See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: Chinese

At the Dinner Table

氣 (qǐ): meaning breath, air, energy, spirit, life force.
生氣 (shēng qǐ): meaning anger, literally birthing air.
火大 (huò dà): meaning extreme anger, literally big fire.

Father’s Father taught physics
while students carried their slates;
even as Japanese soldiers gave chase.

Mother’s Father taught too,
the right politics and skills
but to the losing side.

Two grandfathers
trapped on two islands
with Chinese language
Chinese students
and Chinese food.

My parents left
and I was born free
from my birthright.

Mother rebuilt the nation with every meal.
The dinner table was Fujian
seasoned with a splash of Shanghai.
China in Michigan
by way of Taipei.

Grade school failures stole China from me.
Disappointed Chinese mother,
and furious Chinese father,
blew English lectures across the dinner table.

Father and I were windstorms
captured by our lungs
and imprisoned by a beating furnace.
Winds do nothing but push.

Dueling winds made tornados,
splintering thrones,
spilling ceramic islands.
Sinking China.

My smile died for ten years.

Food that hurts,
burns,
cuts.
It made father’s eyes sweat
and my brow tear.

Without the pain
the mouth runs free.
At the dinner table chewing
was the sound of peace.

Our words hurt when they brush the skin.
Breath burns,
not by purpose
but by nature.

Fire is how father and I create
the gas range is the forge
never set lower than seven.

“The Cantonese call it the spirit of the flame!” he said.
He never believed in spirits,
he hates hot air.
But, he understands fire.

You need heat to forge steel,
carbon pain and iron threats,
the awful flame he uses
to save lives.

Incinerate the cancer,
heal the patient.
Extinguish the rebellion,
Remove the failure.
Recrimination is redemption.

Heat is my family’s definition of love.

The tornado passes.
In the wake,
drops of salted rain.

Regrets are found
in the ruins of China
But storms destroy
and salt soothes no wounds.

Things don’t have words that burn,
tongues that trip.
Plastic dragons don’t breathe fire.
Things don’t have to push.
Things have hidden words
I can hear over the wind.

We forgive,
firm the foundations
for a future fighting fires.
China rebuilt again.

Storm season must end
before the next must begin.
Seasons upon seasons,
we fare each better than the last.

I am still a windstorm.
My wife a willow,
strong because she bends.

My families will never be safe from fire.
But I now know how to bend
and how to rebuild.

My smile has returned.

False Friends at Strange Shores

Probably the most foundational idea in my life isn’t religious, ethical, or relational. It’s a pretty simple observation, a rule of thumb really: an advantage can be a disadvantage, and a disadvantage can be an advantage, it depends on context. Not merely social context, but as an inherent property, most everything is a mixed bag. It’s pretty much the only that gets me through the day being, well, me.

As I’ve indicated before, my youth was troubled, even if I was too pro-social to be considered a troubled youth. I had – have – focus problems and impulse control problems stacked on top of a compulsive need to analyze and systematize everything. It wasn’t all bad. I was – am – a pretty smart and I was – am – a strongly intuitive learner, good with systems, patterns, and stealing extra efficiency out of a studying routine. It’s a gift of nurture and nature and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But for all of the advantages, there are some real downsides as well. I was unused to being genuinely bad at something. Even if I hadn’t been convinced that a lack of complete of all intellectual pursuits was a tremendous moral failure, my long reliance on intuition would have – did, does – doom me to frustration and failure, especially as a child.

If you sat me down before a list of things and asked me to memorize them, I’d get fidgety and bored fast. And then, when I tried my very best, I’ll turn out to be really bad at it – even worse than “normal” kids – which will frustrated me quite a bit. When you’re 7 and your parents are legacies of an effective but brutal rote memorization school of education, it just looks like you’re lazy. I certainly thought so anyway. 1 And as narcissistic and ridiculous as it is to complain about being so gifted that being brought down to normal is torture, when you’re 7, you don’t know any better. The bad habits have stuck around long past me getting a good dose of perspective.

It wasn’t just the let down from relying on a talent and having that talent fail you, but in some cases, that talent, that asset, led me astray. I have failed at a truly staggering number of things, and I carry a perpetual sense of shame for having “gotten away with” less than stellar work on multiple occasions throughout my educational career. As bad as all of that can be, nothing haunts me the way that failing to learn Chinese, and to a lesser extent, French has. Probably because of all of the academic failures and false starts, not knowing Chinese has cost me the most. More, infra