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Manchester Chinatown 2022

If I stay shut, I’m just my pair of eyes.

Poetry | Chinatown, Zuihitsu, traveling
April 15, 2022

This piece is part of the 随筆 | Zuihitsu notebook, which features original art by Satsuki Shibuya.

I take comfort in Chinatowns. There will always be a Chinese bakery with buns filled with pork and egg, topped with baked cheese, a filled bun of some sweet bean, sesame cookies. Women behind the counter speaking Cantonese with their long, sharp, nasally vowels. It’s jarring when they answer my English question with a British accent.

Pakistani, Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Fish & Chips, Greek, Sylheti, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Jamaican

I’m not afraid to walk alone here but that doesn’t mean I’m not cautious. I walk at a New York City pace, which surpasses most of the crowd. I can’t help it. Reaching my destination quickly is always the priority. Someone asks me for directions. (Does my confidence make me seem local?) I walk with a strut, a stone face. Am I considered beautiful this way? Or just the wrong Asian on the sidewalk? Perhaps I’m invisible. In Manhattan, I get catcalled.

I don’t wear my earbuds because I’m afraid I’ll get hit by a car while crossing the street and looking the wrong way. The escalators are on the opposite sides as well. Ditto the driver’s seat.

My parents went to eat out at a Vietnamese place in Paris. I didn’t think they’d ever travel like they said. Those are dreams left for people who have money, desire, ambition. Not tired old people. Perhaps inspired by my own birthday trip there, they post Facebook photos in front of the Eiffel Tower. They post going to eat Vietnamese food again.

Wherever there are Asians, there is bubble tea. I don’t even drink it anymore yet it’s a welcome sight, the purple cylinders with black boba and the wide, striped straw poking out. It’s a relief to hear Asian languages on the street and feel I’m at home but not my hometown.

My tummy doesn’t feel well. I haven’t had a full meal in a few days. Emily tells me to start slowly with congee/broth/soup. I get broth from one of (surprisingly) many Vietnamese spots called Pho Cue. In the Pho pun wars, this one wins. I’m glad it isn’t spelled out in the English equivalent of its phrase. I’d have a harder time eating from there.

Rich has invited us to Yorkshire which will likely be a bit posh. Yanny drove up from the South to support Charles’s photo exhibit. I went home with a photo of the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampov, although it’s a rear (and rare) view.

“You all right?” as a stand-in for “how are you?” is odd to my ear.

I can’t find my copy of The Communist Manifesto, which I bought the last time I visited. Friedrich Engels lived here at one point, horrified at the working conditions. I recall I had an enjoyable high tea somewhere in the shadow of this town’s older industrial areas.

Lowell, Massachusetts is a former mill town which holds the second largest Khmer diasporic community in the United States.

Why does looking out the window at the tops of these buildings remind me of my view in Phnom Penh? The architecture and styles are hardly alike, but the feeling of an active metropolis different from one’s own is romantic.

Culture and Imperialism, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Precarious Lives, Return to my Native Land, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es), Signs & Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Tasked to write a short story for a Southeast Asian anthology themed around climate change, I revert to deities and other realms. An oncoming tsunami will wipe out the southeast Cambodian beach town of Kep. The last person saved is a woman whose sarong transforms into a batik fishtail, her feet into a monofin.

Maybe 10 to 20 percent of the population wears masks. Oftentimes it’s Asians, tourists, and/or Asian tourists. I bought several lipsticks that I can’t wear now. Instead, I purchased KN95s in a blush color. Vaccination cards are not checked. I borrow their motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Here, I am American first, then Asian. I open my mouth and privilege comes out. If I stay shut, I’m just my pair of eyes.

Proper. The idea of this word is very important here, first as agreement or compliment. Then, there is “proper” for place and context. For example, no conversations before bed if it will lead to an argument. No conversations in public because someone will possibly hear. Eat together, not separately or on the go (they’re not barbarians, after all). Shame. I love a good coffee on an aimless (but eager) walk.

I’ve got my own set of Asian food necessities here: soy sauce, fish sauce, MSG, chili oil, gochugaru. The Srirachra brand with the green top is not here but certainly its Thai imposters are, and with too much sugar, if I’m being honest.

Now that I’ve cut back massively on alcohol, I relish my taste buds much more. I’m not sure I’ll go back to my Manhattans. I like sleep too much.

Monica says I’ve moved away from being called a poet. I think I’ve repositioned myself. I say poetry is the vehicle and I go where it takes me. It’s my ride, not a skin.

Okay, coming.