About a month ago The Detroit Free Press asked a number of us Kresge Arts Fellows to contribute poems and short essays for a photo series on the arrival of Spring. I immediately thought of my parents, who are both in China right now – months ahead in pandemic-time – and whom I’ve watched take life in quarantine with humor and pragmatism.
It’s a pragmatism I know well. When we first emigrated to the States in 1989, we floated from home to home, first in Detroit and then various suburbs. But these moves never felt like the jarring transitions they were in storybooks; they were simply our lives. Our circumstances changed, and we adapted.
In my twenties, however, I wondered at times if that same pragmatism was a form of acquiescing. If everyone accepted what happened to them without question, there would be no resistance to oppression. The world would never change.
Now, verging on my late thirties, I see it with more nuance: My parents grew up during China’s ten-year Cultural Revolution. In the States they met racism in its many masks. They were attuned to upheaval, yet never lost sight of their goal: To make a better life for me and my brother. To ensure our safety and access to opportunity. My parents adapted quickly because, like many immigrants, they didn’t have the privilege of denial. It was less acquiescence and more, I think, a kind of radical acceptance.
This was essentially the essay I tried to write last month, but it came out twice the allotted 150 words. Then I remembered the subject line of a letter I wrote to you, several Sundays ago – an image that seemed to better evoke the feeling of my essay. So I penned the following poem, first in English with a Three Character Classic in mind, and then asked my parents to help me translate it into Chinese. Both versions appeared in the paper this past weekend, alongside Brian Kaufman’s photos of Spring:
Boulevard elm trees
for the last frost –
slow green fireworks.