they throw acid on a woman that looks like me
—but not really—
outside her home & the newscaster says Asian
like the colour of her skin is an invitation
for the violence.
I keep it from my parents, drag clattering bins out
in the morning & pretend the light of day is a refuge
they stab a man that could have been my uncle—but isn’t—
thirteen times outside a store. the newscaster stumbles
over his name,
a tongue twister of foreignness
& I keep this from my mother—
say mama instead of mẹ
trade cảm ơn for thank you
tell her to call me Tina, not con—
hope no one will hear us mark words
with a foreign tongue and think of it as a violence
the man across the counter stops me mid-drink to say
can you get someone else to finish my latte I—
walk away, hold my tired body like a bruise,
mottled yellow under white lighting
pretend it’s because I haven’t mastered frothing milk
instead of— a girl walks her dog,
hears failed whispers from men
watch out for Ling Ling and her bat—
beware coloured peril—
there’s a woman that sneers at my face
with or without a mask
takes two steps back
takes two steps forward
xin lỗi mẹ
con chỉ muốn sống
I mean, I’ve forgotten what it is to feel safe
in my own skin
I mean, maybe if I
fold my body into a prayer for belonging
I will know what it’s like to colour inside the lines
& not burn with shame
I want to hold hope in calloused hands
& not think of it as a violence
remember that for every act of hatred
there is a stranger who says stop on the bus
to slurring insults
& a neighbour who stands six feet away from you
to hand out smiles & masks like it’s the
only currency that matters
& a woman,
eyes glass shards of tenderness, sharp and everlasting
who tucks hope into tired hands
& shares its burden,
helps plant the seed of it in the soil of
a land whose name is a tongue twister of foreignness
& says درذگب زین نیا
& this too shall pass.
Questions and Answers
How/where do you find inspiration today?
These days, I seem to find my inspiration to write from conversations that are happening around me. Most of the time, I keep lines from things I overhear as I’m walking down a grocery store aisle, waiting in my car at a red light with my windows down, or making lattes at work. Sometimes, I hold on to lines from conversations with friends and family. My best friend will say something over a phone call and a kind of epiphany hits me, so I write the thought down and attempt to write around it.
What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
Before everything went into lockdown last year, a man came into the café I work at and ordered a latte. Halfway through making it, he paused in front of the machine, looked at me really closely, and then asked me if I could stop making his drink. Taken aback, I remember asking him if something was wrong. He shrugged, shuffled a little, and demanded someone else make his drink for him—someone who didn’t look like me. There wasn’t. He got angry and stormed out. A short while after that incident, I watched the headlines inundate my media platforms; the racist attacks on members of the Asian community seemed to be all I would see or hear about. Everything started getting to me. I started changing the way I carried myself in public spaces; I spoke to my mother only in English at the grocery store. I tried not to go outside. I folded myself smaller and tried not to take up space. At some level, I think I believed that speaking the common language of the people around me would help me maintain some sense of belonging. About a week after the customer came into my café, I came across a woman on the street handing out masks to people who needed them. Her generosity really stuck with me and reaffirmed that while good things may come to pass, so do the bad. This poem is a reminder to myself of that fact.
How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?
I write poems with particular lines in mind, rather than fully fleshed out ideas. When I first started working on this poem, I only had my encounter with the customer and the news headlines to work with. I only had a few lines to work with, and I was feeling quite unmoored and was stuck on the idea of my belonging being conditional in the country I have only ever known as home. That was what the first version of this poem attempted to explore—(un)belonging, unsettlement, and being lost. But I did not want to leave myself in that space of uncertainty and sadness. So I left it unfinished. I did not actually think I would ever finish the poem. After I saw the woman in the street handing out masks, I felt like the moment perfectly captured what I wanted to hope for and decided to try and write that into the poem. When I felt it was finished, I asked my best friend to take a look at it (she has the unfortunate task of seeing all my poems in various states of competition) and made suggestions to help me get it to the form it exists in today.