By Jennifer Wong, published in 回家 Letters Home, Nine Arches Press (2020)
Diocesan Girls School, 1990-1997
We sing English hymns from the blue book,
as if those songs are our own:
all things bright and beautiful…
We read Jane Eyre and Hard Times,
and how the pigs oppress
Boxer and Clover in Animal Farm.
In Chinese history lessons, we follow the roots
of a gingko tree to Spring & Autumn
when Confucius taught his disciples ren, yi.
‘Western history’: the rise and fall of empires,
a cartoon from Punch, 1840: China, a cake
gobbled up by foreign powers.
In poetry, we fall in love with Plath,
her fantasies, her fury against men.
We want to let out our anguish.
Some of us stammer in our own tongue—
it’s inferior, we know it.
Secretly, we all love to sing Cantopop.
We dream of going away
to England or America,
and never, never coming back.
Ba Jin (1904-2005)
That home in your book《家》with its golden roof, was the first warning. A beautiful mansion in the name of Confucian living
家 where everyone has to be as perfect as a porcelain vase. In their damask robes, the parents sit in Qing dynasty chairs made of rosewood, virtuous statues, giving daily lessons of ‘four Nos’ to the young
Happy are those who stay silent and notice nothing, feel nothing. Unhappy are those who are young at heart. Cursed are those who battle with the giant.
1923. When you left Sichuan, your jia, what were you thinking? 家 is home, or family, or none of those.
But Shanghai was not big enough for you. Four years later, you boarded a ship for Paris. France! A paradise for dreamers. In the Latin Quarter, you wrote in the day, in a flat that reeked of onions, and studied French at night.
Chu Guo. A sad word. A brave word. Who but an exiled youth could write what you did? Who could question our fathers?
We’re all leaving our fathers. Fathers who feed the family, appoint wives for young men. Fathers who put duties on our shoulders. Fathers who rule our land. Gods in our universe. We are always leaving our fathers.
To read《家》in Oxford, seventy years away from the fresh ink of those pages. I see students cycle to their colleges made of dreams and sandstone, to the world they are defiant to change, just like Jue-hui in your book. Their strands of hair catch the gold in the sun.
(First published in Oxford Poetry)
How do I explain the rules for units?
They are spontaneous: Cheung for furniture
and flat surfaces like A4 paper while jet
is for animals and watches. Lup for small grains—
rice, sand, pearls—or stars; tiu for anything
slender, from a noodle to a river. You ask why
is it yat tiu legislation? Why yat jek egg?
Why yat tou movie when tou means a rabbit?
How come gan is the unit for a room
but it is also good for a school?
Why is Beijing more polluted than London
and Hong Kong different from the mainland?
How much freedom have you got there?
I tell you I don’t know. Someone handed us the rules.