Reflection on my time at Smith

Smith did not teach me to be whole. It taught me to be broken, to be empty like my mama before me, glorious in front of a bathroom mirror through the image she made for herself in America.

At this institution I have stared at blank walls, slept in, ate too little, threw up too much all in the name of “living” and “safe spaces”. Safe spaces do not exist for survivors of physical and emotional abuse. They do not exist for people targeted for their facial features, their disabilities, skin color, to how they speak and breathe every single day. I was not safe here, but I was not safe when I was born to a world that determined how I would live life through a gender a doctor gave me. And I continue to be bruised for all I carry from mental illness to queerness in both sexuality and gender. Not everyone at this so called “liberal” institution has been supportive, from administration to people I no longer call friends to those I have known for a long time, from before I moved to the U.S. even. But I thank them for showing me unkindness for that is how I learned to love even those who are unkind.

It was a lemonade stand for a Christian organization on campus where I tasted the sweetness and the bitterness of faith. The people like me have their own brokenness, their own insecurities and beliefs that sometimes stray from the glory and beauty of God. This university, to me, felt like my religion and others who hurt me in the name of their beliefs, some of which I internalized to the point of not only not loving myself, but also being unkind to myself and others. From the first-year dean who called me into her office after my taking a week’s leave without “following proper procedure” who said: “I wanted to make sure you were a real person” who pushed me to having a breakdown in her office over our unequal racial dynamics and devaluing my grief over losing my yeye, to the professor senior year who I asked to give trigger warnings when assigning readings with graphic domestic abuse who said “you are safe here” without promising trigger warnings in the future because “this course is full of violence” when that wasn’t the truth, I thank you anyway.

Despite everything, I survived. I survived and carry the scars, scrapes, bruises that go far beyond the skin. I am living proof, living evidence. And I speak so I can hear myself in all my glory and beauty. I speak at the expense of being misunderstood. And I thank those who hear my story and stand with me, pray with me, love with me. I cherish all those who I love and are brave enough to love me back. You are more than enough.

*Inspired by a friend and fellow Senior Weaving Voices monologue participant’s blog post, along with my beloved writers Audre Lorde and Rupi Kaur

S.

It’s 5 in the afternoon, and Steven is sitting with me on a low bamboo stool, taking origami paper out of his suitcase. Have you ever loved someone? It’s said in a tone shimmering as the light falling on us through the open doors. Nothing has left either of our mouths. We sit contemplating each other in silence, me with paper in hand, him cradling his camera. He tells me about the boy he loved, who graduated years ago, who had a girlfriend. He tells me about nights after practice, at the gym, keeping secrets, caresses, silence. He tells me about the girl he thought he had a crush on, who was very pretty, who is one of his close friends now, who has dark curly hair. He tells me he loves boys, that it’s not a secret, that his mother knows. He wakes at 5 AM and runs until his heart slows through the smog and his mother follows him through the hotel curtain, anxious until he returns. She makes him tea and worries until he showers, wearing dry clothes and resting, camera in hand.

It’s twilight and I pick up the phone, twirl the cord around my finger as he talks. I told everyone I’m gay. He tells me about the one he embraces, who has a girlfriend. He asks me what to do. I tell him: I am worried, tell him: make sure you are safe, tell him: I care for you, tell him: I can’t say, do what feels right. He thanks me and I urge him to call again. He says I love you.

The sun is low in the sky and it’s humid as we sit on aisle seats in the back of the small tour bus. My headphone is nestled against his face, Bat For Lashes crooning as he naps. Nothing is moving except his chest, I watch it rise and fall, his hands on his knees. Everyone is quiet except for an occasional cough or bump on the road.

10PM and I’m getting ready for bed, but the phone rings. I run to the receiver, eager to pick up. He tells me about a fight, being pushed, his coach not caring, not being fast enough, his slow heartbeat, 5AM runs. He does not speak of love, but cutting the cord to life. It frightens me until he says I love you.

4 months later, I listen to Flowers never fade in the rainfall by Simon and Garfunkel and post to his Facebook wall but he is dead. My sobs rouse my irritable brother who checks my laptop screen and exits the tab before I experience the moment again.

I click through old photos and realize we’ve never taken any pictures together; he’s always been behind my mother’s camera, taking photos for her, but here and there I’ve caught his shoe next to a small dog, his back near a dragonboat, his profile in the background of Tiananmen Square where we first met. He is emerging from a temple on a less traveled section of the Great Wall, his mother staring into the mountains where so many men have perished in its construction. He has his camera slung around his neck as we push through the tourists in Wangfujing, stopping to observe the skewered scorpions and pounded blocks of peanut brittle.

24 months later my ayi says he was a trapped soul that needed to leave the earth. I still have the origami irises he folded in the back of a drawer. I can still feel how tightly his arms were around me the night we left Beijing, how no words left his mouth. We stood briefly in the aisle of the little shuttle where we traveled together as adults lined up behind us, our mothers in the distance.

Ode to Ocean

 

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Kunming, China, February 2015

Listen

Ocean, when you read the sky opened

And rained ashes on the already charred earth

My bed feels a little smaller than the expanse I imagined it to be these days

These days it’s a little hard to get out of bed

 

I lie here until I am no longer comfortable, until my skin and bones have melted into the box-spring, until all I see is ceiling and want nothing but to close my eyes and just forget

Forget all these things I was called instead of my name, forget my family behind in the planes that fly above me, forget I was somebody’s daughter and someone else’s teacher, Rachmaninoff dying on the sheets in my gnarled hands

 

Ocean, when you read I saw the black hole sink a little, spit out the universe again in my watery eyes mascara-less my chapstick-ed mouth dry

I remember why I too left the Pacific to come to the city of dreams

The city that swallows its children alive

 

Ocean, all I want to do is leave all of this behind –

This little cell with its pretty desk and lofted bed and free showers

All of this and I have never yet lived

 

*Response poem to reading poet Ocean Vuong’s essay Beginnings: New York link

 

 

Travelling poem

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Little Italy, NYC. January 2014

LISTEN

the heat and the rattle the grumble and groan

old city, smog and cigarettes

cheap labor on young backs and musicians dream of Beijing

My first winter, white on gray concrete city concrete steel glass New York can never be Beijing can never be New York

Railroads and 200 years infant city with grime, old city with legacy, blood and tears in June, fireworks in July, blood and dust

One square, one mausoleum, the other a thousand billboards and prostitutes leaning out of windows, artificial light

the glamour of high heels and dinners in hotels, bottle service by someone who’s only known the ghosts of a city that retains its young, tomorrow’s ghosts

Cities lead to more cities, more dreams, skies and horizons bearing generations of lost and found

lost and found

lost and found

lost and found

 

* I wrote this piece in the back of a journal on a train. I looked out the window and thought, cities are so alike especially in the generations of people who seek dreams and opportunities, interchangeable on the streets; Today’s grandpa was yesterday’s aspiring musician playing on subway platforms. One of my earliest memories was my first winter in Beijing. When I moved to New York, so much was different but as I got used to my surroundings, I am beginning to notice that things are more the same. The buildings and the landscape may be different but people’s aspirations are repeated. These days there is a high frequency of Chinese speakers on the streets, both yuppies and overseas high school and university students plus older generation Chinese Americans. I’m always nostalgic for Beijing since I was born there and have distinct memories as a toddler. The memories always flood when I’m on a subway, bus or plane and see the landscapes start to blend together.

Women

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Woman and child, Kunming, China 2015

Women offer so much.

Men offer peace, security in homes, money

but without women

you get no food on the table,

no one to hold at night.

We work too,

give away ourselves to the takers,

put ourselves, needs and desires behind

put them in our children

sons and daughters

who fly away

to give and take heartbreak in their own homes

Memorial II

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 S. observes crow in the rain

Steven

what are you seeing

in my mirror this morning

peering out like a hungry bird

behind my eyes

are you seeking the shape of a girl

you met in a Beijing Summer

or are you looking for my mother

I grow more and more

to resemble her

everyday

 

Do you remember

I could not accept your face dying

Do not know you now?

 

Surely your vision stayed

stronger than mine

you would have made a great photographer

for all the nuances you noticed       I would have missed

had you not shown me

Steven        tell me

where do dead boys wander

after their summer?

 

I wish I could see you again

far from me even

swan-like flying into the sun

your eyes are blinding me

Steven.

 

*Based on Audre Lorde’s Memorial I

Elegy for a friend who passed away shortly after we became friends in the summer of 2013. Rest in peace, Steven. You are forever in my heart

Photograph of the moment Steven was outside in the rain speaking to this bird. Beijing, July 2013.

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Olympic Park, Beijing, August 2013

Listen

京You held me in the hollow behind my mother’s navel and gave me the first breaths of winter

a baby girl born in a room full of boys

you rocked me in the arms of a hospital that knew only 友好 of the Japanese

the skyscrapers grew with each passing year as the population booms

bicycles peddled by peddlers go past the rows of cars honking at each other during rush hour

unfiltered Smoke curls up from factories to crowd the overcrowded cities

I breathe second-hand smoke in the streets and fumes from the subway warmed gutters steaming with rain hitting hot ground The kitchen of my 公公姥姥is filled with the sounds of boiling kettles and grimy floors that have accumulated dirt for decades Dust mingled with sweat and sun courses through my lungs – 华侨,移民Chinese American Kiwi immigrant returning to another home 五道口is full of expatriates and others like me, Chinese by blood, assimilated, but never fully into American culture, I float bloodless like a cloud above the nightclubs and liquor for 五人民币into the arms of men and women I danced with, foreigners

you hold me in your ancient arms that has life in the form of exports and swelling population of 外地人and fewer locals I walk through your national galleries and private galleries of 798 wanting wishing for growth in a space overrun with speckled air shining with artificial light of supermalls and nightlife of Sanlitun I taste the oiled jianbing mingled with perspiration of its creator waiting for customers, a merchant old woman who took the bus cramped but always bustling with space for the elderly Your summers are hot enough to fry eggs on the ground with a saucepan like the little boy in the government censored newspaper who looked into the eyes of the readers looking for a future

futures-students taking the 高考registered annually because they are offered one chance per year to take a test which will predict which university, job, career they hold and meet their future husbands and wives

I breathe the summer months I return to your blackened waters and Tai Ji practitioner filled parks to the district my grandparents settled in

I return not fully home,

in the guise of expatriate with Chinese blood in my veins,

American English and imperfect 中文not knowing what is ahead of me but knowing part of what came before me as I walk in the alley of a hutong blocks away from the nearest 10 story office building

oceans away, I dream of returning to a home that ages as I age, changes as I change

 

The women I love

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Kaima, photo taken by my mother. 2010?

Listen

She sings jingju on the radio, hangs hand washed laundry on wires by the sun,

laolao the teacher, laolao the selfless, anxious for mouths fed from birth till her back aches from tenderness

ma’ma the healer, studying by candlelight in a war,

catching blood on her sleeve from patients fresh from the battleground

earth shakes with shells from the sky but she stands in the artificial light of the operating room, eyes heavy with sleep

mama, my mama who had dreams beyond the borders of her jiaxiang

carried diasporic son and daughter from pacific to atlantic

Sacrificed her own flesh and blood to lady liberty, who half-smiles in concrete

mama, my mama who once dreamt of poets and canons who does not have a place for those dreams now

These are the women whose songs I carry

from sunrise to sundown I cradle my laolao‘s spine, my ma’ma‘s hands, mama’s dreams ocean to ocean I thank the labor that created me, that shaped me, who I owe my birth

These are the women I love