Today

The cats sleep,
like commas
and brackets,
without words,
just thoughts hovering
on this humidity,
lingering though
the fan whirls, and whirls,
making dust-fringed blades.

The prayers come in through the
balcony, on which our
damp bedsheets hang,
depleted
and fatigued.
And the bolts sound
in the hallway, locking and unlocking,
and I realize, the day has been
spent.

When the dishes have been washed,
and when they drip till even their
wetness have disappeared, I wonder
what else is out there and how do you
find it? Here,
the dust lingers
everywhere,
in between even the crevices of my
fingernails and the
intertwined rattan strands
of the
fruit basket.

Here, I look out at the Andaman Sea,
and I am surprised that I, even I,
cannot distinguish
the haze from
the horizon
of water.


Henri Nouwen Tells It Like It Is

One of the arguments we often use for not writing is this:   “I have nothing original to say.  Whatever I might say, someone else has already said it, and better than I will ever be able to.”  This, however, is not a good argument for not writing.  Each human person is unique and original, and nobody has lived what we have lived.  Furthermore, what we have lived, we have lived not just for ourselves but for others as well.  Writing can be a very creative and invigorating way to make our lives available to ourselves and to others.

We have to trust that our stories deserve to be told.  We may discover that the better we tell our stories the better we will want to live them.


Bulb

Plant me deep in the earth,
quiet, and still, save for
the earthworm’s path.
Tell me where else should
I nestle, away from all
that noise, that
concrete, that blaring sun.
I am not the one who loves
her kisses, or the
one who follows the
sky. It is I, who is scared
of the possibility of that
blue, but mostly her
unpredictability, on these
spring mornings and
dark nights and all that is
in between. I do not wish
to see the swallows swoop
or the crows caw or
the children run.
Why else do I keep my
wild and yearning heart
beneath all these
layers? If only to let
it free? Oh
no.


I am

I am Chinese-Malaysian-American,
and then Malaysian again.

I am first of
Hakka blood,
a nomad group who
gathered in clusters
on that rugged southern coast of
a land too vast,
and too devoid,
that my ancestors,
generations too far
back to map a
family tree on,
left the tea covered
plantations
for a land of rubber
trees
and hidden tin.

But does twenty-three years
make me American,
when I didn’t grow up
on bacon,
or glasses of milk,
when I found myself
empty-handed on
Valentine’s Day
class parties and
the lights off
on Halloween, the
costumed kids confused by
our darkened porch,
and when my first Christmas
tree was at twenty-eight,
when I was already back
in a homeland
I was trying to remember.


On Being Hakka

I am Hakka, and I know this because once in a Uniqlo dressing room, I overhead a conversation in the mother tongue of my ancestors, and my soul soared. That was the only time I felt such elation for a language, as though it called to the echoes of who I am, deep in my bones. I suppose a soul knows when and where it belongs, and lays claim to those things in the passing rotation of each day. It is the same with the warm, wet smell of rain and its thunderclouds fringed with the tentative touch of sun. Just the passing thought of a tropical thunderstorm makes my whole spirit sink with saudade for my homeland. It is the same with the Hakka dialect. It was the preferred mode of words for my mother and her sisters, the one my parents resorted to when conversation veered towards private, and the one that lays stiff in my throat and unmovable on my lips. I do not know how to move my tongue to my hometongue, and when I try – it is spurts of phrases: ghet tik, na gai in, mm goy, di dao. Hurry up, my family, thank you, do you know?

And still, I reach deep into a history I only know small handfuls of. I savor the stories of revolutionary leaders, of men who founded cities and countries, of women who refused to bind their feet so they could curve their backs, picking tea leaves from low-lying bushes. I feel immensely grateful to be almost a full-breed Hakka, for I know the subgroups of Chinese multiplied, diluted, and one can only reach back so far to lay claim on coming from a dialect group. We borrow each other’s dialects, and think little of the diversity of our tongue. But by we, I mean those who came before me when my homeland was still Malaya, and all they had to hold on to from the old world was the memory that came in language.

There is so much grief in knowing I am losing the tongue of my ancestors, and still, so much gratitude for the sheer fact that I can explore the backbone of the history of who I am.


Second-thoughts

Dreams are hazy things that edge their way into our thoughts. They do not wear obvious clothes of color, but seep the same way a napkin drinks in the ring of moisture left by that morning cup.

Sometimes I find myself grateful and even, do I dare, incredulous. But gratitude sometimes wears the clothes of contentment. And contentment sits on its bottom, slack-jawed and at peace.

I sleep nowadays. Sweet, deep sleep. The kind that jolts me in the morning, the kind that makes me want to languish longer. I am not filled with anxiety and dread, the kind that layered my life for so many years before I lived on this island. I used to have to remind myself to breathe as I walked the halls of that gray-lit school. Walking up those stairs was a prayer, slow and foreboding. And every day, it was gratitude to have made it to the end.

Nowadays, the ocean greets me everyday as I walk my kids to the cafeteria. It lays vast, fat, and on some days – turquoise. And I am happy. But there are moments I wonder about that school across the bridge, the one on the mainland. I wonder about the stories those children have to tell, the ones who learn Malay, and slowly forget Rohingya. I wonder where I’m supposed to be. I wonder about the girls who have never been to a school and about the statelessness of so many. I do not want to forget and I do not want this contentment. But this is all the beginnings of something, I remind myself. And a picture as vast as a dream has only murmurs in its inception.

Sometimes I want to breathe and heal. And sometimes I ache. The wants that fill my spirit have no soil to anchor itself in. I open my mouth and begin to list a torrent of wants, but they pop so fast because they are not tethered. I want to stay open, as open as that ocean, even in all its depth. Especially in all that depth.


Writing

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

– Ray Bradbury


Run far and hard

It happened like this. A day about a month ago, I catch her running across the yard after school. It was 45 minutes after she was supposed to have walked to her after-school program already. I holler her name, and she keeps running, and in my head I think: OMG. But she turns around, sheepish and embarrassed, and puts her sweater over her face, feeling her way my direction. That’s my girl. Two years, and she is and will always be a firecracker of personality. When I taught her in second grade, I would attempt to quell her tantrums, tear-stained and loud. And this year, I put my foot down as hard as the attitude she fires at me.

But in the end, I find that I cannot forget and I look down and see that she has already found a room in my heart and is nailing down the carpet and hanging up crayon-scribbled drawings. Like the oversized heart she gave me for Valentine’s. It read: Violets are blue, roses are red, I know you love me, and I love you too! The best was those little words – I know.  She knew despite all the days of butting heads, phone convos with her dad, and whimpering sobs when she realized she was in trouble too deep she could not crawl out. But this was Damonie, my love, the one who has dreams – of being a cop, a basketball player, a rapper, a college student – lining the bottom of her shoes, the one with determination I know no one will take from her.

So that day, I lectured her about being exactly where her dad thought she was supposed to be – after-school club – and about being safe on the streets. And in the middle of it all, she asks plaintively, “So, will you tell me now where you’re going to be next year?”

And so I do. I explain to her what an international school is, what it means for Americans to live in other countries, and where Malaysia is, and all of a sudden, she is sobbing in my arms. But I don’t understand. Why do you have to teach there? There are kids to teach here too.

Goodbyes are hard. They tear at the roots. The view from the treetop can be so solemn, and yet so freeing. On the last day of school, I gave her directions to write me letters in Malaysia and a sheet of postal stamps for international letters. Teaching a child is like seeing only one scene in a movie, with only speculations and imaginings for the larger context. I don’t know how this all ends, or when the climax will be, or how the character grows, develops, and flourishes. I just trust it will all happen. I just trust that I will not forget these little moments and all their little stories. It takes great courage to hope for their wondrous, unfolding, potential-filled lives, and to pray that the ending is good, real good.


Not yet Summer

The days here are hot, dry, and breezy. It feels like the stifling belly of Indian Summer that usually comes that first month of the school year. Except we have still a month and a half left, and already we are all itching for smoothies and running under the water hose. Except the kiddos still have to take the state test, the one they have to sit through for hours. The one I urge them to sit still for hours with animal crackers, placed one at a time, every five minutes. Like Hansel and Gretel, except this time, this is not their livelihood, though the department of education seems to think otherwise.

I still have a hard time sleeping. This year has wound itself up in ways that wrestle my sleep from me. But I am grateful in the morning, after I have gotten my black coffee and bowl of dry cereal, and I am looking out the window at the street awakening. I am still grateful to be alive, and grateful for my amazing staff, and grateful for the kids who try their hardest and who grow each day.

I want to remember these things. I want to remember how Oakland broke me open, made me heart-broken, made my spine straight and strong, made me believe and lose hope all at the same time. I do not understand how one can believe and be hopeless at the same time, but it is like holding two sides of a stone in one palm. If life were a line of dominoes across the floor of this world, then one only hopes that everything lines up. Because, dear God, life is hard. I can tell just looking into their faces. But I know it is more complex than that.

I have a friend who spent her last few months of teaching in Oakland in tears. Not because of the students, but because of a grave misunderstanding that left her alone, in the portable across that concrete yard. The next year, she went across the world to her homeland and taught for a year there. She would write about Oakland still – beautiful and heart-breaking words that left me gasping. Oakland had left her crushed, hopeful, and changed. I feel the same. There will be days, far from now, when I will ache for these years learning to love, so painfully, the children of Oakland. I am sure there will be days the memories and stories of these children will crawl out from the toughened walls of my heart, and I will see them again – with fresh faces and quivering hearts. The thought of that leaves me solemn.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to forget.


Bring Me Home

If this impending journey home speaks of anything – would it be that this is facing who I am again? So many moments catch me off-guard, like the way that wave of pining strikes at the most ordinary of breaths and all I want is that vast tropical sky, heavy rainclouds in the horizon. Sometimes it hits so hard it’s reminiscent of pain, but I know it’s the epitome of longing. How many long, dry-bone years have passed in this concrete maze that I have forgotten how to write?

I remember the days on the porch in my first days in this city, and all I could do was marvel at the way the baby across the street bounced in his bouncer and how the immigrant mother cooed at her walking toddler. I say I want healing, and this is hard to admit, because I had so many unformed dreams stretched before me. I came with no expectations, and all I want to leave with is gratefulness trailing behind me and flowing before me.

I do not want to be so exhausted that I forget my love of reading, that I don’t have the space to let my heart expand again. It is enough, it is enough.

All these images of Penang are like the healing balm on this spirit. They told me never to stop writing, and still I did. I am sorry, I am sorry.

I wonder if the Holy Spirit is grieved that I lost myself for a bit, or does it say over and over again, like Barb’s whisper in my ear: Job well done, job well done.