Self-Help for Fellow Refugees

If your name suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment

or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons
or the birthdays of gods and demons,

it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States.
And try not to talk too loud.

If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck

before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother too harshly.

Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing,
turning a child’s eyes
away from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.

And if you meet someone
in your adopted country,
and think you see in the other’s face
an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means you’re standing too far away.

* *

Or if you think you read in the other, as in a book
whose first and last pages are missing,
the story of your own birthplace,
a country twice erased,
once by fire, once by forgetfulness,
it probably means you’re standing too close.

In any case, try not to let another carry
the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.

And if you’re one of those
whose left side of the face doesn’t match
the right, it might be a clue

looking the other way was a habit
your predecessors found useful for survival.
Don’t lament not being beautiful.

Get used to seeing while not seeing.
Get busy remembering while forgetting.
Dying to live while not wanting to go on.

Very likely, your ancestors decorated
their bells of every shape and size
with elaborate calendars
and diagrams of distant star systems,
but with no maps for scattered descendants.

* *
And I bet you can’t say what language
your father spoke when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck, “Let the boy see!”

Maybe it wasn’t the language you used at home.
Maybe it was a forbidden language.
Or maybe there was too much screaming
and weeping and the noise of guns in the streets.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good.
But heaven on earth is better.

Thinking is good.
But living is better.

Alone in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.

— Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents who had been exiled from China after a falling out with Mao Tse-tsung. Lee’s father was arrested in Indonesia and spent 18 months in prison. After his release, the family fled, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan to reach the United States. Lee was 7 years old when his family settled in Pennsylvania in 1964.

[Research note: Li-Young Lee, Behind My Eyes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008): 16]

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