Fresh Off the Boat | Five Sonnets
First memory: looking out the window.
Earphones stuttering a litany of vowels
and consonants: a, aaaaah, an apple.
Don’t think I understood what was really
happening, our maiden flight from Seoul,
to an unknown destination: Maryland
then New York City. We went from living
in a brick house with a yard to a storage
room in the back of a dry cleaners. No
proper shower, just a rusted sink and toilet.
I was barely eight when I kept a photo
of a boy under my pillow –– an artifact
of a fading past. Mom found it, ripped
it up, told me to keep my head straight.
Leaned across the counter, called us stupid
chinks. Go back to where you came from: as
as if it were that easy. My parents stood like
totems, stone-faced. In defiance, they said
hugj-in, a word for darkness –– a distancing.
Fear wedged in everyone’s eyes. Listener
and speaker in both directions –– names
volleyed like capsules of venom. Ache
and anguish hanging like lethal tendrils
in a jungle where the ants don’t carry
their dead. I wanted to shout: Stop it!
But all I could muster was a fever sigh,
holding my brother tight as he cried.
Silence: a fissure. Stalemate: a failure.
On special occasions, we’d head to Red
Lobster or Sizzler, sit in a vinyl booth,
feel luxurious –– pretend we were royalty
for an evening. I loved the shrimp scampi,
my brother always opted for the buffet &
if they could, my parents would’ve put
kimchi on everything. Whenever they
asked waitresses questions in their broken
English, I’d sulk into my sticky seat –– my
cheeks boiling, my claws grappling the air.
Our outings became few and far between.
I’d prove terrible in math. No hope of
getting into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale,
of becoming a doctor or engineer.
Bulletproof glass is not skin: not porous
Nor forgiving. It keeps everything in
And people out like a pallet of hard ice.
Cache is locked away; a hegemonic set.
He held her at gunpoint, barrel aimed
For the temple. She kept her arms raised
Until he, a kid, turned the corner, sprinting
Away with a baseball cap, pager, things
Made in China, and what was in the register:
A few measly dollars. But this was the price
Of doing business in the projects where we
were trapped inside human cages –– binding us
In a strange circus where atoms of haves
And have-nots always forcefully collide.
Summers they’d send us to Korean school,
Two brats whining nobody else had to study
At overnight camp or family trips to Mexico.
My brother proved an ace at taking tests
So I conspired ways to break a rule or two,
Nothing unruly, just idled behind dumpsters
Learning best modes to fit in –– be non-other.
Wishing I looked like Barbie or Nancy Drew,
My slanted eyes always sleuthed for costumes
To obscure my jaundiced skin. A lizard
Without proper camouflage is killed in the
Wild. I wanted to sever my mother tongue,
Regenerate anew, but how could I’ve known
Language is lost when left to rot like a pest.
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