"Love Letter to my Mother"
My mother speaks to me in riddles.
this is how I’ve learnt to say
have you eaten? (1)
It’s cold outside (2)
She brings homemade dumplings
in Tupperware containers
when she visits me in Auckland
and cleans my room
when I tell her not to.
My mother reads Paul Auster and Chimamamanda Ngozi Adiche
fills her head with disillusionment and the diaspora
trauma and loss
but she tells me my room is looking messy
squints her eyes at my unmade bed over Skype
forwards me chain emails on the dangers of microwaved water.
I know, I tell her. I know.
She takes astronomy classes at night
I do not ask her why she stargazes
We go to a poetry reading on migrant women
I do not tell her
I remember her
crying on the plane to New Zealand
I do not tell her
I wrote sacrifice in my book
but I did not know where to begin.
1 I miss you
2 I love you
"Write about what you know"
They say write about what you know
as if I conceive of the world
as if when I look at you
I cannot calculate the proximity
in which you entered
the narrative arc of the
rise and fall
of my life.
My heart is a hurricane
and my body is a roar
emblazoned in flashing red
my father said,
your sister has abandoned all her senses
she is a gwai lo in love.
her promises of matching tattoos
earnest confessions -
I think she is the one,
my father says,
you are sensible.
How do I tell him
I won’t touch my pillow
because I know how it will smell?
how do I tell him
that when you said
it was only sex
I already knew?
Write about what you know:
I know how I felt
I know how you felt
I know that we felt
on opposite ends of the continuum
but my feelings
did not obey empirical fact
to its will
Knowledge is Power
Foucalt taught me that.
but Knowledge is nothing
if what I know
is what I feel
and what I feel
(Why is it wrong?)
"An Open Letter to the Unicef Guy; Thanks for the Guilt Trip"
An Open Letter to the Unicef Guy,
When you said, ‘if you donate today, the Vanuatuan children will grow up with enough money to live in New Zealand - and they’ll be looking up to you, their superheroes will be you,’ did you envision Vanuatuan children growing up thinking, I’m only here because of Tom; I owe it to him? You’re right; you have saved these children, and they will thank you for it later. You will be immortalized in their poor little souls - their achievements yours too, since remember, you were the one that brought them up from the ground, Sandra Bullock, the Blind Side style. Why did you think that the idea of myself, celebrated and loved by poor Vanuatuan children, would make me change my mind? This is what worries me - did that same skewed sense of validation motivate you to help the cause?
It felt like your spiel was as much about the Vanuatuan children as it was about you; how I could possibly stand here protesting $20 is too much as a broke uni student, when you are out there, volunteering for two years straight, completely broke now, (your words) but you had to do it for the children – pause, eyeballs me – the Vanuatuan children out there, breaking and bleeding while I have the audacity to hold on to a meagre $20. ‘Volunteer’ and ‘completely broke now’ are buzzwords for altruistic white people - African Americans helping out in their community don’t ‘volunteer’, yet John from Ivy League, helping the Poor Blacks in Mississippi during Spring Break, is; and you of course, the White Male Saviour at the helm of your Vanuatuan ship.
$20 is, as you said, putting aside $5 for your coffee every week. I appreciate the analogy, and the simplicity of the math, but there was some kind of anger in what you said - shaming me for my imaginary coffee, assuming that a naive, privileged girl will drink her trim soy flat white but won’t give to Unicef. There is a level of presumption in asking someone to donate for a far-fetched cause, because of course everyone is against poverty, rape, murder and violence, but it’s when you isolate it and package it into one minute scripted speech that people become wary and reserved. $20 doesn’t buy your conscience – not when you don’t know the context of the Vanuatuan children, or where the money is going – people need time, research, and proper engagement, not abstract contexts (starving children in Africa) imposed on them going about their everyday.
What you don’t seem to understand is that people help in many ways, and donating to an non-governmental organisation is one, but not the only, way. Instead, what you saw was a dying cause (me), so you had to say ‘A child dies every four seconds, that’s your choice,’ a final parting shot to leave me awake at night, thinking to myself, nice, Wen-Juenn, there goes another child – it’s all your fucking fault. What you said was a dirty tactic – in no way for the cause or for the children (how could you change the fact that a child dies every four seconds?) – but to lift yourself up, and to put me down.
That’s why you were uncomfortable when I said I researched for the Academy of New Zealand Literature because you had no idea what that was, and you had to make a joke about it, fake-pretending ‘Oh yeah...that Academy of New Zealand Literature.’ Ha ha, isn’t it funny that you don’t know this thing; doesn’t it feel emasculating? Instead of actually showing interest in what I did, you had to trivialise something you didn’t understand, conceal your discomfort into a thinly veiled imperative of ‘stop talking about things I don’t know about’. You were fine educating a girl about things, but you weren’t fine with her educating you. That’s what girls are taught at an early age - shape ourselves, mould ourselves, teach ourselves conversation that is non-confrontational, conversation that will soothe both parties; conversation where he talks, and we listen.
This is what happened: you saw a girl, a bit flustered, a lot late for work, and you wanted to teach her about Unicef, and the people who are suffering. But you also made someone else feel smaller. Would you have emotionally manipulated and belittled a girl the same way you did with one of the lads? Remember, emotional manipulation targeted at ‘nice girls’ (your words) will never achieve your aim - catcallers don’t get dates, and domineering charity workers don’t help children in Vanuatu.
I admire your resilience and passion to go out into the streets and even consider approaching grumpy humans on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. I think it shows love, love and respect ultimately for humanity; but you are not entitled to haggle and harass people on the streets because you are helping Poor Kids in Africa. Please don’t speak for Vanuatuan children, they already don’t have a voice and they don’t need to spoken for especially by you. Once you start assuming that, you’ll become dangerously close to corrupting what can be a wonderful and selfless cause with your own, selfish gain.
@poetryinpink is an aspiring writer and poet living in New Zealand. She draws on her experiences as a Malaysian-Chinese woman to make sense of the world and people around her.