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querying black and white (poems)

hannah's picture

here are the poems that were meant to go with my paper (they're inserted into different sections of the final). 

(edit: i'm including the final as well... it's attached below.)


(1)   when i was a child i did not like bananas
they tasted foreign and uncomfortable in my mouth,
yellow peel giving way to grainy softness giving way to sweet grit on my tongue and the aftertaste -- white
i spat them out onto the table and shook my head at my mother
don’t feed me that

much later, i would learn that banana is a term for an (east) Asian who is
“yellow on the outside and white on the inside”
it made me want to spit the word out of my mouth
wipe the taste from my tongue

(2)   once when i was in middle school someone teased me about not liking bananas
he was the cutest boy in my grade
he offered me one, blue eyes laughing
i tried it and it was even worse than i remembered
but i swallowed my mouthful and smiled and said okay so it’s not that bad

i wanted so badly to be friends with the girl in my theater group
her name was rachael, written in perfectly round letters with a looping l
she had blue eyes and skin so pink it glowed and one day she called me her “raisin” – “rachael’s asian”
i wanted to point out that asian and raisin are not spelled or even pronounced the same way
but i swallowed and smiled and told myself at least we’re friends

(3)   i learned recently that this kind of labeling is not limited to me
i was surprised to discover that there are many variations;
coconuts: “brown on the outside”, oreos: “black on the outside”, apples: “red on the outside”
all of their insides are white white white

when i went to Switzerland i tried so hard to fit in, i tried so hard to be swiss enough
i was surprised to discover, after meeting other 2nd gen asian friends, that i did not seem asian enough
i cannot roll wontons perfectly, i do not speak Chinese, i cannot name pop icons
to them i was white white white

(4)   in Switzerland i never ate bananas,
which was not an issue
because the swiss, i think, do not regularly eat bananas

sometimes people would ask me where i was from – china? thailand? nein, ich bin amerikanerin.
they would keep guessing – taiwan? japan? (as if asianness and americanness were mutually exclusive)
and i would shake my head and repeat myself, but i don’t know if all of them believed me.
the swiss, i think, do not typically encounter asian-americans

(5)   my name sounds white when pronounced in a classroom
nonsensical when pronounced in a song
hannah hannah bo banna banana fee fi fo fanna
people called me banana when i was in high school
don’t call me that.


“i don’t know if i belong at bryn mawr”, your friend tells you,
and you are at once sympathetic to and confused by this
because you recognize this, this feeling of not belonging,
but you don’t understand why it is only an issue now
after all, it is a feeling you have had – and will have -- for the rest of your life.

when your grandmother first came to the united states, she says,
she visited the bathroom and there was a sign that said “white” and a sign that said “colored”
in china they learn that Asians are yellow and yellow is a color so she went into that one
but, she tells you, as she was washing her hands, a lady came up to her
“ma’am, you should be using the other bathroom!”
your grandmother laughs, shaking her head, as she remembers this story,
but you have always remembered it a little differently
your grandmother did not know where she belonged and neither do you. 

you are ten, maybe, sitting at rehearsal with your friends at break
as you take out your lunch and bite into the first piece
your friend sam leans over and gasps, “ew! is that seaweed? are you eating sushi?”
you say no, no, you don’t even like sushi, yuck,
it’s spam musubi, and… “what, you’re eating spam?” asks hanailah
then suddenly there are three of your friends right next to you asking what is it, is that rice, why is it brown,
and sam leans in again and sniffs it and shrieks “ewwwww it smells
suddenly your face is hot and you swallow your mouthful and laugh and say
“i don’t know, my mom packs me weird food sometimes”
for the rest of the show run, you pack yourself a sandwich and an apple every single day
you are convinced that without this sandwich, you will no longer belong with this group of friends.

in high school, you get a camera and learn to take pictures of your friends
gradually, you become the unofficially designated photographer for group outings and new profile pictures
you are thrilled by this, not only because it means your friends need you,
but because it means that you will never have to be on the other side of the camera
you hate pictures of yourself… on the rare occasions when someone takes a picture of you,
you have learned to filter the tint and the temperature of the photo – tint +6, temperature -4
so that your skin looks pink and not gold
you are the master of filters and photos, invisible,
always a little bit distant when everyone else is laughing in front of the camera
but at least you have a place to belong.

in college you are severely lacking in knowledge of pop culture and you are very bad at going out
you blame it all on the fact that you were homeschooled, but that’s not true and you know it
lots of homeschoolers have watched all the Disney movies and lots of homeschoolers are familiar with the mall and lots of homeschoolers are comfortable ordering food at restaurants or sitting in coffee shops
it is due to the fact that you never watched TV, and your parents only ever shopped at thrift stores, and your family almost never ate out except on special occasions because their parents didn’t so why would they?
you aren’t sure if this is a culture or a class thing or what
but you figure that if you are as busy as possible people will focus on all the great things you’re doing
while you try to catch up on all the skills you’re lacking
maybe eventually you can fool people into thinking that you belong.

 so when your friend brings it up, you comfort her by saying that she is not alone
you do not think this is a unique feeling
you do not mention that you have never known if you belonged.


i do not speak Chinese.
i speak German and French, Spanish and English –
languages of the oppressor, of the colonizer,
languages that originated with people who look nothing like me.
languages that they taught in school

i do not speak Chinese.
my parents never spoke it fluently and so never spoke it to one another
my mother’s parents spoke it to her when she was a child but
she lost the words, like baby teeth, along the way to school
if she could not fit in her tongue could
it was a part of growing up

i do not speak Chinese.
when i was four, we lived with my grandparents
they spoke the language to me, to my parents, and to one another
it is for this reason that when i hear the melodic tones of mandarin,
i understand words and cannot explain how i understand them
i can almost taste the words on my tongue
but not quite
i do not speak Chinese.
when i went to my grandparents’ church i clung to my mother’s leg
shook my head and refused to let go
didn’t tell her that the one time i went to Sunday school there,
the teacher asked me a question in Chinese and i told him i didn’t understand in English
watched other faces swivel instantly toward me, faces so like my own and yet so different,
because they spoke their language and i did not
i do not speak Chinese.
this used to make me feel like an impostor, not a “real” Asian
but it also helped me justify my American-ness,
distance myself from a country and a culture i knew very little about,
“i’m not a foreigner i don’t even speak Chinese”
and at the time that seemed more important.
i do not speak Chinese.
when i got to college i was given the choice of learning either French or Mandarin
i chose the language i had dreamed about learning since middle school
accents soft, romantic, special
i did not choose the language that my heritage tugs me towards
that my grandfather, his face bent over a book, reads carefully every morning
that my grandmother, rocking back and forth, sung to me and my sisters when we were small
i wonder, too late, if this was in its own way a betrayal. 

i do not speak Chinese
i hope, one day, to learn.

PDF icon final paper DONE IS GOOD.pdf1.18 MB


onewhowalks's picture

thank you, Hannah.

calamityschild's picture

sending love from one real chinese to another <3 <3 <3