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New videopoem: Storylines What We Inherit with Kathryn Lennon

Storylines: What We Inherit

In 2010, I teamed up with Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon in Kitchener-Waterloo to create the videopoem Asians Don’t Sing the Blues for Asian Heritage Month. Three years later, I have reunited with Kat in Edmonton on my tour to create another poem-film. With help from my tour mate and Trevor Chow-Fraser. Filmed on location in Edmonton, May 12, 2013.

ps. May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. Yeah, I know, big party.


Janice Sung-Hae Lee

Chinese, Japanese, Can you open your eyes please?
If you don’t, we don’t care, we’ll pull down your underwear.

Open your eyes wide Asian girl
and look beyond your straight-cut bangs.
The world wants your “exotic” look!
How lucky you are, that you don’t have to iron straight your hair
for you have been blessed with straight black tresses, like Eastern silk.
Your white skin, petal-soft as lily of the valley
glows, like the white moon shining above the rice fields.

What is your secret?
Is it, green tea in your face mask?
Can you bottle that for us?
Why don’t we make a trade?
You give us your ancient secrets
and we will give you the modern science
of plastic surgery.

Then you too can have folded eyelids, Asian girl.
You can get rid of the crescent moon tape strips
that your aunt gave you to create that wide-eyed look.
You can stop dragging that round-tipped bobby pin over your eye
hoping to make that crease stay.
The answer is under the knife
under anaesthesia
under our Western expertise.

You will open your eyes wide and see beyond that horizontal view.
You will wear smudge-proof mascara
and your lashes will point out – not down!
Never will you suffer from raccoon eyes again.
You will open your eyes to a bigger world
where your look will match what we all want to see.

And then, you can sit silently between the bamboo trees
in a romantic white silken dress
and be the new face
of Haiku, a new exotic fragrance,
by Avon.

* * *

Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon

Cooking is confusing when the stomach wants something
but the head doesn’t hold words
to describe what these ingredients will become.

I dreamt of my mother’s mother saw her hands
folding bamboo leave triangles around sticky rice
squatting on newspaper in our kitchen.

I dreamt of my father’s mother
saw her hands tipping tea, cream sugar into cup perched on saucer
the way her Queen would take it
sitting by the window in her red dress, unpeeling
Kraft singles.

I’ve gone searching for stories in the kitchens of other mothers
only to find them stuck like tea leaves to the sides of my
cup and the bottom of my tongue

This time, I decide that I will cross the world to sit with her. So,
here I am, hoping that she’ll speak to me
hoping that she’ll teach me
hoping that she’ll spill kitchen-secrets
of black beans, cornstarch and soy-sauce
brought to a boil, and

But thick-skinned
is what I learn instead.
How to thicken my skin so that her words will not hurt me.

My grandmother’s skin is paper-thin, blue-veins raised like
remnants of the great wall
and I wonder if the great wall of her
stubbornness will ever fall.

She falls more often now
has broken both hips, hit her head
the arches of feet that once squatted in the street
selling vegetables, selling
bok choy, gai lan, choy sum.
Her feet no longer hold her.
But she is stubborn and fear of
falling is nothing compared to the fear of failing to feed one’s family.
See, she still remembers hunger.

Now, she gets up to shuffle into the kitchen
and I follow, hoping
I will find kumquats preserved in salt after the New Year, hoping
I will find secret maps tattooed onto the backs of my hands that will let me
crisscross checkpoints and bypass borders
trading secrets for spices and spices for seeds

but the kitchen is small
I’m too tall
I don’t know
how to hold a knife
how much rice to cook for two
I don’t know the
names of vegetables.

So she tells me to get out of the way
and from the sidelines, I watch her
rinse rice
slice wintermelon
heat peanut oil in wok
crisscross green onions, ginger, soy sauce
across fish belly.

My belly
has never known hunger.
Yet, I am afraid
that when the last Saskatchewan farmer yields
to Monsanto
we won’t know how to feed the cities.
That when the grandparents are gone, our tongues
will long for food that we no longer know how to name.
That the food we eat will feed us
but our taste buds will not flower.

I am afraid to tell her why I’m here.
Afraid to say I am hungry.
Hungry for recipes for survival
to help me hold out against the
day-to-day doubts that come from
not quite knowing the words to explain my hunger.
Hungry for the wisdom of women who
carried the weight of the world on their hips.
because if I have a daughter,
I don’t know
what colour her skin will be or
what language she’ll dream in
but I’ll need to teach her to trust her gut, to
find the food that will make her heart and stomach fly.

I will teach her that we are intricate intersections
a market-place full of squawking chickens and fish-mongers and vegetables wet with morning dew
a constant conversation between East and West, a cartwheeling collision of worlds.
So that on those days when she feels like the world might slip out from under her feet
we will retreat to the kitchen to put it back together.
We will slice away hopelessness and despair
splice together storylines from opposite ends of the earth
blend and mix and toss the distant geographies of ancestors together in the flavours of one dish
we will translate confusion into confidence
helplessness into the muscle movements that transform flour into dough into bread into substance.
We will feed our bodies because they are beautiful.

But back to my grandmother, I can’t say all of this in Cantonese.

Now, it’s six o’clock
the fish is steamed, and the neighbours are home, and the news is on.
So, I pour the tea, fill our bowls
my grandmother shuffles out from the kitchen and takes her seat
and now I turn to her and say, the only thing I know how to say,
I say, “Pau pau, sik fan”,
eat rice, grandmother
and we eat.

* * *

Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon and Janice Sung-Hae Lee

I am a daughter of migration

I come from storylines

of peasants and poverty and politics
And famine and ships
And shorelines
And shorelines and shorelines
And plough-lines
in land passed through the hands of empires
like top-hats and opium and tea.

I come from mountains
and hillsides
and cliff face
and rock slides
and skylines and skylines and skylines
in lands passed through the hands of empires
like smokestacks and treetops and sea.

Born of
parallel lines
Like chopsticks
Like string beans
Like silken hair
Like wampum
Like treaty
Like canals
Like railroads

I am the colour of islands
And linen and peatlands and moss
And rice fields and fish skin
and copper and silk
of sea of sky of earth
of rock of rock of rock.

I move
Like climbing vines
Like fighting fish
Like ferry boats
Like currents
Like trade winds
Like pulling tides

I am made of
Like porcelain
Like filigree
Like ceramic
Like bird-bone
Like ice
Like longing
Like home.

I am made of brick
Like terracotta
Like foundation
Like clay
Like grit
Like sweat
Like walls
Like ambition
Like home.

I am made of water
Like tea
Like fish soup
Like congee
Like soju
Like whiskey

I am fed on
Sesame leaves
Ginger root
Miyuk gook

Fish Fridays
black beans

I am a daughter
My mother’s daughter (daughter of my mother)
My grandmother’s grand daughter (grand daughter of grand mother)
My great grandmother’s great grand daughter (great grand daughter of great grandmother)
I am a (grand) daughter of generations of women
Of mothers

With their beauty in my laugh lines, I am beautiful
With their sorrow in my frown lines, I remember
With their vision in my eyes, I am dreaming
With their words on my tongue, I speak

With their strength in my hands, I am strong
With their drive in my feet, I am going

With their beat in my heart
I write new folk songs
With their smile on my face, I take photographs of myself
With their lifelines in my palms, I write my name in my notebooks
With their prints in my fingertips, I sew seeds in my garden.

I am cloth
Woven from bloodlines and storylines.
I am a map.
I am the centre of my story-line,
Centre of this web that holds up the sky
This star on my chest says:
“You are here”.
I am here.
We are here.