Banknotes / dropped, jawbones dropped, and it was truly / unnerving, to watch the white people / stare at me, mouths / twitching in awe or pity, / or both.
The Diary of Afong Moy
No. 8 Park Place, Manhattan, November 1834
The merchant brothers who brought me here,
Freddy and Nate Carne, knew I’d make
it rain for them. In their eyes I was a hothouse
flower, a goddess of $$$$$$$$$$$$$$.
They decorated me with precious imports—
baubles, yellow pantalettes, damasks—
then placed me in a diorama of snuff boxes
and silk. I was a breathing mannequin
on my brocade throne. I couldn’t believe how
many people paid to see me. Banknotes
dropped, jawbones dropped, and it was truly
unnerving, to watch the white people
stare at me, mouths twitching in awe or pity,
or both. The men looked at my little
feet. The women, at my regalia. They wanted
to see my feet uncovered, can you believe
the nerve? The podiatrists the reporters, begged
for a glimpse. At the men, I snickered.
At the women, I smiled They swooned, blushed,
as if they swallowed Sichuan peppercorns.
Their corsets were killing them
Heavens! A grotesquerie, their spines
all crooked in their skeletons. I raised my brows
ensconced in my civilized box.
I counted the days with my abacus
Look, I was fucking
bored. Was I the animal here? Or were they?
On my throne in lonely New York, I presaged
my own descent. It began with a tongue, English
creature, that curled its way into my mouth.
They called me the Celestial Princess. I wanted
them to bow down. So they did—they fell
at my feet in penance. Or worship. A vernissage
of my ancestors across my face. A slap.
“The Diary of Afong Moy” from Oculus. Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.