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Child of Immigrants


My husband tries to throw away a pair of wool socks
                                                                     I say no.
One has a hole eaten through its heel, but the other
can be paired with another sock that loses its mate.

I leave protective film on appliances until the corners peel up.
I’ve never met a plastic bag I won’t save. I fill pockets
with names. Bradford pear: the tree rioting with white stars
in front of my childhood home; curlew: a kind of sandpiper;
a painting that leans into the starkness of light against dark:
chiaroscuro; a new story written over an old story:

My name was the trip wire on every first day of school.
Teachers went down the roll, paused, tried out
unfamiliar shapes with their mouths. By high school I stopped waiting
for them to sew together vowels out of order, jumped in
                                                                    Here is what to call me.


These are things I can say in Mandarin:
Have you eaten? I am
full. The moon is round
like a plate. The car
has broken down.

Stupid people can be called dumb
melon. Dull egg.
Rice bucket.

I know the right words to greet
my father’s sister, then
my mother’s sister. I can ask
someone’s age
                                 but only in the way a grown-up asks a kid.
I can gossip.

But I don’t have the words to argue about the government,
make flattering speeches at banquets, or persuade
someone who disagrees with me.

When I was small, my parents beamed when visiting aunties
called me guai
with harmonics of:
                       obedient, gentle, respectful.
By high school, no one ever tried to offer me a cigarette
or invite me to a party when their parents were away.
If my parents talked about Ronald Reagan, it was
only at dinner, when we were alone
                      What do you gain by sharing opinions in public?
The way their families got out of wartime China
was by saving cash out of sight, leaving at night.
When you’re not watching,
            that lone man you see on TV
                       in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square
                                             will be crushed.


I show up at my first protest without a sign
but I do have a cowbell,
                                          a baby,
                                                                    a stroller
to change diapers in by the side of the street. The others:
they’ve got megaphones,
                                            rhyming chants,
                                                                  liver-rumbling drums,
a papier-mache uterus with angry eyebrows.
Things I had to learn: Buy poster board in advance. If you want the kids to help
with the signs, draw bubble letters
                                            they can fill in with a Sharpie.
                                                                 Get used to shouting.

I appoint myself chief civics officer: Let’s talk
about the preamble to the Constitution.
                                        The word we is sticky,
                                                              the word justice a gravity well.
Forget the time I wasted trying to turn more American
by drinking a glass of milk straight from the fridge every day.
                                            Pay attention to the imperative
                                                      to form a more perfect union –
to try, and keep trying even as the rest of the world
rolls its eyes. Believe that if our caterpillar guts
dissolve into goo
                                           there are groups of cells
                                                      that already have editing pens
tiny legs muscles guts
food for eyes



Jia-Rui Cook is a writer in Los Angeles. She was previously a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where she covered science and local news. She won the Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize in 2013 and later served as an editor at the ideas journalism and events organization.

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More from Issue 5: Winter/Spring 2022


“I’m Driving to Fresno (And I don’t care who knows it)”, “Noir Confession—with Evasions”, and “Noir Stanzas: Pieces of Advice, after Viewing…”

by Suzanne Lummis


I Know You’re There

by Paul Tremblay