서 가장 못된 문장만 골랐다 언니의 입을, 혀를, 잘못 놀린 손을, 양손을 잘라야만 했다 더는 쓰지 못할 거야 그래도 괜찮지? 아무도 읽지 않을 버러지 같은 시니까
2월 25일 부곡하와이에서 꽃 대신 말린 남자를 사 왔다 내가 침대에서 훌라 춤을 추고 허리를 돌리는 사이 언니는 언니를, 나를, 나라는 애인을, 동생을 팔아 시를 쓰고 고작 삼만 원을 벌어 왔다
2월 24일 씨발 내가 먼저 태어났더라면
2월 23일 새처럼 곤두박질치는 가세
2월 22일 집은 더웠다 선풍기를 틀어도 늘 비닐하우스에 있는 것처럼 땀으로 뒤범벅된 내가 소파에 온몸을 활짝 펼치고 누우면 언니는 말했다
오오 벌거벗은 나의 임금이시여! 다리 사이를 기라면 기고 머리를 조아리겠나이다
2월 21일 언니는 남자 없이도 조금 더 느낄 수 있도록 주름에 주름을 접었다
아인슈타인은 뇌에 주름이 많았대 그래서 남들보다 많이 안대 내가 더 많은 주름을 그 주름을 만들어 줄게
오래오래 살아라 시진아
언니는 남자를 접어 학을 날린다 질 안에 천 개의 학을 접어 넣는다 학에게 이름을 붙인다 김수한무거북이와두루미삼천갑자동방삭칙칙카포 싸리싸리센타워리워리세브리카무두셀라구름이허리케인담벼락서생원의고양이바둑이는돌돌이
시진아 거북이 알도 접을까? 접어서 거기 넣을까? 그럼 네 기분이 좋겠지?
2월 19일 ;;* 나는 언니의 눈동자 밑에 쉼표를 붙였다 눈동자를 연필로 더, 더, 더 덧대어 칠하고 눈 밑을 꼬집어 어니를 울렸다
시꺼먼 눈동자 밑으로 끝없는 쉼표, 쉼표가 태어났다 (;;)**
* 2월 30일 세미콜론 데이;; 문장을 끝맺을 때 쓰지만 끝내지 않기로 할 때도 쓴다. ** 2월 31일 언니가 말했다. ‘우리’는 끝나지 않아 영원히.
My Little Diary —Sijin’s HOME
February 27 Dear Doctor Sincerely Lee Sijin
February 26 I picked the ugliest sentences from her diary I had to cut off Unni’s lips, her tongue, her misbehaving hands, both of them You won’t be able to write anymore That’s fine, right? They’re just pesty poems that nobody’ll read
February 25 Instead of flowers I bought a dried man from Bugok Hawaii While I danced hula and gyrated my hips in bed Unni sold out herself, me, her lover that was me, her little sister to write a poem and earned only 30,000 won
February 24 Fuck If only I’d been born first
February 23 Family finances nosediving like a bird
February 22 It was hot inside the house When I, always covered in sweat like I was in a hothouse even with the fan on, spread my whole body and lay across the sofa Unni said
Oh my naked emperor! I shall crawl between your legs if you sayeth and kowtow to you sire
February 21 To come without a man Unni folded wrinkle upon wrinkle
Apparently Einstein’s brain was extra wrinkly That’s why he knew more than others
I’ll make you more wrinkles more of those wrinkles
Live a long life, Sijin
Unni folds a man and flies a paper crane She folds a thousand cranes into her vagina She names the cranes long for longevity’s sake: Gimsuhanmu Geobugiwa Durumi Samcheongapja Dongbangsak Chikchik Kapo Sari Sari Senta Woriwori Sebeurikka Mudusella Gureumi Heorikeine Dambyeorak Seosaengwone Goyangi Badugineun Doldori
Sijin should we make turtle eggs too? Should we fold them and put them inside? Then you’ll feel good, won’t you?
February 19 ;;* I added commas under Unni’s pupils I drew over, over, over, over them then pinched below the eyes to make her cry
Beneath the pitch-black pupils endless commas, commas were born (;;)**
* February 30, Semicolon Day;; Used to end a sentence but also used when you decide not to end it. ** On February 31, Unni said that “us” will never ever end.
So J. Lee is the translator of Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press, 2020), Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (Honford Star, 2021), and Lee Soho’s Catcalling (Open Letter Books, 2021). They also make chogwa, a quarterly e-zine featuring one Korean poem and multiple English translations.
Lee Soho (b. 1988) studied creative writing at the Seoul Arts University, and earned an MA in Korean literature from Dongguk University. She made her debut winning the Newcomer Award in Modern Poetry in 2014. Her first collection, Catcalling, won the Kim Su-young Literary Award in 2018.
One week after your arranged marriage, on your maiden intercontinental flight from Ahmedabad International Airport to Dallas Fort Worth, you will sit next to your husband for more than 24 hours, half of which the two of you will spend sleeping, exhausted from your four-day-long wedding celebration, a hurried trip to Bombay to get your visa, and a small rooftop reception at his house. The devastating aftermath of the 2001 Gujrat earthquake, two days before your wedding, is still being felt in the aftershocks of the land and people’s consciousness, and though you are not superstitious, you can’t help but wonder what it portends for your arranged-marriage-wedded life to come.
On that same flight, somewhere over Cairo, Egypt, when you both finally wake up, he will head to the bathroom to brush his teeth and gargle with the small bottle of mouthwash kept in the cabinet above the tiny basin. Six months later, after the two of you have settled into your domestic life, you will scoff at each other’s dental hygiene routine—he brushes his teeth first thing in the morning, you like to do it after drinking a tall glass of water and a cup of strong adrakwali chai, made the way you have always liked, one-fourth cup of milk, three-fourths cup of water, two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon Brook Bond Red Label loose tea leaves, freshly grated ginger root, boiled till the chai is terracotta brown. He will tell you he grew up drinking tea made with Vagh Bakari (lion and goat) tea leaves, a brand whose television ad you had watched with derision for how it turned a dominating mother-in-law into a docile, motherly figure after drinking the tea her daughter-in-law made. As if tea could solve differences and strengthen marital ties. A month after settling in your one-bedroom apartment, you will start buying both brands and mixing the tea leaves in a big container, so the flavor of Vagh Bakari and the color of Brook Bond can be enjoyed with the morning cuppa. He will start making the morning tea, because you can never wake up early enough to make it for the both of you. He’ll tell you he is thankful you didn’t choose to be a doctor, or your patients would’ve died waiting for you to get up and make your morning cup of chai.
The only chai that is offered on the Lufthansa plane is a paper cup of warm water with a tea bag seeping in it. You don’t care for the tepid flavored water, so you switch to coffee with milk and two sugars. He drinks black coffee, a habit he picked up after living in America for the last two years. In time, you will grow to appreciate the dark roasts at local coffee shops but will always add a generous splash of milk, two sugars and a sprinkling of nutmeg that will remind you of Ma’s instant Nescafe with a dash of nutmeg. It is morning somewhere over the American continent when you realize that all the coffee you drank is pushing against your bladder. In the tiny bathroom of the Lufthansa plane, you will hitch up your kameez, and struggle to untie the strings on your salwar so you can squat on the cold steel toilet to pee, wash your hands and straighten your clothes and swirl the mint green liquid that stings your tongue, spray perfume under your armpits and behind your ears because you want your husband of one week to think you can smell of peaches and roses and minty fresh breath 38,000 feet above the earth. A few weeks later, you will hear his discourse on why stereotypes about Indians are not that far off in his circle of acquaintances—body odor (they don’t wash their clothes often), bad breath (smell of spicy food lingers), bad posture (hunched shoulders). In time, you will start noticing these things too, and then adding your own anecdotal observations to his list—horizontal stripe T-shirts, oily hair, mustachioed men mumbling out last syllables.
When the mustachioed friend of your husband picks up the two of you from the airport, you will sit in the heated cocoon of his Honda Civic (desis drive Hondas and Toyotas, reliable, dependable cars with a good resale value) and listen to the two men from the back seat of the car talk about green cards, parking garages, weather, a big garbage bag full of his mail, friends who cleaned his apartment during his three-week India vacation to get married. The mustachioed man will drop the two of you at the 750 sq. ft. first-floor apartment with one bedroom, living room, galley kitchen. He will help bring in the luggage, four big suitcases and two carry-ons. You will walk in the apartment, over the rose petals strewn on the beige carpet, past the entrance, balloons and buntings on the speckled white walls, the living room with two brown leather couches and a big screen TV, a grey plastic patio dining table in one corner, to the small bedroom with a queen-sized bed, wood and wrought iron bedframe, a particle board office desk, a desktop and keyboard. The fact that you are in a foreign land where the ritual of stepping over your husband’s threshold will not involve a container of rice that you will topple with your toes will hit you with a force that you are not prepared for. Over the years, you will miss out on many more rituals and festivals and celebrations, but for now, you circle back to the living room just as the heater kicks in. You sink on the leather sofa, that’s called a couch, and look around the apartment that’ll be your home for the next five years.
It takes five seconds for a 911 call to go through but you don’t know that when on your first day you decide to call home and let your parents know you’ve reached America and not to worry, it’s very cold here but the apartment is warm and cozy and you feel fine, just a bit tired and yes, you will call later, you need to hangup because by then you are tearing up and realizing how far away from home you are, but this is your home now and you will have to make the best of it with your husband who is talking you through the steps of making the international call, dial 91, then city code, then area code, then phone number. You will dial 911, realize your mistake and hang up. Him: “Did you call 911? You: “No.” It couldn’t have possibly gone through.” A second later, the phone will ring. He will answer it. 911 Operator: “Sir, we received a call from this number.” Him: “Yes, my wife dialed by mistake. She was trying to call India.” 911 Operator: “Sir, get off the speaker phone and get her on the line.” He will hand the phone to you, his face turning shades of red at the implicit accusation in the operator’s voice. You: “Hello?” 911 Operator: “Ma’am, did you call 911?” You: “Yes. I’m sorry. It was a mistake. I was trying to call India.” 911 Operator: “Ma’am, are you sure you are not in any danger? I can send an officer over.” You: “No, I’m fine. Really.” 911 Operator: “Okay Ma’am. Have a good night.” The silence in the 750 sq. ft. apartment as you unpack your suitcases will be as loud as the hum of the heater so the knock on the door ten minutes later will be heard immediately. Standing outside the door will be a tall policeman, asking your husband who called 911. He will be blond and blue-eyed, just like the cops you’ve seen on TV. Your husband will point to you, standing a little bit behind him, and explain, once again, that his wife was trying to make an international call. He’ll be asked to go in the other room, so the policeman can talk to the lady of the house. You will again repeat your story, tell him this is your first day in America and you are tired, and jet lagged, and it was just a mistake, really. The six-foot-tall policeman with his piercing blue eyes and thick Texan accent will look at the rose petals on the carpet, at the balloons and bunting on the walls, the open suitcases in the middle of the living room, and then he will tip his hat with a slight smile, mumble something into a walkie-talkie and wish you both a good night as he leaves. The poise and confidence you thought you were projecting so far to impress your husband will be shattered by the debacle of the 911 call and though the two of you can’t laugh about it now, in the future, you will be able to tell your friends about this with self-deprecating humor as he shakes his head at your frivolity. This will end your first night in America, sleeping on your marital bed with your husband who seems to have calmed down from the humiliation of being obliquely accused of domestic battery. That night, you will also find out that your husband snores, that he needs the fan on every day of the year, that the bed you are sleeping on has a mattresses on top of a box spring (in India, you have slept on firm mattresses re-stuffed every year with cotton batting), a fitted sheet (only in America), and a comforter that does not warm your feet as quickly as the razai you left back home.
Before you lie down and wrap your cold feet in the warmth of the comforter, before you call 911 by mistake, you will go out to dinner with his friends, two men and a woman, to a neighborhood Italian restaurant. They are the ones who cleaned and decorated the apartment with rose petals, buntings and balloons, to welcome you to the country. He will see you shivering in your salwar kameez and leather jacket and turn on the car heater full blast and the passenger-side seat warmer. The ten-minute ride to the restaurant will feature dark, empty streets, twinkling lights in the surrounding apartment buildings, a strip mall with a gas station, a dry cleaner and a laundromat next to the Italian restaurant and a Great Clips. You have never eaten Italian food except for pizza, so you will let the only other woman in your group order something for you. She says eggplant parmesan is a safe bet, and your husband will ask if that’s ok and you will say yes even though you don’t like eggplant. It is not like you to eat foods you don’t like but you are tired. On the flight you’ve already listened to his rant about how he hates that his brothers and parents are so fussy about food. He has lived by himself for seven years and doesn’t care how the food tastes if it fills him up. So, you will swallow the eggplant parmesan with sips of water and listen to his friends talk about work and green cards and parking garages and how much mail your husband will have to sort through. In the coming weeks, you will start a losing battle with junk mail because your husband is paranoid about identity theft. He will not want you to throw anything away with his name and address on it. Instead, he’ll take it to work every few months and shred it there. In the meantime, it will pile up on the plastic patio/dining table and you will sort it as bills, junk mail, catalogues, coupons. In a couple of months, you will give up the sorting, because you are a realist who knows creating order out of chaos is futile.
There is an order to international travel that you won’t appreciate when you are jet lagged and weary, standing in line at the airport gate clutching your carry-on luggage. The stewardess scanning your ticket and passport won’t care about the pronunciation of your name. All she will care about is if the spellings in the two documents match. You won’t know it when the customs official at Dallas Fort Worth International scans your passport and stamps, but from here on, you will forever spell your name like a code being transmitted over the police scanner: “First name Jaya, spelled Juliet, Alpha, Yankee, Alpha. Last name, Wagle, spelled Whisky, Alpha, Gerald, Larry, Elephant.” Even though you can speak and write proper English, you will have to relearn words, pronunciation and different meanings of American English: Lift is not an elevator but a ride; ladyfinger is a dessert, not the vegetable okra; coriander is cilantro; brinjal is eggplant; “good for you” can be used to patronize or compliment, same with “bless you”; your name, in Spanish, is pronounced Haya, in English Jaaya. You will learn to spell in American English, substituting ‘z’ for ‘s’ and ‘o’ for ‘ou’ or else red squiggly lines will appear under colour and realise. These realizations will come slowly but nobody will make you more aware of your Indian accent and British English than a high schooler working behind the front desk at the local natatorium where you will take adult swimming lessons because it is Texas and everyone swims in the summer and you have always wanted to learn to swim. When you approach him to ask for a schedule of practice hours, he will say, “What? What is it you want?” You can hear him and his buddies sniggering, but you won’t know why so you will repeat the question. “I want the schedule for practice hours.” High Schooler: “The what for practice hours?” You: “You know, a list of times I can come and practice my swimming.” More sniggering. High Schooler: “Oh, you mean a schedule. Here you go.” As you walk away you will hear laughter behind your back. Later, your husband will tell you “schedule” is pronounced with a “sk” sound and not the “sh” sound you had grown up with. You will never speak schedule with a sh sound ever again, and no matter how much you try to modulate your ‘a,’ ‘e’ ‘g’ and ‘j’ sounds, there will always be high schoolers of all ages laughing at your pronunciation and your accent. The exception to the rule will be old women in your library writing group who will wonder how you manage to not only speak but write in English so well. “How long did you take to learn English?” they will ask. “I learnt it growing up.” “In India? That is amazing!” And you will smile and nod and accept the compliment because they remind you of your grandmother and you don’t want to explain to them how English is taught in schools and you went to a convent school, one of many established during the British Raj to raise a class of bureaucrats and clerical staff conversant in the Queen’s English, where you not only spoke and learnt English language skills, all your subjects were also taught in English. It is easy for you to relinquish rhetorical control when faced with the elderly.
How do you take control of your life after an arranged marriage, in a foreign country, confined to a 750 sq. ft. apartment while an icy rain falls outside? You will watch a lot of TV (Friends and Seinfeld reruns, Frasier and Saturday Night Live), familiarize yourself with the local mall, shop at the Gap, get a haircut at ULTA, visit Sam’s Club and Walmart every weekend, buy ginger and tea leaves and a stainless steel pot with a lip and a strainer to make your chai, eat Pringles and Ferrero Rocher for lunch, read TheBridges of Madison County and The Bluest Eye, and a few months later, you will start going to the apartment gym because your clothes are tighter than they should be on the waist.
You will quickly realize that there is a lot of choice in America when it comes to clothing, so much in fact that on your first trip to the mall you will gawk at all the glass-fronted stores of brand names you have heard of (Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Ray Ban) and the ones you haven’t (Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga). You will buy blue jeans from the Gap, and a shift dress from The Limited, and you will look at the price tags and quickly convert them to Indian rupees. Over time, you will unlearn the subconscious habit of converting dollars to rupees, but in that first year, you will be conscious of how much of your husband’s money you are spending at the Gap, Pier 1 Imports, Target and Old Navy. You will revel in the joy of fuss-free-returns until one day your husband gets exasperated, driving you from store to store over the weekend to return or exchange merchandise because you don’t have a driver’s license or a car.
His exasperation will make you reconsider your daily routine and you will enroll in the nearby community college for a weekly fiction writing class. Every Wednesday evening, he will drive you six miles to the college and wait for you in the empty cafeteria while you sit with seven other students and a silver-haired teacher named Bette Wisapape around an oval table, discussing the difference between show and tell and importance of sensory details in storytelling. In that class, you will hear for the first time an old lady who seemed to be justifying slavery, stating, “Didn’t the black people capture other black people and sell them into slavery?” This will be your first brush with racism that is not directed at you–but it will not be not your last. In that same class, you will also make friends with a blonde-haired, green-eyed girl, an insurance claims adjustor, who will write a story based on her experience as a prison guard in a Wyoming jail. She will become one of your best friends in your adopted country, eventually holding one of your legs in the hospital room as you give birth to your six-pound son. Your husband will be holding the other leg, an incident that will cause shock and awe in your family since Indian husbands typically pace outside the birthing room instead of assisting in the birth of their children.
Before your son is born, before you join the community college and make a friend, you will rearrange the apartment, because you have time on your hands. You will realign the couches and the TV in the living room and stack all the books in the apartment in the middle of the living room to simulate a coffee table. You will drag out the big, pressed wood computer desk out of the bedroom, and put it in the living room where it will sit at a right angle to the TV. The bedroom will look bigger without the computer desk. You will replace it with a $10 particle board side table from K-Mart and use it for your books, creams and earrings. During one of the cleaning sprees of the small walk-in closet in the bedroom, you will come across a sheaf of papers with an English translation of Kamasutra. You will sit on the carpeted closet floor, reading the descriptions of the acrobatic, erotic poses and wonder why your husband printed them. You will call your husband at work and read some of the text to him and ask him about his intentions. He will start laughing and so will you because read out loud over the phone, they sound ridiculously impossible to perform without spraining an ankle or wrist. Soon, the two of you will start going to the apartment gym because you are both getting out of shape, lying on the couch together, watching Food Network and exploring the hitherto unknown joys of first, second, third and fourth base.
At the apartment gym you’ll watch BET and run on the treadmill and the elliptical and watch sculpted bodies gyrate to Jay-Z, J Lo, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Usher, Ginuwine, Outkast. The songs and videos are such a contrast to your own mellow tastes in Hindustani classical music with its emphasis on lyrics and melody based on raagas, taal and sur. But you enjoy listening to the fast-paced music while walking to nowhere on the treadmill. You’ll make friends in this gym with a girl from India. She and her husband will become close friends with the two of you. You’ll all go on vacation to New Mexico, stay at KOA camps overnight (your first camping experience that will remind you of sleeping under the stars on the flat rooftops of your home in the summer), drive through the long, flat stretch of I-20 and US 380 between New Mexico and Texas, marvel at the double rainbows in the expansive blue sky, eat at the flying saucer McDonalds in Roswell, shiver in the caverns of Carlsbad, explore the ruins of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Over the years, you’ll lose touch with her after they move to another city. You will later find out she cheated on her doting husband with another man and the two got divorced. They will become a footnote in your memories of your first days in your adopted country.
In your adopted country, you will start your driving lessons with your husband, because Sears is the only place that offers driving school for adults but it’s $80 a lesson. Every weekend, you will practice driving on the empty streets of his office park, learning the rules of four way stops, yield signs, changing lanes and blind spots. He will hold on for dear life and yell “Brake, brake, brake!” a quarter-mile from the stop sign. You’ll come to a screeching halt and get offended at his theatrics. He will say he fears for his life. You will not get the concept of a “blind spot” until you almost sideswipe a car in the left lane during one of your failed driving tests. On your third driving test, you’ll get your driver’s license. For the first two years you’ll drive up and down McArthur Boulevard and never venture out on the highway because the community college, the mall, the grocery shops, Sam’s Club, are all equidistant from your apartment. There is no need to venture out on highways with cars driving 70 miles an hour.
Before you start driving your own car, before you take contentious driving lessons over the weekend with your husband, you will need a driver’s license. It will not be easy because you will be on the H-4 dependent visa, which makes you eligible to be in the country but doesn’t give you a Social Security number or permission to work. The Department of Transportation will ask you for your SSN. You will show them your passport. They will ask you to get a note from Social Security office stating you can’t have an SSN. The SS office will tell you they don’t issue such letters unless they get an official request from the DOT. You will go back to the DOT for the letter and they will tell you to get a letter from the SS office requesting a letter to that intent. The SS office will finally give you a letter asking the DOT why they need a letter that says you can’t have an SSN. The DOT will give you another letter. The SS office issues you another, based on the DOT’s. Five years later, it will be easier to give birth to your son than it was to get the driver’s license.
As soon as you get your driver’s license, you will enroll in some more classes at the local community college. In your fiction writing class at the community college, you will write a story about a new bride and her first time in America. The story will start with her first international flight from India to America (a long flight spent sleeping, waking up and talking), her impressions of the streets (antiseptic streets filled with silent cars), the apartment she shares with her husband, her mishap with the 911 operator, her restaurant experience on her first day. The story, titled “Coming to America” will end with the lines: “She dreamt of gargling with a mint green liquid in a tiny bathroom aboard a Lufthansa airplane.” You will write this story over and over for nineteen years.
A former Indian expat, current US citizen, Jaya Wagle‘s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrel House, Jellyfish Review, The Rumpus, Hobart, Little Fiction, Big Truths, American Literary Review,The Write Launch, Litro, and elsewhere. She has an MA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of North Texas where she is now an adjunct professor of World Literature and Technical Writing. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and fourteen-year old son.
I am sitting in the front row of the red bus when the driver pulls the metal handle that folds the door open. The uniformed man working for U.S. Border Patrol stomps up the bus stairs holding a clipboard. He reminds me of the stocky men who were not coaches or parents or even athletic trainers, but always seemed to be hanging around at school football, basketball, and soccer games, jotting things down into clipboards. Almost belonging, but not quite.
As the Border Patrol agent stands near me, my mouth dries up and I have to remind myself to breathe. Every few seconds, I look down at my lap to check that my hand still holds my blue passport. I don’t believe it’s there; I have to keep checking.
If the Border Patrol agent asks me a question, I’m not sure that I could respond in a coherent English sentence, even though it’s the only language I can speak sentences in.
This man stands between me and my country. He can decide with a word that I can’t return. I look down at my passport again, but I would not be surprised if the blue cover dissolved into liquid and dripped from my fingers.
Until I am suddenly thrust underwater in this trauma response, I forget that this is what happens to me at international borders. I’ve had a lifetime of practice so I can mask my fear and appear calm, but I am practically phobic about crossing borders.
My parents brought me to America when I was a toddler with plans to return to the Philippines, but we stayed and overstayed, and I became an American who believed I had the right to be there until I found out the hard way that I didn’t. During the years that our papers were getting worked out, I learned to fear borders and the uniformed men who asked you questions and spoke to you in a way that made you feel that it was their country and you were intruding onto land that you didn’t deserve access to.
My then-boyfriend sits next to me on the bus. His family began their life in the United States on plantations in the South. He’s uncomfortable around uniformed men, police, for a different reason than me, but borders don’t scare him. Even though the photographs and records of his family stop a few generations back, he grew up hearing the stories of what his ancestors did to build the wealth that white Americans still enjoy. It’s never crossed his mind that he wouldn’t be allowed back in. They wouldn’t dare.
Our relationship to the United States is as different as our histories in it.
It was his idea that morning to drive a few hours south from our home in Los Angeles because he had a craving for fish tacos. Back then, it was nothing for us to wake up on a weekend morning and decide to drive to the border so that we could find that woman with the fish taco cart in Tijuana. She wasn’t always on the same sidewalk and her cart didn’t have a name so sometimes we would wander for an hour looking for her, walking past people trying to get our attention, men blowing whistles to entice us to enter their dance clubs, men carrying cameras inviting us to pose next to donkeys painted like zebras, and endless shops selling discount souvenirs and discount pharmaceuticals. This was a lot of effort for fish tacos, especially considering we lived in LA where taco stands were as common as Dunkin Donuts are where we live currently in New England, but even now, years later, I remember how happy we were when we would find the woman, as if we were reunited with a long-lost aunt, how we’d watch her drop the fish into the bubbling oil, how the liquid batter solidified into a golden crunch, how our eyes would glisten after taking the first bite.
The Border Patrol agent is cranky. Throughout his shift, he has been barking instructions at busloads of tourists, college kids, and day drinkers, including this red bus whose route crosses the U.S.-Mexico border from Tijuana to San Ysidro, back and forth, over and over.
“You are not citizens of California,” he says. “Do you understand? California is not a country.”
When I’m in the middle of a moment like this, everything leaves my head and it’s difficult to think clearly. Is this a trick? I turn to my boyfriend. “What am I supposed to say?” I whisper. “Because I do live in California.”
He thinks the Border Patrol agent is funny, a kind of comedian trying to make the best of a repetitive job. He’s surprised when he sees my face, how distressed I seem. After all, I am in no danger, but this is the thing about traumatic experiences, the sound they make can echo for a lifetime. Before I was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, I lived in fear that one encounter with the wrong person would kick off a series of events that ended with me deported. Even today, a part of me still fears this, especially considering this administration’s racist attacks on immigration. In 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Information Services removed the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. That same year, a task force on denaturalization was created to focus on ways to revoke citizenship from those who had naturalized the way that I had. Even though I know the point of all these anti-immigrant policies is to create an unwelcoming environment and intensify immigrants’ feelings of insecurity, it’s difficult not to react instinctively with fear.
But trauma doesn’t recognize time. That day, I am sitting on a red bus over the U.S.-Mexico border next to the man who will eventually become my husband. He is Black American and I am an immigrant from the Philippines, formerly undocumented.
“What am I supposed to say?”
“The answer is you are a U.S. citizen,” he says.
“You are a U.S. citizen,” I repeat.
“No,” he says. “Answer, ‘I am a U.S. citizen.’”
I nod, repeating, “I am a U.S. citizen,” in my head until it’s my turn to face the Border Patrol agent.
After all that anxiety, the Border Patrol agent barely glances at me and the flash of blue paper in my hand. This time I am lucky. He’s not interested in someone who looks like me.
2. Lubbock, Texas
I am riding in the front seat of the rental van after my uncle’s funeral. The caravan of mourners is so long that I can’t see his hearse. People seem different in Texas. No one has to ask, but once they see us coming, vehicles pull over and stop until all of us pass. I feel their sympathy and condolences. They are not in such a hurry. Drivers in Boston beep impatiently if you don’t immediately move when the light blinks green. The drivers in Texas watch our procession pass them and this acknowledgement feels respectful. They are recognizing that a person has died and crossed the final border into eternity.
A person, who was once alive and driving on these very roads, has died. Stop your car.
For years, every time I saw my father’s oldest brother at a family wedding or event, he invited me to visit him in Lubbock. He wanted to show off his ranch. I always meant to go, but I never seemed to have enough time or money to make the trip. When I found out that he died, I did not hesitate to purchase the last-minute airline tickets at four times the usual price, even though I had waited too long for him to know that I had finally accepted his invitation.
In the 1970s, my uncle had appeared as the on-air physician on the weekly Philippine TV show, Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko, translated to “My Brother’s Keeper,” a program broadcast on the GMA network which shared the stories of patients needing medical and financial help. After four decades, the show still airs, a sort of early version of the now ubiquitous crowdsourcing campaigns where even employed Americans must plead for help to cover expenses when faced with unexpected catastrophe. When I introduced myself to other Filipinos, sometimes they heard my last name and asked if I was related to the kind doctor from TV. It was a jarring experience, name recognition, after a lifetime of feeling so foreign.
Although we are in Texas, this is a Filipino funeral. The wake, the speeches, the Catholic funeral Mass, all of it is live-streamed so that loved ones in the Philippines and all around the world, can attend.
At the gravesite, I stand around the rectangle of earth with fellow mourners and stare at his headstone, the shiny slab already cut with our last name. It is shocking to read my last name on a tombstone. We are still new enough in this country that I haven’t ever seen my name etched so coldly and permanently on polished stone. My extended family in the Philippines regularly visits the cemeteries where our dead lie, especially on All Souls’ Day. But even though we have been in America for decades, we are still too new in this country to have many gravesites to clean.
Does one belong more to the country where one is born or the country where one is buried? I belong to both places and neither. I was conceived in a place that my family left when I was two years old. We cut ourselves from our family tree, grafting this new branch onto a different tree in America. The life that I would have lived back there ended, and a new life here bloomed. But decades later, the transplant didn’t bear fruit: I don’t have any children to clean my future gravesite during All Soul’s Day. Even though I am the one who asked this question, I cannot answer it. Perhaps the question of burial is moot; I would rather be cremated. As it is, I’ve rarely ever felt as though I belonged to a particular place; I’ve only ever belonged to people; to those who I love.
3. Brown Paper Packages
During these pandemic times in America that stretch on and on, I think about how I used to react with pity when I heard about how funerals in the Philippines have been live-streamed for years, a way to include mourners such as the many Overseas Filipino Workers who can’t come home at a moment’s notice. How sad, I used to think, to have to mourn through a screen. I was reminded at those times how lucky I was to be American.
Besides teaching, meeting, working, and socializing online, like everyone else around me, I’ve celebrated several family birthdays, a bar mitzvah, my nephew’s high school graduation, and other milestones on Zoom. I even crashed the wedding of a friend’s friend; while she and I were on Facetime, she held her phone up to her laptop and we watched her friends exchange vows on Zoom.
My loved ones in the Philippines are not quite back to a virus-free life because there is no vaccine yet, but posts of their daily lives indicate a much wider range of activity than mine. As we get closer to All Soul’s Day, my relatives post photos of themselves at the gravesites of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then at a long table sharing a meal together in a restaurant. What photos would I post? An image of my screen looking into someone else’s screen? Who is pitying who now?
During our first few years in America away from our extended family, these technologies did not exist. Instead, a few times a year, packages arrived from the Philippines with news of our clan. I remember the rough paper of the packages, the canceled stamps, the flowery handwriting–how foreign the package seemed as we sat around it at the kitchen table in Boston, my father carefully slicing through the layers of brittle brown tape.
Inside there were grainy photos about the size and shape of my iPhone of my aunt Baby, in white, by then well past childbearing age, feeding wedding cake to her husband; my godmother Lydia, smiling with anguish next to her husband’s open casket; school pictures of my parents’ godchildren with their names and ages scrawled on the back. There were cassette tapes, letters written in sound, but by then, I could no longer understand Tagalog, and I did not smile the way my parents did when they heard the voices of their parents and siblings.
I had lived with these relatives in our family compound back in the Philippines since the day I was born, but I didn’t recognize their names or voices. They were strangers to me now, separated not only by land and ocean, but by language.
My father did not plan on us staying long in America. We were supposed to return and be reunited with everyone in the family compound. Being the resourceful immigrant that he was, he reused the cassettes, taping over the familiar voices with music from his vinyl record albums that he wanted to listen to in the car. Why buy new when you can recycle used?
Until I was in the copyediting process for my memoir, I didn’t know the difference between “emigrant” and “immigrant.” Merriam-Webster’s Usage Notes explains that the terms are practically the same, but with one slight difference: “immigrant is used in reference to the country moved to, and emigrant is used in reference to the country moved from.” We were emigrants with an “e” when we left the Philippines, and we became immigrants with an “i” (and an additional “m”) when we arrived in the US. Merriam-Webster continues by explaining that even the verb forms of these words are used interchangeably, “the borders between these words are somewhat porous.” I never considered that even words had borders, but I suppose almost everything that we’ve imagined into existence, like race, must prove it can withstand defining.
My father didn’t know that we wouldn’t go home to the Philippines for almost two decades. We could not risk crossing borders until our immigration status was fixed. By then, many of the people on those cassette tapes were dead, the sound of their voices overwritten with The Carpenters, John Denver, and The Jackson Five. The stories from the Philippines that were once important enough to record and mail to us in America were covered over, the way green grass grows over a grave.
Grace Talusan‘smemoir, The Body Papers, is a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, a winner in nonfiction for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Her short story, “The Book of Life and Death“, was chosen for the 2020 Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story program and was translated into several languages, including Tagalog. Currently, Talusan is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University.
The envelope is thin enough that I know what it will say. Still, I hope. My fingers are steady as I tear through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stamp, as I withdraw the single sheet of paper informing me that my work visa renewal application has been denied, a letter reminding me that I should not have gotten comfortable here, that I cannot stay. That night, I Skype my parents, text my brother, call my long-distance best friend. I am hungry for connection and belonging, to stand on stable ground. I open my journal to write and find no words. Instead, I am consumed by the blank page, unable to see beyond the most uncertain present.
– – –
Years later, in a village in Rajasthan, I stand amidst the rubble of what was once my family’s home. There are no walls, and the light of the setting sun falls across the crumbling alcove where my grandfather was born. The stones, the dust, the land all pulse as if alive, and I want to ask my brother, my mother if they feel it too. This is ancestry, I think, coming back to a place that is and isn’t mine. As we drive away through miles of desert grit, I slide filters over my favorite photos of the village, write a caption that I hope will capture the weight of what I feel. For the last two weeks I have hardly spent a minute alone, the time I usually steal for writing consumed by family and weddings and family weddings. Instead, I escape to my phone, my reflections slipping out as quickly as my thumbs will allow. My ancestral village, I write. In writing, I make a claim to something. I put a name to the belonging I feel, to the generations of movement and migration that have allowed me, for the first time, to come back. When I share the image, I am aware that it is 4 A.M. back where my friends live, that few will be awake to receive it. Still, I send it out, needing this space of my own.
– – –
This why I write: to make a space for myself. To discover the boundaries of that space. To find the seams of the boundaries, and then push. In pushing, to cross borders.
– – –
The night I receive the letter, I place waterlogged chamomile tea bags over my eyes. I have never done this before, and I do not know if it will work. But I have come to understand that my first-grade students, five- and six-year-olds, notice things like swollen eyelids, a voice rusted from tiredness, a heavy heart. It is them that I think about as the leftover tea dribbles into my hair. My classroom the next morning is alive as if a letter has not shifted the tilt of my world. At breakfast duty, I wipe milk spills and tear open pods of apple sauce and tell stories about my new kitten, as I do every day. Routine, too, is the warm melt that settles over my chest, watching crowds of black and brown faces eating, yelling, laughing. The school was founded by a group of parents who felt that the city’s public schools were not serving children of color adequately, pooling together to build their own space of focused support, care, and growth. This school is no haven; it is not sheltered from the realities facing racialized youth in Boston. Still, it is a space that is theirs, a community formed around common needs and dreams. For many, it is a space of survival.
– – –
I think of this as I walk into the principal’s office to tell her that the government has decided it no longer has space for me. I am devastated, but I understand my privilege in this: I can finish the school year, pack my apartment, and travel back to Canada, where my family migrated years ago. I can make choices, take things, settle back into a comfortable life. Still, I ache. The relationships, the places, the subway routes and daily details are fragments of a life that I cannot take with me. The principal, a woman with a wide smile and an endless well of care, says to me, You’re so cute, I can find you someone to marry. Then she opens her arms. A place for me between them. I laugh, tears leaking from my eyes.
– – –
I come from a long line of displacement. My grandmother, a Hindu born in Karachi, found herself on the wrong side of the border carved by the British during Partition; my family was one of millions displaced. A reality as violent as cleaving a country in two. My father’s side was settled in Uganda for generations before they were forced to flee a dictatorship, seeking asylum from a home they could no longer inhabit. These are histories I do not remember, though they live in my bones. Ancestry surpasses memory, I think, as I roll socks into neat piles, wipe the refrigerator clean. We have always moved; my body has always carried that truth. I also come from a long line of choices. My grandfather’s choice to leave India for London, searching for an elusive place to build a better life. My parents’ choice to move to Canada, baby in tow, following the promise of a job. A series of calculated risks, perhaps, decisions under pressure, but decisions no less. When I write, I carry both the intention behind these choices and the trauma from when there were none. I am finding ways to hold both.
– – –
I do not say survival lightly. For many of us on the margins, survival means carving out a space for ourselves, swaddling our existence in community. As parents and educators, we build homes and schools where our children can be valued for their full selves. As a teacher, I worked to make my classroom safe and familiar, filling the shelves with storybooks by Edwidge Danticat and Yangsook Choi and Maya Angelou. As a writer I seek out communities that value voices from the periphery, communities founded on shared understandings, that choose to listen first, that strive to lift each other up, that thirst for more stories, our stories, ours. This is sustenance, nourishment. This is necessary.
– – –
My mother grew up with many mothers. In her family home in India, mothers, fathers, and siblings were fluid, interchangeable. She was raised with dozens of cousins who were never anything but brothers and sisters; tens of aunts and uncles who were all their parents, enough grandparents for the lot. At night the siblings would sleep up on the rooftop, and when it rained they threw their sleeping mats into the courtyard and, laughing, slipped down into the waiting soil. My mother grew up not knowing who her birth mother was, because that kind of claiming didn’t matter. Theirs was a borderless family and home. A space so much their own that it didn’t require walls, an innate knowing that each of them could exist in this family, without having to lay claim to someone, something, as solely theirs. A belonging so expansive it defied boundaries. I remind myself that this is where I come from. I imagine this is what it means to be free.
– – –
In Rajasthan, I catch a few bars of service and scroll eagerly through the comments on my photo, my chai growing a milky skin beside me. Thank you for sharing, they say, grateful for your insights.Can’t wait to hear more. I am reminded of how I feel each time I publish a story or an essay, every poem shuttled into the world. Each piece a mouth. Each a shoot, roots burrowing back and face unfurled to the sun. In this scene I am surrounded, a forest of us. There is no unity in our voices, but there is collectivity. Sometimes, writing brings connection. An email sent to me from a woman across the city, who I later meet over coffee and cake. Sometimes, it brings reflection, invites others to share. Always, it feels naked, unready. Still I do it. It guides me back to my own histories, to understanding where I come from. It connects me to the present, to so many others who are telling their own stories, offering their truths. On the page, we reenact the agency that wasn’t always ours. In writing, we resist erasure, the forces that seek to define us. We find one another and press our heels into the soil, visible, loud, here.
– – –
Fault lines live close. My ancestry teaches me how everything can be undone in the space of a moment, a new border erected, a radio announcement from a dictator, a thin envelope arriving in the mail. To have a history of displacement means to hunger for belonging. My lineage tells me where I come from and I where I can no longer go. Each generation tells a story of uproot and resettle. Of choices, pressures, actions driven by survival. In the spaces between, we search for connection, for safety and validation, a space to fill and overflow. In telling our stories we resist the silence, we refuse to disappear.
– – –
Each time I write, I tell this story, even when I don’t. That is to say, I don’t write in order to tell this story, but this story informs all that I write. It is soil under forest and rain filling oceans. A cycle that moves without me, and yet, has made me. If these spaces exist for us, they also exist beyond borders, boundless, uninhibited by the confines we navigate every day. They defy the logic imposed on us, that we must split apart in order to thrive.
On the page, I continue. I write to belong; I write to endure. I write to stay.
Janika Oza is a writer based in Toronto. She is the winner of the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and has received fellowships from VONA, Tin House, and One Story. She is published in The Best Small Fictions 2019 Anthology, The Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Find her at www.janikaoza.com.
The True Thieves of Greatness Have Always Been At Home
“Go back where you came from!”
On multiple occasions during my North American childhood, this phrase was flung at me and my family. Despite being so young—we lived first in the U.S. and then Canada, from my birth until I was ten years old—I still remember knowing that whatever the people saying this meant, they most likely did not mean the city of Philadelphia, where I was born; rather, they meant some presumably African country that they didn’t know the name of and couldn’t have located on a map even if they did. They never would have yelled that at my friend with a Polish mother and white South African father, who had actually grown up in Africa and moved to North America when she was five years old not speaking a word of English, only Afrikaans; she didn’t look like someone who had another place to go back to. Maybe if they had heard her mother speak, always in Polish to my friend and in heavily-accented English to us, they would have said something about her foreignness. But they never could have looked at her and made the split-second determination that she categorically didn’t belong.
In the summer of 2019, President Trump told Ilhan Omar, an American citizen and public servant—an immigrant with skin like mine, a flawless American accent like mine, from the same continent my parents first immigrated to America from—to go back where she came from. Thus my President implicitly told me, the American-born child of immigrants, the same thing. Through their complicit silence, the people around him agreed, even as they later shunned the fully racist implications of that declaration. In today’s political reality, a crowd can chant “Send her home” about that same public servant, and my President can look on smugly as they do, the angry, gleeful chant reverberating through that rally hall—and then be able to say the very next morning that he didn’t start it or encourage it. Because his supporters’ First Amendment rights give them the freedom to say what they want and he claims he thus cannot stop them; if he happens to be there while they say it, though—“it is what it is.”
When I was in elementary school and got told to go back to my country, this phrase was unquestionably understood to qualify the person who uttered it as a racist. Until recently I believed this to still be widely true. This statement as well as the speaker were understood to be racist because the speaker typically had no idea what country they meant—only that they had observed my skin color and determined that because it wasn’t white, this country could not be mine. Now decades after my earliest memories of racism, we find ourselves in the middle of a political landscape where the President of the country in which I was born can use the phrase “Go back where you came from” against people who were actually born here and who have decided to make this country their home, yet the people around him will deny that it was racist, even though it is such a textbook example. I don’t know how to reconcile with this. I don’t think I should have to.
I was born in America’s first capital, at a hospital that is still a part of America’s first medical school. Eighteen years later I returned to the same city, the same university, to begin my own American life. My parents came to the U.S. for their educations from Malawi, a tiny sliver of a country in southeast Africa, whose technical borders run straight through several tribe-nations that already existed when the British arrived. The colonizers did not care about the lives of the natives they found—they cared about the resources their home countries needed, the opulent lives they wanted for themselves, and how to divvy these up amongst themselves so that they wouldn’t end up fighting each other so often on their home continent. My parents chose to stay here, in America, when they realized that they could speak out against injustice and oppression in their own country and others like it, without fear of persecution or worse. In dictatorships—like the American-backed one my parents left behind in Malawi in 1981—you can’t, not without ending up imprisoned or on the wrong side of a well-staged car accident. As long as we had the opportunity to stay, as long at Malawi’s dictatorship remained, my parents determined that we would never go back.
Two months after Malawi’s democratic transition in 1994, my family actually did go back where we came from. The Cold War finally ended and suddenly America didn’t need to prop up various dictatorships as a buffer against the alleged threat of communism. Suddenly, oppressive authoritarian governments all over the continent collapsed, and a lot of African countries had their first truly democratic elections since the independence era of the 1950s and 1960s. Zambia, 1991; Kenya, 1992; South Africa, 1994; Malawi, 1994. The proxy conflicts of the Cold War had turned our continent into a poverty-ridden, decrepit mess, though; our resources were still being mined and exploited by corporations headquartered in our former colonial rulers’ homelands and in the countries backing our dictatorships. Our populations were being controlled by arms sold to us by the governments of those same nations, cosigners to our ongoing oppression under different, allegedly independent flags. Yet we are the ones who are held responsible for making a mess of our countries.
Perhaps it is they, our colonizers, who should have gone back to their own countries.
It takes a breakdown of monumental proportions for people to decide to leave their home country. They will not leave until things at home are so bad that they feel they have no other options, not if they want their children and families to have a chance at a better life. Migrants all over the world go back at the first sign that things are livable again. We don’t need to be asked. Leaving home is heartbreaking; we do it knowing it could end up a one-way journey, that we might never come back, and that even if we did we may not find a place for ourselves again. We might never see our parents or siblings again, or the land on which we were raised, hear our language and music reverberating through the air as we walk down the street, visit any part of the country and know—without a second thought, without the grinding work of constant self-validation—that we are home. To imagine that this is a decision people make lightly, as a way of merely extracting value from the country they have immigrated to without reinvesting in it, is a total failure of imagination. It is insulting, lazy, and betrays the truth of the ignorant privilege of a spirit that never has, and likely never will, experience the violent adversity of being in a situation where the only good choice is to leave behind everything you’ve ever known, and set new roots down in a place that does not recognize you.
In its 400-year history, America has never been solely white. America’s essential whiteness is the bankrupt idea that nonetheless immovably resides in the hearts of the kind of people who scream “go back;” it is an idea patently, arrogantly at odds with the history of this nation. They speak of people who look like me “going back where they came from” as though there was ever a time when America was a land of non-immigrant descended white people. White people came to America, ostensibly escaping oppression and persecution in their European countries of origin, and then through disease and violence wiped out most of the Native American populations they found living on this land when they arrived. White Americans did not want to do their own work on this land, and so stole people from the west coast of Africa and forced them into slavery. White Americans who had arrived on what we now call the East Coast and then migrated to the South decided the land they were living on was not enough, and so expanded westward, Liebensraum before the Third Reich would invent that policy term a century later. They colonized several parts of what was formerly Mexico, and made—battled—those parts into new American states. White Americans stole, killed and colonized their way to ownership of the land now called the United States of America, and now have the audacity to turn around and say it is us who do not belong, who are the foreign agents in the American project.
Gratitude, the need for immigrants and their descendants to constantly express thanks, to be entirely uncritical when America goes wrong, has nothing to do with us. It is, rather, the need of people who desperately need for there to be betters and lessers in life: the need of people who classify themselves as among the superior in society and require acknowledgement from those whom they consider inferior of this fact. These are the kind of people, perhaps, who have failed at the promise of their own lives, and so seek validation from outside of themselves, in people who had nothing to do with their own failures. In truth, I am grateful. Tremendously so. I describe my own situation in life today, compared to what it might have been without this American detour, as a quantum leap. Even as someone whose family did return to our homeland, and thus as someone who has intimate insight into what my life could have been, it is still a real challenge to try and accurately imagine just what the non-American parallel universe of my life might have looked like.
Part of the promise of this nation is our commitment to the rule of law–not the rule of men. Thus my gratitude, in the places where I have it, is given to the laws that allowed my parents to come and make a new home here, that said that if I was born here, I was a citizen. I am grateful to the Constitution that enshrines my right to seek happiness in this land. I am grateful to the people who work every day to protect and defend those laws and the Constitution, who do the great work of ensuring that these laws are fulfilling their promise to all people and not just some. But what I do not need to do is perform that gratefulness every day that I breathe American air, eat American food, and walk American streets; I do not need to withhold my critique of the ways in which America breaks its promises nor smile in the face of the same kind of oppression that drove my parents out of Malawi’s arms and into America’s. I am not grateful to the boys throwing rocks from their yard as I ran home from school, or to the teenagers on bikes who spat in my father’s face and called him a very bad name while his car window was rolled down one summer afternoon’s drive. I don’t think their feelings about me would change even if they knew of my gratefulness to this land, even if they could imagine that some of that gratitude extended to them.
Today, I have chosen America, and I will continue to past 2020, past 2024, past every point at which I have been told that people who look like me and have names like mine will find their lives worsened in countless ways. But America is, in fact, always to be chosen, every day, for everyone who is a part of this American project—even by those who have never spent a day outside the borders of their own states or even their own towns. For the folks who think it’s okay to tell people like me who critique America and its failures to “go back to your country,” I argue that they themselves fail to understand the beauty at the center of America. They have forgotten that this was always intended to be a place where disagreement was patriotism; that challenging a nation to be better is indicative of one’s profound love for the country. In personal relationships it’s understood that if you can’t fight well, it’s an unhealthy relationship. Why would it be any different for our relationship with this country, and the people who comprise this country whose choices are intertwined with our own? To ask America to be better, to demand that it meet the promises of its laws and Constitution, is very much to love the country, to fight for the country, and to care in ways that those who haven’t had to make painful choices take for granted. Blind devotion to a country is a powerful feeling, but what it is not, is love.
Despite the seemingly intractable mess we are in, America is still, at its core, a great country. But unless we are honest about the ugly truth of this mess, America will lose its greatness and become the latest cliché of a fallen empire. We have become bloated and sick on our lies, and blind to the repeated sleights of hand with the truth. In a way, perhaps, America’s eventual fall is not even that tragic, merely inevitable. And yet it feels tragic to me: to live in an age where there is more information, more knowledge, more mobility available to everyone, and yet to choose to be mediocre, to choose to blame scapegoats like immigrants who supposedly strain the system, rather than the corporate plunderers whose tax cuts have choked off funding for public schools, Medicaid and Medicare, and much-needed infrastructure. Perhaps it is harder to contend with the broken trust of the elected officials who were supposed to care about you, than the stranger with an odd accent who you assume does not. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the truth that the people who are currently plundering the birthright of America’s greatness are the same people who stole the resources and potential of colonized nations in the name of international peace and prosperity. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the true thieves of American greatness are not arriving from outside our shores, but have in fact always lived inside this house, and have always been right at home.
Michelle Alipao Chikaonda (she/her/hers) is a narrative nonfiction and essay writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and The Seventh Wave’s Rhinebeck Residency. She is a VONA fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and a Pushcart prize nominee. She is currently published at The Globe and Mail, Electric Literature, Catapult, Hobart, and Al Jazeera English, among others.
The first semester’s winter break, I took public transit home from college to find out Papa got his cold hard evidence of my mom’s affair. He told my sister and me to our faces. After following the mail trail to the small yacht our mom was living on part-time with her boyfriend, he bought a gun. He was going to drive to the waterfront, shoot her, the boyfriend, then himself, and hope his daughters could collect the $100,000 life insurance to survive the rest of our lives without them. He deemed that kind of tragedy a better life than the alternative of enduring our family’s dissolution. Papa couldn’t wait for justice to leak its slow antidote. The poison of heartbreak was leached into his veins. With every breath, he was pumped full of lead. On the way to the boat, he drove past St. Vincent’s, the prettiest and oldest-looking parish in our town. It was my dad’s church on holidays (he was a Holiday Inn Catholic). He walked in to pray one last time to ask forgiveness for what he was about to do (Does one light votives for this premeditated sin?) An obedient, colonized convert from the Philippines, he could have done enough penance to be absolved for the double murder. But, I’m pretty sure he knew that suicide was unforgivable—it crossed all Christian religions, Catholic and Protestant—how could he not? He walked in to relinquish all rights to any part of heaven he might have ‘earned’ at the end of his life. Then, he said, sitting there, Something happened he can’t—or won’t—explain. Just Something else. He walked out of the parish, got back in his brick red Audi, drove to the gun store, and returned it. Went home. Instead of making peace with God at what he thought was his only answer to the unraveled American Dream, he re-enlisted into the Merchant Marines, moved his home base 7,000 miles away from our Northern California cul-de-sac back to the Philippines, and remarried a shy, lonely, unambitious “old maid” (her most endearing quality: “She never aspires to come to the United States”). He buried 24 years of life with mom in leftover war trenches in the “land of milk and honey.” He made a new covenant when he let go of his right to swift justice and set sail in turbulent seas: never peace, never rest, never resolve. As for the two of us: My sister found terra firma, setting her sights on the closest paradise in Hawai’i, while I gallivanted back on campus, dropped and then withdrew from my classes. Eventually, I orphaned myself from family and faith. I know. Papa didn’t do it, he didn’t commit murder. He didn’t pull the literal trigger anyway. But my mom and that man—rotten corpses to my dad. From what my sister and I could detect after that nuclear conversation and the meager, surface-to-air letters he sent from overseas, he was a ghost, too.
Give me any dessert made from ube, Filipino purple yam. OO bay. Dirt-grown, sliced, edible amethyst geodes. Peeled and pounded, sweetened into purply shapes. Tastes of vanilla, nutty notes. Ube ice cream, ube cake rolls, puto bumbong—steamed fingers of sticky rice. Oh pleasing peasant plant with heart-shaped leaves, aubergine veins. Ube ube oooh
Bay. In English, a “water yam,” a “winged yam.” It swims, it flies. It stows in Balikbayan boxes, homecoming packages. Now pastry chefs swirl this child-bright violet revelation, into hundred-dollar gold-flaked donuts, New York cheesecake. Ube, baby, my bae. I demand mine purest, my crowning love,
ube halaya: a boiled jam sticky on my spoon, thickly spread on pandesal, our warmed bread rolls. Paper bags balance on handlebars down Philippine streets, minutes-fresh pandesal sold by the armful. Smeared and stuffed with creams, meats, cheese, by every Filipino, poor and rich. Dough logs cut into ovals, singkits, “narrow eyes.” Once baked in dirty floor ovens, pan de suelos. Manna for the masses. Eyes as big as blinking fists. Or, as a poet said, “bread of salt,” the size of a human heart. Here,
here it is: the yeast of memory
rising. Our rushed visit to Papa in the Philippines, 2010. Expedited passports for my ateh Elise and me, skipped Halloween with our kids. Doctor prophesies, “two weeks to three months.” He’s only 71 but too weak to fly back to the States for cutting-edge “blood washing” that healed our cousin. Red to blue, blue to red.
Face mask pulled from his mouth, he sits bedside, sips Ensure, matches my sister’s and my swollen stares. Leukemia, or as he translates, “bitterness that is no longer worth it.” Learn from me, his bloodshot eyes entreat. “Forgive
sooner, for yourself,” he says. His (new-to-us) wife hands him pandesal, pancit noodles pressed inside, as if to say, Eat, kain na, “Don’t give up.” Two very small bites. He chokes, bile spills. She wipes,
weeping. All eyes narrowing, we hover, spread our arms over him. Our guts distend with the rot of lost years. Our spirits bloom like yeast. My tongue is an uprooted ube, ready for mashing. Fingers pulse, knotting us—this bruised organ—together.
Prelude: rearranged driveway protects parking closest to the front door. I married into proud Romanian gypsies. Grandma Hyacinthe’s walker scratches, marks our amnesty. Lola, my Filipina Mama’s Sabbaths of hymns and have to’s revised decades later into impassioned, unpredictable Shabbat dinners. A lifetime of Fridays, ordained rest—pulsing mundane and mystical.
Today’s dinner, a texted errand for Chris, not the cuisine-themed menus I sometimes sweat on my weekly To Do’s.
“Can u pick up food?” “Like what?” “Whatever looks good.”
Once home, I prep, heat, cook what shopping bags offer—a literal mixed bag—Caesar salad, Salvadoran pupusas, paleo sausage, scalloped potatoes. Dessert? Kids had just picked peaches from the May Pride tree.
Everyone congregates, drawn to the table.
I plucked two tealights from the Emergency Supplies bin, Stand-ins for traditional white Shabbos candles. The log lighter flicked, one hand covering eyes, fingers loose (a ceremonial cheat—I have to aim flame at the wicks). As woman of the house, I chant in a single exhale.
Kids tap together cups of diluted grape juice, brother-in-law Steve sips sweetened coffee, a ritual boost towards his 10 p.m. AA meeting.
Today, I skipped kneading and punching dough, no towel-covered challah rescued from the sunny backyard, all-day first rising before the second, before the oven. In the rush [or resolve] to rest, leftover Hawaiian rolls hang loose in a bowl. Kids smile, sing.
“Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Forty years ago, we would have eaten with our hands, kamayan, Mama’s inherited Sabbath, steamed rice as our manna, our braided loaf. After our family fissured, split atomic, each of us adrift, wayfinding in wide arcs, down towards the wreck.
The ancient crocodile, buwaya, bumps, brushes my face against lost ancestors, our time-toughened skin kin. I am she: I am he: I am we.
Today, Shabbat almost doesn’t happen, again. Mere hours before our annual County Fair hula performance, there is somuch long hair to braid, costumes to touch-up, extra rehearsal. Or, fill in
the blank. Every weekend, every reason insists this doesn’t have to happen. Our liberty says we
can choose this, point ourselves at each other. Gather, swallow and sigh. Whatever we intend,
outside, a mapped contusion of dusk dilates. Stars blink awake, magnetize
those who arrive.
Ella deCastro Baron is a second generation Filipinx American raised in Northern California. She is an English and Creative Writing professor in San Diego whose first book, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment, is an ironic curriculum vitae of her ethnic upbringing, inherited faith, mixed race family, and chronic illness. Ella works best in community, trying to re-indigenize ways we storytell towards more healing, integration, and kapwa (deep interconnectedness, shared identity).
is that cut up fruit is the ultimate Asian
parent gesture of love.
there are posts like:
TFW your mom cuts fruit
when you're up late at night
and you see her eating the leftover bits
around the core, before putting the nicely
cut apple slices in a bowl to bring to you
if ur mum doesn’t randomly bring u
cut up fruit is she even ur mum
one meme in two frames—
in the first, a man reads a book,
and you can only see the cover:
Asian Parents’ Guide to Apologizing
in the second, the inside
of the book. the response:
now that I am older, I need
to get the translation right.
no — there were never any sorrys
just cold plates of nectarines,
bright pomelo, ice-raw starfruit,
fragrant lychee. sweet ya li pears,
without their papery brown skins,
at Jing Fong, at Sam Woo,
at Mei Sum, at Garden,
the restaurants do this, too.
tonight, the apron-splattered man
with grandfather hair, carries a
chipped plate to the register.
the server counts the other table’s change,
but jokes with me: crowded enough for you, ah neoi?neoi couldn mean girl or woman
but it also means daughter.
I have spent years making sure.
he places the oranges on my table.
they do this for all the customers,
but oh, what a glitch in the matrix
tonight. my mother saw me alone
with my empty bowl and splintered face
on wednesday, and she is here.
I know there is a math that measures time,
but what about a math that accounts
for logic? How should I explain the strangers
who will bring me fruit after she is gone?
it has been 31 years of my mother
bringing me cut up fruit without
even saying anything.
sometimes she would put
the fruit directly into my mouth.
tonight, I will eat all of the orange,
sweet or not. I will go home,
I will call her. I will buy an apple,
and cut it for myself.
all she ever wanted
was for me to hurry, finish
before it got brown, no worries
if she did not get a taste.
TO THE MAN WHO FOLLOWED ME NINE BLOCKS
on 171st and Broadway asking me if I was Japanese, telling me I could slurp a “long noodle” pulling up at the sides of his eye for an original one-eyed Oriental wink.
where are you going, pretty girl? or some of the time, look at me, you dumb chink bitch? I will tell you this — I am walking, but I am not going anywhere.
this happens maybe seven times in twenty-nine blocks or five times in three, not far from where I sleep.
I want to taste your body— baby, I love Chinese food— So beautiful—
just neighbors saying hello, I guess. I shuffle away, shoulders sunk low, sheepish eyes on scuffed sandals, sidewalk and gravel, carefully dodging all of the dog shit.
if only I could force that sourness from my churning stomach tell it to leap into my closed, tight throat to vomit on command— and shower this man.
you so piao liang! I wonder where you learned your Mandarin to make me stop—stunned, shocked— maybe a visit to the library? “How to Harass Women In Chinese” Beginners, Volume 1? your tones are all wrong.
Jennifer G. Lai is a poet, audio producer, artist, and writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Angry Asian Man, Pigeon Pages, and elsewhere. In 2020, she was named a finalist in Sundress Publications’ Poetry Broadside Contest. As part of Catapult’s poetry generator with Angel Nafis, she is working on a forthcoming manuscript, Dust We Carry. She lives in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @jenniferglai.