When my people speak of who we are and where we come from
We do not say, China.
When my relatives reclaim our collective past,
Those words — China — dance on our lips, foreign.
We do not say China.
We do not say China at all.
Instead, we are the people of the coast.
We are the subjects of the Tang Dynasty.
We are the rejects of the imperial court, cast out into the Nanyang sun where we sweat with the sons of the land.
My grandfather was an upright man,
So upright and uptight his wooden backscratcher formed the curve between his back and the rosewood chair.
My grandmother would only ever wear a two piece Chinese suit
Made of silk and cotton. I can still see her, smelling like mothballs
Speaking, summoning, reaching out to me
What is your native place,
They ask me from Kanyakumari to Rameswaram.
In Tiruvanamalai, I finally cave. I say,
It is not China.
We could have been anywhere.
Semarang, Sri Lanka, Calcutta.
These sea routes go unmapped and undiscovered
From Swatow to the rest of the world.
I want Swatow to remain a shorthand
For the mythical land where I can chase demons,
Exorcise my grandmother,
Write poetry and wrap myself up in a giant band-aid of ignorance.
The less I know about Swatow
The more the idea of China lands with a heavy plod
This is a language I speak perfectly
Without my soul.