Friday, December 30, 2011

Remembering the Amerasian in the Saigon Coffee Shop

            The tropical glare squats at the edge of the shade,
            studying arcs traced by our coffeecups
            in the rise and fall between crude wooden tables                  
            and our lips. Our rhythms are regular as heartbeats.
            Overhead, coconuts are swelling to self-sacrifice.

            We're taking a break from history.
            All the singers in the boom-box
            are maidens wailing for soldiers,
            soldiers wailing for maidens;
            there's no telling which war is in which song;
            the same enemy keeps changing uniforms.

            Jagged bits of your unknown father's face
            keep falling out of disoriented features.
            I try to fit them together,
            as I try to assemble the words I know
            in sentences and reshape them to my tongue.            
            When you talk the words dash out like small birds                
            and your hands swoop after them like birds of prey,
            a quickness acquired from years of street-life,
            selling peanuts and yourself and cadging petty coins.

            What will it be like in the country of my waking,
            the country of your dreams?
            When will you wake up there?
            Will you wonder, like Chuang-tzu,
            whether the dream was before or after the waking?
            You search my round eyes and long nose
            for pieces that will fit your face.
            Every my (your name for us means "beautiful")
            is a father in your eyes. Listen,
            when I smile, it means I have no face to lose
            or share.

            After the sweet coffee, the shopkeeper
            brings a jar of bitter Chinese tea.

Note: Amerasians (children of U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese mothers) were often despised outsiders in Vietnam, known as “the dust of life.” They began relocating to the United States under the Orderly Departure Program in the 1980s and their numbers increased greatly after the passage of the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1988 by the U.S. Congress. When I worked with the U.S. refugee program in the 1980s, Amerasians begging and selling peanuts were a common sight on the streets of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The last time I visited, in 2004, I saw none. The youngest Vietnamese Amerasians are now in their thirties.

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