In keeping with our goal of developing empathy, compassion, and awareness through education and creative writing, Writing for Peace is encouraging expanded reading through our partnership with Poetic Justice Books.
My Name Is Immigrant
by Wang Ping
Hanging Loose Press. 2020. 130 pp. $18.00. ISBN 978-1-934909-66-9
reviewed by Robert Kostuck
“The population of Chinese immigrants in the United States has grown nearly seven-fold since 1980, reaching almost 2.5 million in 2018, or 5.5 percent of the overall foreign-born population. Whereas in 1980 Chinese immigrants did not appear among the ten largest foreign-born groups in the United States, China in 2018 replaced Mexico as the top sending country. After immigrants from Mexico and India, the Chinese represented the third largest group in the U.S. foreign-born population of nearly 45 million in 2018.” (1)
Wang Ping’s tenth book resonates with some of her previous themes, opened once again for deeper and wider exploration. The immigrant experiences are here, alternating with the cockleshell picker stories, all presented like random flowers that together form a bouquet. The title piece winds backwards and forward through time. The immigrants are generations of family, communicating with letters, envelopes, stamps. The charge is an electric current running with a branching blood line, and Wang finds her place among the many who left China and those who returned.
At sixteen, my father ran away from his widowed mother, to fight the Japanese. “I’ll come back with a Ph.D. and serve my country with better English and knowledge,” I pledged at the farewell party in Beijing, 1986.
Back from America, my mother furnished her apartment on the island, bought a new one in a suburb of Shanghai, and is seeking a third in Beijing. “A cunning rabbit needs three holes,” she wrote to us, demanding our contributions. They swore, before boarding the ship, that they’d send money home to bring more relatives over; in return, they were promised that if they died, their bodies would be sent back home for burial. I drink American milk—a few drops in tea. I eat American rice—Japanese brand. Chinese comes to me only in dreams—in black-and-white pictures. My mother buried her husband on the island of the East China Sea, where he lived for almost fifty years, after he ran away at sixteen, from his old home on the Yellow Sea. (“Lao Jia | Old Home”)
And those who lack the money, means, or connections. Here Wang gives a voice to those who are dispossessed. One feels her reaching out to embrace everyone who seeks a safe haven. Her research is evident in her poetic storytelling. Here, truly, form follows function. In an earlier book she brings forward the named and the unnamed. What’s missing in the American immigrant/migrant discussion is this lack of names. When experience is generic it becomes amorphous and gray, and unfortunately, boring. It becomes something we can scroll past, only registering the thought, Just another statistic. Stories are about people.
In this new book she gives out as many names as she can, for when experience is generic it becomes amorphous, gray, and generic.
Jakelin Caal Maquin was seven years old from Guatemala. She developed fever soon after she was separated from her father at the border. Within thirty-six hours, she died of cardiac arrest, brain swelling and liver failure.
Seventeen days later, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, an eight-year-old boy from Guatemala, died of cardiac arrest, brain swelling and liver failure within thirty-six hours, soon after he crossed the border. (“Buried on Christmas Eve”)
an empty wave
ten thousand voices
broadcast the pain
please, oh please call our names
Chen Xinhan, Zhen Shimin
even if you can’t say them right
Lin Guoshui, Chen Dajie
even if you don’t know our origin or age
Wang Xin, Huang Changpin
please, oh please call us
raise our shadows from the moss
be gentle as you call our names (“Calling Ghosts from the Golden Venture”)
In pieces like “How To Cross the Line,” “An Immigrant Carol” and “Hui Jia | Circling Home” she all too briefly limns vignettes from her own past. Spaced throughout the book the author’s story blends with the immigrant stories of China, Syria, Guatemala, Honduras,
At fourteen, I left home on the big island of the East China Sea. I worked in a fishing village, for the one-in-a-million chance to go to college. I never returned. Three years later, I left the village to study English in Hangzhou. I never returned to the island. I left Hangzhou for Beijing University. My college dream came true at twenty-two. I left China in 1986, to pursue my Ph.D. at NYU. I never returned. “Go back home!” Americans scream, from streets, colleges, social media. Still, I never went back. I drift farther away from Weihai, my lao jia, carrying that old earth in my dreams. (“Hui Jia | Circling Home”)
“The Morecambe Bay cockling disaster (Chinese: 拾貝慘案 Shí bèi cǎn’àn, “cockle-picking tragedy”) occurred on the evening of 5 February 2004 at Morecambe Bay in North West England, when at least 21 Chinese undocumented immigrant labourers were drowned by an incoming tide after picking cockles off the Lancashire coast.
David Anthony Eden, Sr., and David Anthony Eden, Jr., a father-and-son from England, had unlawfully hired a group of Chinese workers to pick cockles; they were to be paid £5 per 25 kg of cockles, (9p per lb.), far less than the typical local rate at the time. The Chinese had been imported unlawfully via containers into Liverpool, and were hired out through local criminal agents of international Chinese Triads. The cockles to be collected are best found at low tide on sand flats at Warton Sands, near Hest Bank. The Chinese workers were unfamiliar with local geography, language, and custom. They were cut off by the incoming tide in the bay around 9:30 p.m.” (2)
Wang Ping has touched on the Morecambe Bay disaster before, notable in Ten Thousand Waves, and here she intersperses the body of her current book with vignettes told in the voices of those who died. Interestingly, David Anthony Eden, Sr., and David Anthony Eden, Jr. who hired the workers were cleared of any charges involved in these deaths.(2) In researching this disaster this reviewer found an archival website of jokes and alleged witticisms centered on these deaths.
Again, by giving names to the deceased Wang manages to bring each individual into focus. While we may not be able to see them as clearly as in a photograph, still, we can at least see a real person.
We pat the sand, we pat the san
Teasing cockles to the cold surface
We dig, we pick, we break our back
Bagging cockles for two pounds
They say we can return
When the bag is full (“Cockle Pickers: Wu Hongkang”)
Every night since I left home
I’ve been folding a boat
To rest my aching bones
How thin is the paper
Paler than winter (“Cockle Pickers: Chen Aiqin”)
The lichee tree we planted is blossoming
White flowers hide under dark green
The first moon comes and goes
But I haven’t returned as promised (“Cockle Pickers: Lin Guohua”)
The water is up to my chest
The boss got the time wrong
I can’t get back in time
This is my last call from the sea
Oh darling, can you hear me
Through raging waves
Washing me to the bay? (“Cockle Pickers: Guo Binglong”)
To not forget this tragedy is this poet’s calling. Through these memories she is able to establish a framework that shows how immigration is never smooth and does not always have a happy ending. She brings this forward in her writings about named contemporary migrants, showing how the tragic lines began long ago – even before Morecambe Bay – and bring us to the present. Central America, Syria, North Africa, the stateless Rohingya and Kurds—the list is finite but daunting. According to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “The number of international migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million in 2019, an increase of 51 million since 2010.”(3)
Many flee repression, ethnic cleansing, drug wars, and genocide. Wang’s messages in the Cockle Pickers poems is that we should remember that migration is not an anomaly but an ongoing crisis. Can we open our arms, even a little, even for a short span of time? Can we practice acknowledgement, acceptance, and respect? Can we open our hearts? Can we share? We can. We will.
There is a homily that addresses this never-ending movement of people across the globe, and how we can honorably respond: “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a bigger fence.”
Robert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. Recently published fiction, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in the anthologies Everywhere Stories, Vols. II and III, Manifest West, Vol. VI, and DoveTales Vols. IV—VII; and many print and online journals including Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Southwest Review, Louisiana Literature, Free State Review, Zone 3, Saint Ann’s Review, Bryant Literary Review, Concho River Review, Flyway: A Literary Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Silk Road, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Crab Creek Review, Takahē Magazine, Roanoke Review, EVENT, and Tiferet. He is currently working on short stories, essays, and novels. He lives near an ocean; his heart belongs to the Chihuahua and Sonora deserts, and certain parts of Nova Scotia.
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