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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Immigrant Blues

People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

It’s an old story from the previous century
about my father and me.

The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.

It’s called “Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation.”

It’s called “Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,”

called “The Child Who’d Rather Play than Study.”

Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.

But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?

And me, confused about the flesh and the soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?

You’re always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body’s finitude,
at peace with the soul’s disregard
of space and time.

Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.

If you don’t believe you’re inside me, you’re not,
she answered, at peace with the body’s greed,
at peace with the heart’s bewilderment.

It’s an ancient story from yesterday evening
called “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,”

called “Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,”

called “I want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”

— 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. The first line of this poem comes from something his father said to him when he was young.