POSTS

Jaya Wagle

FRESH OFF THE PLANE

I

          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.

II

          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. 

III

          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. 

IV

          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. 

V

          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. 

VI

          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. 

VII

          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. 

VIII

          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 The Bridges 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.

IX

          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. 

X

          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.

XI.

          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.

XII 

          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.

XIII

          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.  

XIV

          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. 

XV

          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.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Grace Talusan

Three Flash Essays on the Border

1. Fish Tacos in Tijuana

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‘s memoir, 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.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Janika Oza

Here

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.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Michelle Alipao Chikaonda

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.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Ella deCastro Baron

Ghost Story

          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.

Purple Hearts

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.

Quantum Table

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.  

“Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”  “Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of time and space, You hallow us with Your mitzvoth and command us to kindle the lights of Shabbat.”

I take my seat. Our $20 rummage sale treasure: mid-century
modern, worn oak table, water-stained welcome,
diaspora interlude. Chris lifts his glass of red.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, borei p’ri hagafen.“Praise to You…Creator of the fruit of the vine.”

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.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz. Amen.“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. 

Kapwa.

Today, Shabbat almost doesn’t happen, again. Mere hours before our annual
County Fair hula performance, there is so much 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). 

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Jennifer G. Lai

WHAT THE KIDS IN SUBTLE ASIAN TRAITS KNOW 

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 

and 
          if ur mum doesn’t randomly bring u 
          cut up fruit is she even ur mum 

and 
          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: 
          come eat 

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, 
glistening. 

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.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Victoria Buitron

Chain Migration

          My mother doesn’t remember the change of seasons, her mother’s smile, or the home in Stamford, Connecticut where she spent the first years of her life. When she’s three and her older sister is five, they become orphans due to fate and a man’s choice. Their mother is diagnosed with aplastic anemia and dies just a few months later, and their widower father refuses to be the sole guardian of two girls. There is a third child, one born with the privilege of a penis. The father sends the two girls more than 3,000 miles away, to the country he originally migrated from, and reserves his fatherly duties for the boy who can stay with him in the United States.
          The girls are sent to Milagro, Ecuador, a coastal town about an hour away from the hub of Guayaquil. Despite its name, the town lacks miracles, though it makes up for it in sugar and pineapples. A river, in which the town’s kids swim, weaves through its center. The sugar mill’s tower rises above most of the edifices and cloaks the air with a hint of molasses, while slivers of ash from the factory fall on clothes hung out to dry across the town, like a volcano emitting a persistent spew of smoke. In the 1970s most of the streets are still dirt. The few concrete ones bear the onslaught of the rainy season for four months, and by the time April arrives and schools open, the streets are battered with holes the width and depth of pots made for gumbo. With only two main streets, it takes just a few minutes to enter from the east and continue onto the outskirts of the town where only sugar cane fields and rice fields mark the landscape. 

          Dictionary.com:

          “An anchor baby is a child who was purposefully brought while in the womb to the United States by a foreigner so that they would receive US citizenship upon their birth. It is widely considered to be an offensive term to immigrants, especially Asian-Americans.”

         The sisters first live with their maternal grandmother. About a year later, Tía Yolanda, one of their father’s eight siblings, visits the girls. She finds them both on the sidewalk. They have long unkempt hair and even though they are two years apart, they are both the same height. Their skinny bodies are tanned from the equatorial sun, and the oldest is a few shades darker than her sister. Their shirts worn through with holes, and they are sweaty with old dirt on their necks, new dirt on their fingers, and Tía Yolanda initially mistakes the lice crawling on their faces for moles. She claims the girls, taking them to the house she shares with her mother and brother. 
         That first night, she heats up water and bathes them. She pours lice shampoo on their small heads, caresses their scalp, and makes sure none of it seeps into their eyes. Tía Yolanda, a teacher who prayed for children of her own, is granted the children of her brother by Diosito. The girls sleep in a separate bed in her room. She can finally be a mother, kiss her quasi-children goodnight, and for years the girls don’t understand how good they have it.
         Tía Yolanda is plump but petite with black hair that almost reaches her shoulders. She never leaves home without lipstick or mascara, which makes her small eyes pop. Men look back to take in her beauty, especially on the monthly bus ride with the girls to the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil. When the gringo officials see the girls, their guardian is handed a Social Security check for each of them, which is financial help from the government due to their mother’s death. It is more money than what Tía Yolanda earns in six months at her teaching job. She then takes the girls to their favorite restaurant, where they eat juicy meat, moros con lenteja, and leave with protruded bellies. The girls always wear matching socks, clean underwear, and dresses with no holes. They are enrolled in their small town’s most expensive school and attend an English academy on the weekends. “It’s for you to understand basic English once you move back to the United States after high school,” she tells them. Tía Yolanda promises the girls that no matter what happens, they will attend a bilingual high school in Guayaquil. The girls will have to wake up at five a.m., make new friends, start homework on the bus back home, but it will all be worth it. Every year, during the months of school vacation, the girls go with Tía Yolanda to the United States for a few weeks, a treat paid for by Tía Alba, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut.

         In November 1986, President Reagan signed the “Immigration Reform and Control Act.” Reagan’s joint statement declared, “Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.” In 1990, the cost for a U.S. citizenship application was $90. By September 2020, the cost had increased to $640. As of October 3, 2020, the new fee is $1,170.

         The girls only see their father during annual trips to the United States. I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to know that your father is still alive, thousands of miles away, unwilling to reach out. He doesn’t write, he doesn’t call, and he doesn’t send money. But they are children and children love their father. They hug him when they arrive at his home in Connecticut, call him Papi, and are polite to his new Argentinean wife. They also visit Tía Alba, who visits the girls every year in Ecuador, sends them new clothes, and continuously asks Tía Yolanda whether they need anything.

         According to the article “New Media and the ‘Anchor Baby’ Boom,” published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in 2011, the term anchor child describes a young immigrant who will petition relatives in other countries to become permanent residents or citizens of the United States. 

         When my mother is twelve, Tía Yolanda falls ill with pancreatic cancer, and Tía Alba does everything in her power to take her to see a doctor in the United States. But before Tía Yolanda can leave, she undergoes emergency surgery in Milagro. She will never regain her strength to stand up and teach. The girls hear her crying out in pain for weeks. At times Tía Yolanda stifles her moans so the girls can sleep. Her bosom, once wide and full enough to allow a toddler to comfortably sleep in, begins to disappear. Her waist shrinks until her clothes cover her like bedsheets. 
         The night she dies, the girls cry themselves to sleep: the oldest one because a second mother is gone, and the youngest because, while it’s not the first mother who dies, it’s the one she will remember. Their future paths are again wholly altered by death. An uncle takes them in, but uses the Social Security checks to support his love of whiskey. The girls never go to school in Guayaquil and they don’t learn English. They leave the private high school and enroll in the overcrowded public one. The uncle’s number one priority for the next few years is to make sure the worst fate doesn’t befall them: premarital pregnancy. He only lets the girls out of his sight to go to school and then they must head straight home after the last school bell rings. But my mother meets my dad when she’s in high school and she sneaks out to see him. When school is closed for the holidays, the girls lie to their uncle and say they indeed have class to experience some semblance of freedom. 
         At seventeen, my mother becomes pregnant with me. Somehow my mother, father, and their friends keep it a secret from their guardians. If they hadn’t, she would have been forced to drop out during her senior year. People think a pregnant girl in class is contagious and will lead to more children out of wedlock. In their high school graduation photo, my father and mother are standing side-by-side, along with my paternal grandfather. Their expressions don’t look mischievous at all, but their ability to keep a secret is one of the reasons they’re smiling. In a few weeks, when she is four months pregnant and she knows no one will be able to take away her high school diploma, my mom and dad confess. My mother’s uncles and aunts call her father, and it’s only then that he decides his presence is warranted.

         Excerpt from Chapter Three of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Policy Manual: United States Citizens at Birth (INA 301 and 309):
         “A child born outside of the United States and its outlying possessions acquires citizenship at birth if:
      •  The child was born before noon (Eastern Standard Time) May 24, 1934;​
      •  The child’s father is an alien;​
      •  The child’s mother was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth; and​
      •  The child’s U.S. citizen mother resided in the United States prior to the child’s birth.”

          My parents remember that the day after I’m born, my maternal grandfather arrives in Milagro. He stands in the doorway of my mother’s room, demanding she promptly get dressed in white and walk down the aisle. The second worst thing after premarital pregnancy is no marriage after a birth. My father promises he’ll take care of my mom and me, but a wedding is out of the question. They’re still teens, and no one forces my dad to do anything he hasn’t decided to do himself. Mom and Dad leave with me wrapped in a blanket and they move in with my paternal grandparents—but without a promise to wed. The man who abandoned my mother was left reeling in shame for what she did to the family name. Decades later, my mother’s father will ask me to call him Uncle instead of Grandpa, so I refuse to call him either.
          No one outside my immediate family knows that when I’m born, my mother is given a document that says Certificate of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America with my name on it. My father learns his girlfriend doesn’t have an Ecuadorian passport just a few months before I’m born. For years, no one knows that my mother is, on paper, actually a gringa. No one knows because she doesn’t speak English and because the trips to the United States had stopped years before. 

          In 2008, a “birther” controversy erupted during Barack Obama’s candidacy for president of the United States. It began when opponents alleged he was born outside of the country. On August 6, 2012, Donald Trump tweeted: “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”
          In July 2008, Fred Hollander filed a lawsuit against John McCain and the Republican National Committee in order to disqualify the Republican candidate from the U.S. presidency. The suit alleged that McCain couldn’t become president because he was born in Coco Solo, Panama on August 29, 1936. At the time, the Panama Canal was under U.S. control.

          I was born in 1989, and by the early 1990s, my Abuelo was one of the wealthiest people in Milagro. After my father graduates from high school, Abuelo gives him the money and the space to start his own business. In a few years, though, he is on the verge of closing his business for the second time. He refuses another loan. Instead, at 22 years old, he decides to go to the United States and start over. His father is adamant he stay and tries to convince him that the perils of immigration aren’t for him. But his pride doesn’t allow him to stay in Ecuador. 
          My parents, now married for several years, arrive at the U.S. Embassy. They’ve consulted lawyers, filled out paperwork, obtained bank statements—but they’re still worried. Green cards are rarely granted so they’re scared he might have to wait a few years or go back to the embassy in a few months. The workers don’t even peek at the paperwork. Instead, they ask who I am. My father grabs me by my armpits and raises me up to the gringos. In that moment, I become their anchor to the United States. I look like my father, and they tell them that’s all they need. He has a green card within a month and leaves to start a new life in Connecticut before we can join him. 

          In 2020, the Trump Administration announced a travel ban on Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Eritrea, Tanzania, and Sudan. These countries were added to a previous list of countries with travel restrictions, which initially include Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, called the new travel ban “pure discrimination and racism.”

          I’m five when we join my father in Connecticut. My mom has papeles but no command of English and only finds work cleaning houses. In 1996, on a day towards the end of spring, late to one of my mother’s appointments, we board the first train heading south. Mr. Cutacelli will be at the Greenwich train station to pick us up to clean his home, while I’m left in a room to play with toys that aren’t mine. My mother doesn’t like to venture to an unknown location if she’s alone. When she needs to take a bus or train, her knowledge of English evaporates, and she enters into a rush of panic over what the unknown could bring. She fears a train will end up in New Jersey or Florida, far from the comfort of all that she knows. On the train, she suddenly notices that it isn’t making any stops. There should be five stops between South Norwalk and Greenwich but the train proceeds at a high speed and by the time we approach the platform, my mother is holding back tears. She spots and waves at Mr. Cutacelli, the house owner who promised to pick us up. The train doesn’t stop, and my mother looks around for a face that might know Spanish to find out where we are heading.

          On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Cristina Riofrio sat a table with friends in a McDonald’s in Georgia. A man at a nearby table overheard her speaking Spanish and ordered her to “shut up” and “speak English.” She filmed the encounter then posted it on Twitter and wrote, “In America, I can speak FUCKING Spanish if I want to.” Cristina was born in California to Ecuadorian parents. I think, That could have been me. Not only are my parents Ecuadorian, my mother’s maiden name is Riofrio.
          Within a week, the man who hassled Cristina was fired by his employer, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.

          My mother finds a conductor aboard the train and explains as best she can. Her hand, holding mine, is wet with worry.
          “Grenich. No stop? Stop in Grenich?” my mother says.
          “Oh, you got the express train, honey. Next time take the local. LOO-CAAAL.”
          He stretches out the vowels as if this will prevent any future mix-ups, as if my mother knows what these words mean. The man has some stubble over his lips, and I can’t see his hair under the navy-blue conductor’s hat. His shirt is a lighter blue, the color of a cloudless day.
          “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you which train to get on once we stop so you can head back to Greenwich. Sit down, okay?”
          The other passengers have books or newspapers open, some are wearing t-shirts or light sweaters and they glare at us, others have worried eyes, but they are all bound by silence.
          “Mami, are we okay?” I ask. If she cries, I’ll panic. But I don’t see any tears, and she tells me there is nothing to worry about it. I cling onto her like I always have. I’m five and I have never had a nanny. She is everything to me. I make sure I’m touching her hand or arm, and I feel like the weight of our worry is like a heavy anchor that will cause the train to halt.
          I have never seen the end of train tracks before. In my mind the tracks circled around the world in a never-ending path to take people to their destinations. The terminus is not what I imagine. The track is covered with trash, from coffee cups to old newspapers and receipts accidentally flung from people’s pockets. We are the only ones who cross the track to the other side;  everyone else on the train makes their way past the railings, through a gloomy tunnel to wherever they need to be. 
          We thank the conductor and head back towards Connecticut. Cellphones are not common yet and my mother doesn’t have a beeper; we can only hope Mr. Cutacelli is still at the station and not eager to fire her. When we arrive at the Greenwich stop, about an hour and a half after my mother waved to him from the express train, he knows exactly what happened to us and is ready to take us to clean his home. 

          In 2018, on a televised show called Axios on HBO, President Donald Trump said: “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States… with all of those benefits… It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”

          What I don’t know on that day, when my mother utters I’m sorry too many times on the train platform, is that she is not an immigrant to this country. What I don’t know, even to this day, is who the anchor child is. Is it me or is it my mother? Maybe it’s both of us. What I don’t know on that day is that my mother was born just a few miles from where Mr. Cutacelli stood, beaming with an expression of pity reserved for newcomers who don’t know the difference between the express or the local train.

Victoria Buitron is currently working on a memoir and recently graduated with an MFA from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Spry Lit and more.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Opal Palmer Adisa

Wherever There Is Sea I Belong

Sitting on a rock at the sea’s edge, I become internally quiet, my breath slows and lengthens, and for a moment I close my eyes, allowing the rays to bathe my face. Breathing deeply, I look out and listen, leaning into the sea, I listen for the voices at the ocean floor, moaning, chattering and sending me messages. They, my ancestors, have come to terms with their fate under the blue waters, their new home. This too was a part of the plan, so they assure me.

              hear us in the ripple 
              of the waves
              in the current of the tides
              our journey is in the underworld
              where new life is always beginning

Sometimes, depending on the location, I sit under a tamarind tree, or stand on the pier facing the open Atlantic or I squat in the sand, using a stick to trace designs, mesmerized by the voices that neither the sound of the nor the loud appetite of the sea-gulls can block. I am a child of the sea, I rode to the Americas on Yemoja’s back, learned to ingest salt like the fish and use its sodium chloride to preserve my history. I am here and have been since before the Middle Passage which is the chronicle I am given in their history, and I will be here for eternity. No one can dispel or annihilate me.

              unshod my soles remember
              every pebble every soil every
              wisp of grass and the stories
              too tied to these shores that 
              generations have lived
              where belonging is the bridge
              and expanse of every path and road 

Before I was schooled about how Africans came to the Caribbean and the Americas, I could not imagine anywhere else that might be home. And even now that I have been to 14 African countries, have had my DNA tested which traces my roots to Cameroon, even though I have lived in the USA for more years  than I have lived in the Caribbean, these islands will always be home. I know the borders are arbitrarily drawn by the conquerors who lay claim to land based on their success in battle. Land is female and borders are male, and the world and divide of the world that we now inhabit was decided and determined in conquest and often did not consider the original inhabitants, nor the integrity of rivers, mountains nor the local ecology. For this reason, I am opposed to borders and believe people should be allowed freedom of movement.

              in the forest all trees belong
              growing at their own pace
              sometimes plating leaves
              co-joining roots linking branches
              in the spirit of discovery and togetherness
              all belong to the endless belonging

I was teaching at a small liberal arts college in California and doing workshops on diversity with the almost all-white faculty, the majority of whom insisted they were not racist and that their courses were inclusive. There were only a handful of Black and Latino students, but two came to me, a Black woman and a Latino man, asking me to intervene in one of the painting classes where the professor kept insisting that skin colour was pink to puce. When the Black female student raised her hand it was ignored, and when she blurted out “My skin is neither pink nor puce and neither is my mama or papa or a whole community where I come from” silence fell over the classroom, and the professor ignored her for the remainder of the three-hour studio class. 

The Latino student had similar issues over representation in another class. As the faculty diversity coordinator, I reached out to both faculty and said that stating “skin color is pink” in an all-white class with a lone Black female student was not inclusive and omitted a sizable portion of the population of the city where the college was located. I explained that this was what I meant when I spoke about the lack of diversity. 

A few days later I went to my car in the faculty parking lot and affixed to my windshield wiper was a piece of paper with these words written in bold black ink: “Go Back Where You Came From!” I was stunned. Because I was running late to pick up my children, I placed the note in my bag and reported it the next day. A  week later, in the faculty newsletter, I printed the note and wrote a poem in response, the gist of which was: ”I am right where I came from but technically only the indigenous people have claim to this land because no matter how many generations you have been here, like  me, your people came here on boats, voluntarily seeking better. My people were kidnapped and forced to be here to profit your ancestors, so I have sweated the right to be here.”

That was not the first time I was told to go back where I came from. It happened in New York many years before when I was an undergraduate student and babysat a rich boy in upper Manhattan three days a week after classes. Once, an elderly woman in the building where I worked, while riding the elevator, looked sternly at me from the opposite side and crossly said, “What are you doing here! Why don’t you people go back to where you came from?” Her hatred was so palpable. I stood where I was, speechless. I was only 17 then and I truly wondered why white people were so hateful. There is still a part of me that doesn’t understand such a stance–this idea that they belong, but we don’t. Curious, the blindness of white supremacy. As a fairly recent immigrant to the US, I found the racism and ignorance puzzling and vexing. Relating the incident to my mother when I arrived, her attitude was: “Don’t tek on them people. Tell them you belong as much as they do, and besides our bauxite and sugar are increasing their wealth.” In the 1970s, Jamaica was the third largest exporter of bauxite to the US.

Belonging is neither assigned nor granted, nor is it a privilege bestowed. Belonging is understood as a right. I belong because I am human, because my ancestors have contributed because, because… really, I don’t need a reason. Perhaps it was my mother’s staunch, arrogant attitude that buoyed me up so even in those instances, when white Americans tried to make me feel as if I did not belong, my response was always almost indignation and back in their face attitude. I have infused my children with this same attitude, except I have extended it to the world, always saying to them, “You are a citizen of the world, and wherever you want to travel and live you have a right, and you belong.” 

When I moved to New York, I discovered Langston Hughes while completing my final year of high school. His poem, “I, Too” has always resonated with me, as it so eloquently articulates the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. 

              I, too, sing America.
              I am the darker brother.
              They send me to eat in the kitchen
              When company comes,
              But I laugh,
              And eat well,
              And grow strong.

Though Langston Hughes wrote that poem more than 50 years ago, it is still relevant and dialogues with the Black Lives Matter Movement. As Black people, we always have to declare that we struggled and contributed and helped to shape the culture of all the Americas, so therefore we belong. Sometimes, however, the racism and constant need to protect yourself and your children makes you not want to belong, makes you want to find a safe place to flee. 

Yes, white brothers and sisters, “I too, sing America.” And when the white racist raises his ugly head, I just walk away and keep moving, the sea in my ear, my ancestors singing the water, I’m never far, I’m always here, the sea is the largest body so you can’t help but belong. 

Opal Palmer Adisa is a Ja-American writer who currently resides in Jamaica but has lived and taught in the Oakland Bay Area for over 25 years.  She has published 20 collections of poetry, short stories, two novels and three children’s books. She is a cultural activist and gender specialist at The UWI, Mona, Institute for Gender and Development Studies.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Saba Keramati

The Daycare Teachers Ask Me Why I Don’t Talk 

Baba buys me a pair of shoes, asks: does it feet?
I ask Mama for pancakes, 

she fills them with green onions. 
I hear their accents only when they speak 

to Americans. We give fake names 
to the Starbucks barista. I learn 

that which is too difficult to explain to white folk
is not worth my time. 

I fill out government forms for my parents, 
translate at the DMV. Legal jargon 

is the fourth language I speak. 
I interpret between the two sets of grandparents 

before I hear the ABC’s. I am the great genius
of my family lines, the decoder of dialects, 

the articulation of my ancestors. 
They take me to Disneyland to thank me 

for being a good daughter and I have to ask for directions
from strangers. At a food stand, I buy a Mickey Mouse 

lollipop, shove his stupid upbeat voice 
into my own mouth until it turns black.

Those Who Live

                       for Vincent Chin 


I’ve come to where he is buried, 
looking for answers. I am ashamed 
of what I did not know. Once, 

I made it to the front gate of the cemetery.
A funeral procession of Fords 
with American flags stopped me. 

A baseball bat flashed through my mind.
It’s the anniversary of his death again. 
Today is the first time 

I’ve made it this far. Usually, I stop 
driving at the red post marking what remains
of Detroit Chinatown. Or, should I say, 

the red post that simply is 
what remains of Detroit Chinatown. 
The years pass so quickly. I’ve lived 

a short distance away for six of them. 
His ghost always with me but unnamed for so long.
I had to Google the mural in memoriam, 

across from the new dog hotel and tattoo parlor.
There’s a phrase I’ve heard for six years: steel,
not chopsticks. The suggestion being 

one is stronger than the other. But did you know
he was an orphan? 
I call my mother and ask 

if she’s ever heard his name. She says no.
I keep looking. The headstones grow 
blurry before my eyes. Strange,

how the graves of the murdered are so hard to find.

Saba Keramati is a multiracial writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from University of Michigan and UC Davis. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barren Magazine, and elsewhere. She is nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO

Ariana Benson

Frenetic Musings on the Thumbnail (in American Technicolor)

For Breonna, for George, for all those whose names I wish I had learned while they were still with us // Scrolling past a pixeled thumbnail, I see red / at the scene of white skin entrenched in Black flesh. // To be Black in this world is to know names you shouldn’t, / to know that both knees and ropes have knots  // that, though meant to hold objects together, / serve the same function when applied to the neck. // When knotted knees are applied to the neck, veins / swell and splinter, fragile like glass full of faults. // The function of asphalt, when not cradling the neck, / is to provide a Black back ground, or, a background. // In the thumbnail I see a wash of black ground, / splintering cold like sky scorched by flashing lights. // Red and blue bleed into the heavens, / set the air ablaze, drown people in color. // Lit up like gas torches, white flesh reddens / with blue blood—to know the colors “red,” // “white,” “blue,” “black” is to know that most uniforms

are dyed one or many or all of these hues. // To see ember-red rage rise beneath flesh / cloaked in blue is to know that white bodies use // uniforms as camouflage to naturalize even / their most obvious movements, to blend and blur. // When hunted by the boys hooded in blue (read: white / hoods), embodied Blackness must blend to survive. // Those moving around their natural habitats pause— / an attempt to save themselves with camouflage. // When reading a poem, a death is the punctuation / after an elongated pause, or the silence behind // an ellipsis, before black letters disrupt the uniform, / perpetual negative space of the blank white page. // I can only bring myself to read about the demise / of the bruise-blued souls, the reddened swell of eyes, // the white hand tucked the negative space of a pocket, / the blank faces—mementos of death. // In the blue-lit moments of his death, the last / man I watched bid his body farewell called // out to his mother in
a cadence I can only bring myself / to hear as poetry, a black echo borne of red blood. // I see that thumbnail and vow that when the pulse / of blood ceases to echo in my soul, I will speak // nothing but poetry—not because I am moments / from death, but because it is the only way I know to live. // In the world after this one’s red end, its black farewell, / not a soul will drown awash in white caps // that unfurl atop crushing waves of blue. A thumbnail / will be nothing more than a pink (read: a blend of red // and white) punctuation entrenched at the end of my own / Black flesh. How we’ll function is the answer, never a question. // Every breath will be inevitable, each punctuated by another / in perpetuity. We will then know Black as color, not an absence // of light. In this world, we will know their names, / but not because we have to.

[Ariana Benson] How I situate myself in “American” identity: I am a Black woman, and occupy a liminal space in the American landscape. I visualize my place in this way: if “true citizens” are those represented and rooted by an “American” identity, then I exist in the spaces in-between the very letters that comprise the word. Thus, though I am not exactly “American,” the idea of “America” cannot be fully read or understood without acknowledging my presence, my history, my taking up of space.

 

 BACK TO ISSUE

 BACK TO FOLIO