I am from the land of volcanoes, duck fetuses
we suck salty from the egg, gaming cafes,
branched complexities in texts and transfers,
jeweled skyscrapers, traffic jams. The sea, the sea! And
I’m just here for a flat white, thanks,
if I’d known I would be expected to discuss
Asianness and your Thai wife, your daughter
still in Thailand, I’d have brought
my history books, a hard drive full of applications
for migration, my armor: still glowing golden
with the light of eaten suns, the magma and fire
I left behind.
Mornington. No, not really:
from the Philippines, that eagle-crowned lady
bent nearly double over her sword. But you
don’t want to hear about inangbayan, only
to figure out if you guessed right, cracked the puzzle
just so: this brown skin, this narrowing of midnight eye.
What map contoured my fingers, which empire
bore my grandmother through which war?
I thought you were Indian, Chinese, Malaysian;
no, really, which? Here, it’s easy: imagine mirrors
made of vinegar and ash — these living games
you put your questions to, sometimes rewarding
your “I knew it! I have a friend from there,”
with the sweetest and most knowing of smiles.
Oh yes, my accent. I know.
Let’s talk about war, let’s talk about the barter
of colonized peoples between the true powers
called civilized nations. Twenty million, that’d be
how much we cost, and if you think I sound bitter
it’s because I am. Why shouldn’t I be? Decades on
we’re still paying for it, iron and gold and gas
and our naked flesh, we walk streets over gaping
wounds that bleed poison and floodwater
every rainy season; see, brooding over our cities
the gashed earth, weeping. The US of A
has been the ever-devoted friend. Not like
we don’t have enough to worry about, the shards
of what we’ve broken, our kababayan
we’ve trampled, torn to pieces– all on our own,
and then some. You know my grandmother
taught English during the occupations,
which is how she met my grandfather,
fellow English teacher, former machine gunner
during the war. That is to say, I speak like this
because America has never truly left, I speak
like this because I like my mother wanted to survive, I
speak because this is another mark
of how we’re owned and resist possession,
how we’re branded and must burn it away, how
what shackles us remains and remains and remains.
From the country of there but for the grace of God go I,
which is to say, shall I uncover your surprise
at how I pretend not to wear these chains? Listen,
I’ll tell you a story. One day we were talking,
friends and I, about my country’s cuisine; you see
I am now an expert at all things Filipino, unelected
ambassador of my people to the world, and
my job at parties is to defend inangbayan’s name.
Why is our food so absent from the guides
of the rich? Where are our people, to eat it?
Assimilated, I wanted to say, because look
how skilled we are at surviving, excellent even:
at adapting, erasing ourselves from ourselves
to create ever new lives, we fetuses in our own
uneaten eggs. Instead I held my tongue, another
important skill, and laughed along at their jokes,
at the friend who said, it’s easy to find Filipinos,
just look for older men, their hands holding
much younger girls. So yes. Indeed.
That’s where I’m from. I sprung full-formed
from a lonely white man’s pocket, into the laughter
of strangers I call friends to make the exile easier,
into their bright eyes, their wineglasses, their
fingers holding shrimp. These moments hook into skin
like thorns; you pull away and they remain, lodged
in your flesh. I come from brambles. From a place
where choice is a curse. From gutter-water
on windows, skirt-hem, hands — gripping nothing —
the wretched ruin of face. I was never born
out of my mother’s womb. I never went through
the same pains and growth
that all people who are people
do. I come from thickets, as do
made of thorns.
Over there. Yeah, there.
Look, can I just finish my coffee?
I’m very good at wishful thinking,
abysmal at following it through.
All right then. Interrogate me.
Flay my history open, my country’s history,
tell me about your bewilderment
at our armed security, say you wonder
why we populate the ranks of your service
like so many lined-up smiles.
Ask me why we lost all our wars,
when we thought giving was one thing
that didn’t mean death.
The Philippines. Yeah.
I live here now. No, really. Yes, here.
I have a partner, yes.
Oh, you too. Pardon?
Yes, I see. It’s a lovely place.
Good for you.