Frank Chin, the author of “Chicken Coop Chinaman,” the first Asian American play performed on a legitimate New York stage, would say that without embracing one’s identity, it’s like saying you’re a bean—one of the millions and billions of beans in the world and not even a black or yellow bean at that.
About a month ago, I was invited to a small dinner party with an English teacher and my poetry professor at the University of Michigan and poet Li-Young Lee who was having a reading at Southern Oregon University on the following day. The next morning, Mr. Lee wrote a short poem for me, which read:
Our original voice
Lies under every
Truely, I am a pilgrim from across the Pacific, much like Li-Young Lee who traveled from Jakarta, Indonesia. He remembers his father who spent a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno’s jails before fleeing Indonesia. In much the same way, I remember my grandfather in India who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Stalin’s Siberian labor camps before repatriating to India. He was part of Subhas Chandra Bose's revolt against the British for the freedom of India. We have the voice, as the children and grandchildren of war-torn generations, to reflect on and portray the perilous and grim experiences our families went through. We have the voice to trust that our hope, our words, and our experiences will influence our surrounding communities, be it in our small towns, in our nation, or even in our larger world, to develop a broader perspective.
I will share anecdotes: stories from elementary school, when I broke my nose by running into my classmate playing tag, then being hospitalized for several weeks with a strangely benevolent mobster, who fed me a first season watermelon, bragging that it cost him over $20,000. I will talk about how I have had a rocky experience with standardized testing in America, the first American standarized test I ever took when I was 9 years old, when I couldn't even yet read the questions in English, going home in tears—mortified—deathly scared. I will talk about my experience in elementary school in America, when a classmate asked me if I spoke Spanish because he thought I looked Chicano, recalling him say, “Shame on you!” when I said no. “You don’t even speak your native tongue?” I will talk about my memories in ESL class, when I learned English with kids from Mexico, Korea, Japan, and Uganda. I will talk about my first experience of xenophobia in America when kids in my 3rd grade class called me a Indian *** because I wore a shiny vinyl backpack to express my cultural background. I will talk about my grandfather in India; how he describes his experiences in the Siberian labor camps and speaks about how he hopes this grim history will not repeat for his grandchildren. I will talk about the time when Broc, a poetry graduate student at the University of Iowa, a tall and lanky man with cigar-stained teeth, Buddy Holly glasses, and arms tattooed all over with the paintings and words of William Blake, wrote me a letter, a letter to help me sort out what sort of a bean I am, saying:
I’m writing you a little note because I thought when I met you the other day, I recognized something in you I went through once...once you’re out of the woods, the world becomes much friendlier, I promise. Listen: every jock and housewife and fireman in this country has a poem buried in their sock drawer. They are ashamed of it and embarrassed by it and sort of proud of it too. But those people lack courage. They can’t share. Have courage. Share.
Identity and culture is not about eating sushi or bowing. It’s about experiences and understanding. It’s about becoming cognizant of where one stands in the public. It’s about letting people know that one’s experience can be part of a larger world. That is why I share—stories of immigrant life, stories of finding and working through the difficulties of fitting into the duality of two cultures, stories of the goodness of living in the “betweens” of cultures. All of this, I hope, is presented in such a way that is pure and guileless. I will share my stories of affection and love, gentleness and strangeness, ignorance and desperation, intelligence and grace—all in a way that is awake. Much like the authors I admire, I try to see through the material image to the real thing, through human surfaces to the strange, comical, and at times lamentable truth that changes a fool to a great solemn hero. Everyday, I am looking under every petal, looking for that strange truth, where our original voice lies, enveloped by my experiences, my identity, the being that I am.