Fresh Off the Boat | Five Sonnets

Su Hwang


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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