August 13, 2020
The girl stands on the edge of the only country she has ever known: blue tiled roofs, the train-track heartbeat. The girl boards a jet plane and when she lands, the wide streets of the new country wash upon her like waves, depositing flotsam at her feet: broken color tv, paper crown, pacifier. Her name bleeds into the other alphabet. At exactly the midpoint, she dissolves.
Dear ghost girl, tell me
again the stroke order. I used to
know your form by heart.
Small figure tucked in a cul-de-sac driveway, thirty years later I lose our syllables, our age, race, and gender. We are in the back seat of a station wagon, we are crossing the avenues, we are walking at the base of skyscrapers. We make sounds with our mouths, we smell the burning brakes of subway cars, we lean into the sun. Our arms and legs swing, perpendicular pendulums, time and space keepers.
Sun on a fulcrum,
the light changes direction.
Say your only name.
Woman at the edge of a country she has only started to learn. I look down at thin cracks in the concrete, and the tiny plants breaking through. I bend my knees, place my hands next to the green shoots. This: my arms and legs, my mixed race, my crackling heart. This: the dirt and glitter of my gender. This, the language I am stitched into.
Other? Have I ever felt viewed as Other? Have I ever felt Other?
From the moment my (adoptive) mother took me into her arms, I was safe. She told me the tale of my adoption as a bedtime story, long before I could comprehend the implications of being adopted. My Maman was half Chinese and half Danish, born in Korea in 1900, the youngest of seven children. She grew up in Peking, Shanghai, and Tientsin, where her Danish father served for four decades in the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs [1876-1920], and then as Danish Ambassador to China before retiring [1921-1923]. Her Chinese mother eloped at nineteen, smitten by the blond, blue-eyed Dane, though already betrothed! This was in 1885!
Despite grandfather’s eminence, his knowledge of over twenty languages, and his love for Chinese people, their history and culture, due to the biracial composition of the family, he suffered overt forms of discrimination that affected his career. My grandmother was disowned and disinherited by her living and deceased relatives. Grandfather chose to send his five surviving children to be educated in the US to spare them the ignominy of being rejected by both the European community in China, and by the Chinese.
My mother came to New England in 1911, the last to join her siblings, two of whom had become deaf in early childhood. With the help of Alexander Graham Bell, they had found a haven in the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, MA.
My mother and her eldest sister took after their father in looks, except for a barely perceptible cast to their eyes. Her other two sisters and brother appeared more Asian, but only young Eric suffered taunting and harassment for his “otherness”. My Maman shared their childhood experiences to prepare me for any eventual unpleasant incidents.
“Chinky, Chinky Chinaman, daughter of a laundryman; slant eyes, slant eyes.” The high pitched voices of six-year-old children, brought up in an affluent but parochial community, still resonate like a distant echo, creating waves of shame and discomfort. The physical harassment suffered at a temporary school, still stings, even as I slough off the memory and shrug my shoulders.
Years of growing up in Europe where I was universally embraced for my diversity and considered as one of the community, still fill me with deep warmth. Whether in a sleepy village near Avignon where we spent a winter, or stark schools in Italy where the ubiquitous black smock-a universal equalizer, made one blur into the crowd of children whether at recess or packed into benches, two by two in the impersonal classrooms, I always felt included- from the 4th grade through the last year of High School.
Except for my experiences in first grade in the US and decades later in several expensive stores where I was blatantly followed by a salesperson, I never felt different. I was myself: outgoing, adventurous, outspoken, on the front lines of demonstrations against the Vietnam War during my Harvard years, trapped by police in Harvard Yard, on the Pentagon grounds, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, teaching Italian literature and cinema to students year after year, or on freedom walks I organized against Modern-Day Slavery. More recently, my commitment to justice and equality has led me to fight against the war in Iraq, violence against women, and an unfit President.
I adored my Maman who chose to remain in Italy when I married and moved to Cambridge. She always told me, “To truly love is to let go…” Only as an adult and a parent in my own right, did I discover how right she was, and how conflicted she must have felt in allowing me to “take flight.” Throughout her life, she did her best to fill in the details regarding my origins. She reassured me that based on the strict conditions linked to my adoption, (given her conviction that my birthmother had died in labor), she was certain that my father was Lin YuTang, a well known writer, translator of the Chinese classics and protege of Pearl Buck. I devoured stacks of his novels and essays. I was proud of my heritage.
It was only after my Maman’s death that I found the time and opportunity to travel to China, led by my daughter’s example and drawn by a fierce need to follow in the footsteps of my adoptive grandfather. I sought out places he had lived. I miraculously succeeded in finding two of my seven Chinese aunties, adopted by my adoptive Chinese grandmother!
It seemed only natural to further pursue my inquiries regarding my Chinese biological mother, whom I ultimately discovered had NOT died in childbirth, but whose identity and whereabouts remained a mystery. Years of research and many trips to China finally yielded amazing results. It was at that point that I came to a staggering realization. Despite my self perception of being whole due to my Maman’s all encompassing love, I discovered that I too, like all adoptees, had lived my entire life with an unacknowledged sense of void. What a revelation! I was forced to revisit my past, to revisit many of my reactions over the years and deep-seated feelings that lay below the surface.
Fast forward to 2015, the year the American Adoption Congress came to Cambridge. It was the second time I had participated in an Adoption event, met with adult Adoptees with whom I shared infinitely complex feelings and inner conflicts. We couldn’t stop talking, linked by a common denominator no matter what our race or ethnicity, male or female or our age. We laughed, cried, hugged, or just sat in silence, no words required. I gravitated towards the Asian adoptees, despite being much older. I had found my “people,” my brothers and sisters, my extended family. Finally, having discovered my identity through the search for my biological roots, I felt whole and that I belonged at a visceral level.
The tale that follows unfolds against the backdrop of a pitched racial battleground -- my high school AP physics class in Newton, MA.
My friend Karna and I were the only two Indians in our graduating class, and as one might stereotypically expect we were both in AP physics, along with several Chinese kids, among others. It was senior year and we didn’t have much to do. So we would get into extended debates over whether I, as an Indian, was Asian or not. (Somehow these debates focused entirely on me and never on Karna.)
The alliances varied. Some of the Chinese kids would say, “Yeah, India is South Asia, Adi’s totally one of us!” Other Chinese kids countered, “Nah, dude, India’s not Asia, that’s subcontinent!” And then white kids got in on the debate saying I was Asian and the one Hispanic kid in the class jumped in saying I wasn’t, and back and forth it went.
At the end of the day it was all in good fun. But the underlying issue never quite got resolved.
Sometime way back in time, on an island
Some woman got knocked-up, through no fault of her own,
no fault of the stars or season, with no reason,
but for some stray passion laid
like a strap mistaken for love,
that kind of dance where one and one
discover they fit like a glove.
It was that shove that bore me,
that dove me, drove me down on and out,
screaming into the heat of streets shimmering with dust lusting
the air like pale windows, glass quivering--you could
see right through to Cebu,
which in case you don’t know,
is a “province of the Philippines located in the Central Visayas region,
and consists of a main island and legion of 167 islands and islets.”
and in some past age, during her golden season,
she was dubbed "the Queen of the South",
the oldest city and first capital of the country, which was
a beacon, as the Boxer Codex claims, of trade, and of gold,
a thousand nations folded and woven through
an archipelago of the South Pacific,
glossy with silk, jade, and prolific
with culture—Yes, those Filipinos flossed.
We wore among our lingling-os, robes gilded,
embroidered, heavy with gold chains, oh yes!
Our grills were black.
And ladies, women ran the show
could have a husband or two or three
or four to sack.
Now, this was a kingdom!
Or rather many,
Manila, Taytay, Namayan, Tondo,
Pangasinan, Mindano, Lanao,
Tagalog, Butuan, and Sulu,
and among these rahjahnates, hundreds of
And Cebu, C-E-B-U
that in our ancient Austronesian language
was short for “place of trading”
or in Old Cebuano “Sugbu”
which means “scorched earth”?
That old war tactic to torch, burn, and incinerate
all for the purpose of obliterating “anything useful to the enemy.”
But the enemy is…
Here is a story. And it is true.
When you give humans power
they will do, what they do.
Something dark comes through.
There were always wars among my people.
Ununited, tribes went after tribes, Hindus after the Moro.
And when Spain came a conquesting,
they perverted our tomorrows.
They murdered our baybayin, our writing, our religions,
as though bringing sorrow in the name of the Lord was all they could do.
At least we killed Ferdinand Magellan too.
Our hearts were built to fight.
Sometime during this dark night of our past,
Jose Rizal wrote that we Filipinos should own our right
to freedom and independence.
And so, we set our sights toward a future,
And a revolution that we won!
And then came the United States of America.
There isn’t enough time to talk about this.
The trauma of becoming of a colony is a drama
far too wretched and confusing, stranger than fiction.
How do you express 333 years of living with contradictions?
Of the self and identity. Though our history is rich, bold,
and full of plenty, why do I wake up at night feeling so empty?
I am American!
I live here too!
With my back swole with all this past
I was brought over by parents who fought and fought each other
and the new world until at last all dreams deferred
they recast themselves in the image of this country,
this bountiful nation, where if you were poor and worked hard
you could jettison your station and become anything.
Is this story true?
so much of living here,
is about heartbreak,
and what you are told
And to be.
And the system has been made to
to assure that you will never see higher than
what a white man can see.
And so we split ourselves in little pieces to survive the wounds,
to protect that small thing inside us that
we call “me.”
But here is The Story. And it is true.
Deep love pulled from the core of all the colors of myself.
I am wind, vice, thrice the number of universes
spit out from some black hole event horizon
culling systems, solar, galactic, fantastic.
I came through. Like you, came through.
Birth is not about your build or guild,
or how the bang-bang of conception brought you about.
It is love-- broad, wide, deep, alive,
shivering with the starlight straining each of your atoms.
All energy, all life, universes in a grain of sand,
asking, again, and again, and again
the same questions.
Who am I?
What is here?
How do I make sense of the bedrock of my body
while sensing all the senses coming through
from the stew of the world, stirring far more than a few
billion others, including, but not limited to
We are more than what we can know
more than what we can conceive,
more than the small view that we get
when we’re born.
And if we just believe and believe and believe.
we will outdo all ourselves.
All stories must be shared.
So, we got work to do.