a blog post by Laura Yoo
It was my very first visit to the famous Dodge Poetry Festival. It was Saturday, October 22nd in 2016, right around 7:15 in the evening. There stood on this enormous stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center a petite Asian woman, speaking with a slight accent and a lot of voice. She read her poem, “One Child Has Brown Eyes.” First I googled “vacuity.” Then, I was mesmerized. Also on stage were poets like Martin Espada, Robert Haas, Claudia Rankine, and Jane Hirshfield, but it was Marilyn Chin who spoke to me that night. She was smart, powerful, and funny – and she looked like me.
Ever since getting a serious high on Macbeth in high school, I’ve been studying and loving English literature. In college, I chose all of my electives to be in English literature, and I studied abroad in England to nerd it up with Shakespeare and Jane Austen – and to drink a lot of beer. My area of study was eighteenth-century British literature (which even other English majors didn’t want to touch) so I can say for sure there were no likes of Marilyn Chin in my curriculum. In the last 10 years, thanks to HoCoPoLitSo, I’ve met many wonderful writers and poets, and among them a few Asian American writers, too. But the poet embodied and represented by Marilyn Chin was something new for me.
See, I always wanted to be like Sandra Oh’s character in Grey’s Anatomy, someone who wasn’t on the show to play Asian. She was just another doctor, who happened to be Asian. Her name wasn’t Johnson or Smith. Her name was Cristina Yang, best friend to the main character, but the “Yang” part did not define her character. Sandra Oh, who is Korean-Canadian, plays this “best friend” role also in Sideways and Under the Tuscan Sun. In both of these movies, she is just the best friend, not the Asian best friend. I applauded these characters. Yes! Finally! Asian people are just people! In retrospect, however, I am seeing that in some ways this is denial, a kind of self-imposed erasure. Yes, it hurts to be locked inside the limits of stereotypes, but it also hurts to deny my self from myself in an apparent fight against such stereotypes. At this point, I can hear a frustrated voice saying to me, “What do you want, then? You want Cristina Yang to be Korean or not?” Well, I think I want Cristina Yang to be her self, all of the things that she is.
Recently a Korean-American writer, Mary H.K. Choi, posted this:
From this post, I suspect that, like me, Ms. Choi has been struggling – maybe unbeknownst to her – with her relationship to the Korean part of her “Korean-American” identity. So, I have been thinking about my own going home (or coming home) and how art helps me on that journey. A great example of such art is Ms. Chin’s novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, which Sandra Cisneros called “bad ass,” Maxine Hong Kingston “What fun!” and Gish Jen “Deeply provocative and deeply Chinese.” The story of two Chinese girls growing up in California focuses very much on their grandmother’s voice and legacy, weaving 41 separate stories together into what Ms. Chin calls a “manifesto.” The story is magical, mythical, and yet so very painfully and beautifully real. The opening story is heartbreaking, shocking, and ultimately triumphant.
Ms. Chin’s poem, “How I Got My Name: An Essay on Assimilation,” is another good example. It starts like this:
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
The assimilation happens with the choosing of an “American name.” I am also named after a white woman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, but more accurately the character Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie the TV show. My mom had watched this show in Korea and loved the character. This custom is seen as practical as it is difficult for Americans to pronounce Korean names. Luckily, my family – like most Korean people – also could not pronounce the “r” and has always called me Yoonji, by my real name. Now, my little sons hear my mom calling me Yoonji and once in awhile, very quietly, they test it out in a kind of whisper “Yoonji” and then giggle. It’s like they’re wondering, “Who is this Yoonji? She’s like a whole another person from my mom who is Laura.” Maybe so. Maybe not. All of this, of course, is not to deny the name Laura, which my mom gave me and therefore an important part of my identity. Besides, it’s a beautiful name. But it’s complicated, you see.
I know it sounds cliche to say this, but Ms. Chin’s poetry, novel, and her performances have raised my awareness. No, it did not happen like a bolt of lightning or anything that dramatic, but rather like a gradual stewing and simmering in this idea about who I am and what I am. So, on this International Women’s Day, I want to thank her for being on that stage on that day at Dodge Poetry Festival to help me widen the way I might think about my cultural identities.
I am ecstatic that I will have another chance to meet Ms. Chin and maybe – if I have the guts – thank her in person on April 26th when she reads at the Blackbird Poetry Festival at Howard Community College. Read more about Marilyn Chin’s visit here.