Peas (or the letter I'm too afraid to read to my white bosses)

There's this book that I love. It has a royal blue jacket. A red dragon splashes across the front cover and a little pink-cheeked girl sits atop him. She is Chinese. Her name is Minli. The book is written by Grace Lin and it is called Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. When one of my bosses holds up her copy during a staff meeting, I get all excited because what any bookseller worth her salt knows is that we become giddy every time someone is even gazing at the cover of one of our favorite reads. My boss is talking about Winter Institute, an education program put on by the American Booksellers Association, where booksellers and bookstore owners gather to talk (amongst other things) about the art of running a bookstore. This, of course, includes talking about how to sell books. The book my boss is holding at the meeting this morning is one of my favorites. It is a classic take on an age-old fable of wishing one's family to be richer, going on a journey to obtain a fortune for said family, and realizing that there are much more important things in life than material wealth. It is well told. It is beautifully illustrated. It is also by a Chinese author, about Chinese characters, and it takes place--you guessed it--in China. It sells fairly well at the store where I work. People who give it a try tend to like it. My boss was explaining how a bookseller at Winter Institute had said that to sell a book "like this" all one needed to do was say, "It is adventurous, beautiful, and has dragons! There's no need to say what race the characters are. After all, no one wants to buy a book where the main character is Chinese." 

This stings. 

My boss explains how this was said in the context of a conversation about bookstores in rural areas, where customers are mainly white. Though, at this moment, no one (myself included) mentions that we are a liberal, feminist bookstore in a Chicago neighborhood and our customers are also mostly white. No one turns to look at me, the only non-white person present at this table that seats my all-white co-workers. 

I am Chinese. Not all the way, but definitely visibly so. I am mixed, which is another can of worms if ever there was one. But sometimes during these conversations, I wonder, has my skin lightened a few shades, have the corners of my eyes been released from their upward pull? Has my hair become recognizably brown instead of almost black? 

I feel anger and some kind of loss. I feel like my head is full of space and I'm walking around in it by myself without anyone to talk to right when I have the most to say. I feel like someone's been laughing at me and expects me to laugh too, or at least to nod. I feel like my body has been rearranged to look like someone who isn't hurt or shouldn't be hurt or something that I can't quite put my finger on. I feel like I'm all wrong. My boss describes the discussion at Winter Institute, how avoiding talking about the race of the characters is a great way of sneaking some diversity into the diet of a reader. Am I angry because I'm being told to fool customers into reading books with characters who look like me the way a  parent sneaks vegetables into the mouth of a toddler? Am I angry because I've spent years mining for books with main characters who remind me even a little bit of myself? Am I angry because I know that there have been customers in the store who have turned this specific book down because they don't believe their child will be able to "relate" to Minli? How did I become the green pea hiding inside somebody else's blueberry muffin? 

Maybe I am angry because I wonder what the point is. What happens after the book is read, and perhaps enjoyed? Say the person ends up liking their peas. Say we successfully sell books with "diverse protagonists"? What now? Does that make me or any other Other more visible? Is visibility even the point? 

At the end of the meeting we share books we've recently read and loved. I talk about Greenglass House, by Kate Milford. It's a book about a Chinese boy named Milo who is adopted by white parents. I bring it up because I feel like standing on my chair and shouting, "Hey! I'm Asian and I read books with Asian characters! Suck on that!" But it backfires. Like me, Milo is surrounded by white characters. Unlike me, he is adopted. But he and I are constantly wondering about our roots, and if we find answers about our ancestors they are few. My co-workers are touched by my description of the book. How wonderful that a white author has been so thoughtful about her process of international adoption. I guess I hit the nail on the head.


So here I go--

my first undoing

each button

drops of water

(or coins) I slip

out my arms

my awkward shoulders

my elbow is

a baby deer

my pants like a weight

fall just legs

now just calves, thighs

just body

in bra; underclothes

When I unhook it

step though elastic

into new kingdoms

into unhinged

space and you can see

the lines now: arms

thighs, breasts, stomach

I love you

I'm sorry I hurt

you I love you

I miss you

I'm sorry

forgive me

I'm sorry please

give me a


the baptism comes

slowly like a 

realization and 

I am dipping

my fingers two

at  a time spreading

Holy water against

once parted skin

as if to say, "No.

This time my eyes

are opened and 

I can see:

The landscape

is precious."

Calling Home

It stings.

I can't tell you what 

because you wouldn't understand.

My hands 


in their helplessness 

do whatever I tell them to do.

I am calling home.

Because I've run out of money 


the tangible things

I am crying

I am looking for a place to sit down.

I've heard sitting

is the new smoking.

Squatting is how

our primal ancestors

"sat" my friend says

dropping down into a squat 

question-eyes half-smile mouth open

the facial shorthand for, "Yeah?"

She is a teacher

and squatting is her new cause.

I am squatting now

to please her.

I feel ridiculous.

My rear end suspended an inch

above the ground I feel

the way a dog's ears and eyes

look when it stops to shit.

I am squatting 

and it stings

my quads

my unnatural body

so used 

to being unnatural

programmed to do the wrong

things eat wrong foods

drink wrong quantities

say wrong words

think wrong thoughts

think that I am somehow

a better person

then realizing that I'm not

tear myself open

while I close my

self layer after layer

door after


I am in too many rooms

I am walking

into the back of 

the painting now

they say that the painters 

deliberately make the background 

blurry make the bristles 

make the soft fuzz around 

the outlines of trees

make all the colors 

a little less brilliant

because that's what being far 

away feels like in real life

a little less brilliant

and I am in my house

in the deepest recesses of it



I am laughing I am crying

I am inching along all the borders

cotton blotting my body 

with peroxide I am not 

forgiving myself 

but I am wondering,

if this is my home,

where are all the 




where are all the people

where am I

and why is it so hard 

to find a door?

Portrait of the Love of My Life

A he.

A blond he.

A balding blond

he. Took me

out for walks

pointed to tree bark

and saw something

else said something

else read a book danced

poorly. We were

in a field in the dead

or night with invisible

cows we could hear them 

standing in the dark

munching waiting.

He cupped his

hands began to moo.

I was surprised.

I was embarrassed.

I fell in love.

He broke an ice chunk 

across my legs.

I led him

into a wasp's nest.

He sustained eleven stings.

He said things

we all say when

we aren't thinking.

I threw words

like dishes

watched them shatter

willing the shards

to embed

in his skin.

I was surprised.

I was embarrassed.

I fell in love.

I walked home 

in the dark one

hundred times

and the cold car rattled

carrying our telephone

voices to each other.

Sometimes they didn't make it.

A brown-eyed he.

A white-skinned he.

A narrow-footed 

he. Walked under

my tree.

Waved to me.

We moved away from

one another in 

other ways.

We changed courses.

We made promises

broke those promises

made new promises

decided those promises

were out of fashion.

We grew stubborn

in our commitment.

I saw him the other day

years ago

walking in a red shirt

staring at his shoes

with a pinched

brow and eyes lost

in a tiny universe.

He was 

making his way

toward me 

without knowing it.



the Chink in your armor

When I was a girl

my classmates had

this sing-song saying

(with hand motions

and everything!)


(grubby fingers yank 

up the corners of eyes)


(yank down)


(one up one down)

(Laugh--it's funny!)

Across seas

when my father was a boy

his classmates had

a saying too

El Chino mal halao con pita.

(The Chinaman's eyes 

are pulled with

the cheapest string)

(Laugh--so we can see 

your eyes disappear!)

I had a whitewashed

girlhood and when

I finally stepped out

the front door--

came to, as it were--

a late bloomer

I saw my color--yes--

because that is what 

they all saw,

confusing as it was,

the classmates--

I thought Asians were

supposed to be smart,

the leering men on buses-- 

I've always thought

Asian women

were the most attractive,

the bank teller to my white mother--

Is she your foreign

exchange student?

and one summer, children,

again approaching my white mother--

Why is your daughter Black?

the barista--

Where is your accent from?

(What fucking accent?)

the sick with yellow fever lovers

the motherfuckers

the first time

I got called a chink

I wore it like a badge

crammed myself 

behind a locked door

and sobbed

my privileged sobs

cradling my numbness

my nothing the word

bounced off when

it was supposed

to stick supposed to 





I am a chink

am I not?

Throwing off

layer after layer

of clothing searching

for my naked self

there it is

I am anything but numb 

I am not just yellow

there are shards

of other colors 

in there too

pinching and pricking

I am the chink

in your armor

the interruption

the fucking up

of you plans

I am the tear 

in the fabric

because that, Friends,

is what it is 

to be mixed--

the ripping of

something that was whole

in a previous life

we were a family

in a previous life

 nothing could separate 

us someone somewhere

had a dream 

that sons and daughters

brothers and sisters

would return to one

another and everyone

would be on speaking

terms and my white

mom was signing 

her letters "te amo"

and relatives

were calling me "Jillita"

Husband and Wife were

in love walking 

on the beach

hand in hand

and we were all 

defying what they said:

That we were never

meant to survive.


It's a work in progress, but I've begun my first serious attempt at a self-portrait. I set out to use the same style and materials as the portraits I created in my "Climbing the Tree" series--India ink on paper, plus pen, etc. I sketched myself in pencil, marked my features in pen, and erased everything to prepare for the ink washes. I tried to remember what it felt like to relinquish control, to "let things happen". I opened the jar of India ink, which had a thin bubble stretched across the top and I popped it with my brush. As I might have predicted had I not been so focused on my excitement to get started, the ink from the bubble splattered (lightly) all over my portrait before I was able to even make my first move. Fuck it. Such is the process of getting to know myself.

I've been putting this off for about a year and have run out of excuses. Portrait work means intimacy (for me, at least) and I couldn't stand the thought of spending hours on end looking into my own face. There are so many things I (and anyone, really) push down in order to function, so many ways I avoid looking myself in the eye. I wasn't sure how I was going to manage the introspection, how I was going to deal with the flaws--I'm talking about the depression and anxiety, the secrets, the vices, the identity confusion, the spiritual conflict--everything that makes me human; everything that makes me the person I struggle to nurture. 

Maybe that's what this project is--a way to nurture myself. There is a revolution going on right now. People are making the decision to love themselves. And I'm not talking about people who find this easy or who are loved by the world. I'm talking about the people who (in one way or another) are constantly and systemically told they don't deserve love. I'm not going to say that I am one of these people, that I "understand" or have had "similar" experiences. But I'm also not going to say that I don't have a place in this fight. I want to join this revolution any way I can, to support  and encourage the people who are involved in it and to contemplate what it means for me. I want to join this revolution so that I can become a person who nurtures others, and when I find ways that I contribute to their harm--to the non-nurturing of them--I want to stop and be held accountable for this, and then I want to change. 

I want to join this revolution as a person deciding to nurture the part of myself that I have spent so much time quietly hating and disguising for the sake of "functioning in society": my mind. My over-diagnosed, medicated, easily-panicked, uncontrollable mind--the destroyer of my relationships, the supplier of nervous breakdowns (at utterly inconvenient times), that factory of all my art.

I will start here. 

Let me paint myself and love in the act of it.