Memories have a distinct smell. 9/11 is char and soot.

My mother saw the plane burst—she was walking the dogs at Houston and Greene, where the grid of Manhattan streets gave rise to a view of the impressive towers. She looked up and saw a silvery glint followed by plumes of smoke. Soon after, my sister was evacuated from her high school. Stuyvesant and the rest of downtown Manhattan, the ones who could make it, stumbled uptown along the West Side Highway.

I wonder how John Cage would reinvent the crash of the planes and Twin Towers, the metallic boom. When people ask me about 9/11, I tell them what I remember: the walk downtown from elementary school, home elusive amidst thick soot and fumes. The acrid smell of smoke permeated the city, even at 16th street. The suffocating haze tasted ashen, a brown-gray: torched dirt. Circular memories: I see myself walking down to a little square on West 10th Street, but a second later, i’m walking back uptown. My mother tells me that it was Theresa, Timmy’s mother, who drove me home because I was too young to walk home by myself. My sister recalls that it was my dad who picked me up and accompanied me home. But I do not doubt my memories. Of wandering home alone in a smoky daze.

I tell them about the high school I later shared with my sister. She recounts her walk up along the Hudson in a pack of students: somehow in solitude, somehow united in the haze settled over the city. Over the next months, we find that the country has kept the panic elicited from the first hours following the crashes; friends are questioned for the way they look as the media spurs and hides racism, general discrimination.

If there is anything I have learned in my travels, it is that people notice what is different, exotic. And that racism and objectification will follow me across countries.

“Mira, la Chinita.”

“Konichiwa,” a man says and bows down at me.

Yells in German to return to Tokyo. Relentless efforts to divulge my roots, my place of birth. New York I tell them. America.

Not satisfactory.

Even in the city whose diversity I boast, I get asked if i’m going to eat my dogs.

Street harassment; suck it up, people say.

They must have never felt trapped in judgment.

Recount the fears that settle in: of isolation, of uncertain identity.

It’s complicated when you can’t find a tie to the cultures to which you’re supposed to belong to and represent.

Especially with an estranged father who yields from a beautiful country and a mother who sometimes seems scared of her roots—has no desire to rediscover them, yet fears their loss. Add in the struggles with imposed societal labels, people labels. At what point do you acknowledge them? All the while, I wonder: where are my roots? They’re somewhere; i’m wandering the world searching for them.

Sometimes I can’t help but pity the grotesque creatures that roam the streets, moving mechanically and too fast, holding on so tightly to a single and make-believe truth. Sometimes I worry about losing my many pieces. Then I taste the smoke and recall how easily the world can lose its music. Extract me from judgment; leave me intact, and I request only a music box for the rest of the world. 

Stunner

You are the only one with whom
I can share a harmless closeness.
My hand slips down your back and I find
memories, valleys contained
in beautiful lines; past encounters.

Let me drink in the dips of your body,
give them a rest from constant pressure.
Remember the Shirley Temples,
glass tinted red from maraschino cherries
free from spirits and bitters;

the people who have walked out on you.
Your right hip I touch, and I experience your streets,
where people laugh at your mangled language
but can’t stop staring because
you’re a stunner.

I feel your left shoulder,
where resides a giant knot
strong like your walk, dull as old glass;
people who have scorned you.
Heels click, crisp as East Coast winters.

Who are they to decide?
They should envy your touch, sultry
and sweet, i’m chasing you down
gray concrete because I know:
You stop for no one.

Invitation

Pull a chair over, into
perpetual rain,
and we will talk about selfish desires,
as the cold erodes the warmth of skin
against skin.

Bodies throbbing,
portable stereo imitates rhythmic rain, syncopated
hi-hats and snares
that render others soundless.

Settle in,
wash away the beat-up shins,
and the earsmuffs everyone tries to give–
the world has her own pair.
Away

with the grinding memories, crackling against
black asphalt.
I wonder if it’s gray in England today.
It’s so dark I cannot see my hands.

Chinatown Temple

Temples: solaces that wrap your body in ribbons of cool during New York City’s muggy summers. In the early mornings it is mostly quiet, the plastic over the worn cushions soundless, streets not yet bustling. Draped in yellow cloth, the resident monks drift from room to room, sweeping, placing offerings of fruit in threes—never four—on red plates, and lighting the first incense of the day. The temple feels strangely empty, despite the large bronzed statues that inhabit the temple.

By late morning, people have begun to filter in at a more constant speed. Candles float in glass bowls of oil, drifting as tips of incense sticks attempt to capture their fire. Smoke spirals upwards from the sweet incense, ends buried in a giant urn of sand that sits on three stout legs. There is a lady that always sits up front next to the red donation box, white hair wound with gray.

Kids run around carefree in the streets after Saturday school, before they are herded into the temple by their parents’ reminders to pay their respects. The children that arrive are the restless type, fidgeting but quiet. The few minutes they spend lighting incense are intruded by thoughts trying to link carelessness with prayer. The most pure are always the most frustrated. It is the cradled baby who cries in temples.

In the afternoons, the temple echoes the lethargy of day; the people that come in now are slicked in sweat, breath-less the instant they walk through the door, greeted by majestic statues and a world more foreign to them than the rude streets of New York. Tourists don’t bring offerings. They bring only fascination and tired cameras on sunburnt necks. The candles swimming in oil become more active as inexperienced hands grasping incense try to catch the little flame. As it grows dark, they embark on more exciting journeys, battling once again through the angry streets of Chinatown. The little window at the front of the temple begins to glow from the city lights.

Nights in temples belong to the desperate. While the monks go around picking out the dying incense, the people bent from working all day settle in the red cushions, heads bent, knees flat, and worn hands embedded with the spheres of rosary beads. They are the discoverers of the back room, where there are no windows and only warm hues of gold and red, and where a singular statue sits front and center; she is a lady compassionate to the struggles of a circular path in life.

The owners of stubborn prayers and crinkled hands set the temple afire with prayers trapped in this snow globe city. Only momentarily do they spiral upwards in smoke before they drift back down, enshrouding everything in gray.

My sister and I communicated by means of a secret language we created. Although I lagged behind her in comprehension, we managed. Go-ke boating was when we filled the bathtub and sat in buckets, floating around the tub. My bucket was white with Pocahontas and a raccoon painted on it. Hers was fire red. Mine retired the day I puked in it because I was sick. Then we shared a boat. Then my sister became modest and wouldn’t let me see her naked anymore, so we didn’t go go-ke boating anymore.

We used to fight over who would press the elevator button. But her longer legs always got there first. I asked her what the bumps under the buttons were. She told me that it’s called Braille; so blind people know which button to press. I asked her what the metal box under the buttons was that said SERVICE MANAGEMENT ONLY. She told me that if I was naughty or annoying, someone would come and stuff me in the metal box in the elevator. I believed her because I was small enough to have fit in the box. After that, I preferred the stairs to the elevator.

But I was never a fool alone.

“Walk faster!” I whined as I tugged my dad along. “At this rate it’s going to take forever to get there!”

He walked faster.

I stuck my foot out.

He almost fell. This was my favorite game.

bleach

winding, winding through the lacquered night and just running
through the blue skeleton of time
past the barred silver rail between us
skirting vertigo before-

bones slip

into the silvery green water of
skipped stones and
spiral types of space.

ripples ebb in and out of themselves
as body performs an impossible reversal into
a level plane,
pressed into a towel, weight
into sand, sun upon my back.

clean.

Exhale

She too has a story, but she will not tell.

She lies on a long bench, filtering out the sounds of cars, animals, people. Her body slips into the protruding pebbles like a foot slips into sand on a beach. She stares into the sun, orange like the pill containers stacked on her mother’s plate. With breaths extracted like pulled silk, she allows the blossoming red of the sun to press against her eyelids.

Then night cracks open beauty in the form of a breeze.

She believes that the night is exclusively hers. Released from the weighted air of day, she breaks through the vacuum of people constantly bypassing her. She returns to the monkey bars and swings of a retired childhood.

If only people could be tamed without breaking their spirit.

Her body seems to have a memory separate from her mind, as memory veers towards a glorified past. Numbing pain is more difficult than recycling it. My fingers lightly trace over her sensitive skin.

I have a story, and I will tell. I do not live with the fear that history will repeat itself because I know that we can overcome tendencies. We self-define. When we are selfish we become all types of repulsive colors. So we shed ourselves and move on.

Breathe in a world too rushed to do so.

Now, our bodies rest on the stony bench as the blue night overtakes with a dewy brilliancy. We are all inextricably linked under the fragrant sky.

a reminder:

The one time I wanted sympathy I didn’t get it. I was reaching into his refrigerator for the little pink bottles of alcohol that tasted like Florida, because I don’t drink, I don’t want to drink, I’ve never been drunk. He didn’t give any notion that he cared that a twelve-year-old, let alone his own, was falling through the cracks.

Where are we going?

It doesn’t matter.

Mas cerveza.

I hate the taste of beer.

I hated him for his paleness; I countered it with the sun. I hated our eyebrows, nose, terrible night vision, and paranoia.

In our misery, we often fail to realize that we are rulers of our own worlds. We forget to slow down and breathe, forget to look up—not at the underside of the table, but at the clouds tinged gold by the breaking sun, at the waves of blue sky traveling in through half-open windows. Reminders: recognize what happy feels like, remember that it’s no good to be perfect. Because from an aerial view, we are simply tracing over sand with wet toes, lines drawing upon lines.

So take all the chaos in the world, and make it your own, and make it beautiful: https://ministeamroller.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/making-chaos-beautiful/.

what are you?

what are you? is a common question.
new yorker comes out more easily than american. perhaps in an attempt to dispel the idea that we’re all ignorant and uncultured. or perhaps it’s a declaration of love for my home city.
china. my asian friends complain that this is almost always the first guess. what is with this assumption that all of our faces belong to one place?
what are you?
human. and no matter where i’m from, no matter how exotic you find me,
i do not exist for you to undress me. even if it’s only in your mind, you make me feel dirty with your eyes; i can feel them.
don’t judge me.
what am i? afraid. that you’re going to come closer, and try to press your body against mine.
don’t touch me.
i’m a stranger. that deserves more respect than you’re willing to give.
what am i?
i am me.
and even if i am afraid that you’re going to come closer, i am not scared to push you away

Pale Skin

I keep forgetting that today is supposed to be some sort of celebration of independence for Americans. Twisting the whole idea around–yes, I am American (no matter how reluctant I may be to reveal that to foreigners, but I will write more on that another time), and I am celebrating my independence–abroad. A reminder to all: never let anything hold you back. We are all priceless, and no matter how much we get beat down, we have the ability to rise again. And here is a poem that embodies the moment I was able to let go; here’s one for my own independence:

*****************************************************************************

Your family was fortunate: when the Khmer Rouge was silently gaining power
in Cambodia, they left for Taiwan.
They escaped the starvation, concentration camps, the executions.
Those were your people.
But I will not cry for you.

These are the people with whom I share an ultimate root,
but know nothing of because
you never talk to me.
It’s always, you wouldn’t understand, you don’t know about

Life, the place you left me teetering,
clutching your leg as you went to live in another woman’s place for two weeks?
Life, what I contemplated taking many nights
as I sat in the bathtub letting the water run loud to drown out your lies, thinking
it’d be so goddamn easy?
But this is not about me.

This is about you, and the way you walked away from me when all I wanted
were answers. This is about the way you would not answer my sister’s questions
about biology even though you hold a fucking PhD in molecular life science
bullshit because you obviously don’t give a shit about life, because you
left me
with blood tainted purple.

This is about the way you starved us of love while you fooled around with some spoiled Latina brat who wore
perfume, unlike my mother
who could not mask her displacement, who could not overcome the fact
that when she was a few weeks old she was left
in a corner to die.

This is about my mother, who followed you across
a sea and followed your white teeth and fed you and stood on the side
as you carved perfection into plaster molds
and as you deemed us imperfections in your sterilized world of dentures.

You think this is about me forgiving you, but
I will not cry for you
I do not look like you
with your pale, pale skin, you emerged unbruised.

You are pale like the belly of a dead fish, you are hideous
in the backdrop of Cambodia
that is beautiful temples and beautiful, dark, children bronzed by the sun.

This is about the years of tears i’m taking back.

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