Ode to Plums & Other Poems

by Vanessa Crofskey (梅)

ode to plums

Language is power, as in, the best way to achieve assimilation is through anglicisation. Sometimes I feel like the whole world tries to keep me white. Neither of the names I present indicate much but fair-skinned colonialism, nor do I. I’ve seen thousands of people try to scrub the Other off their lips by rearranging the letters of their skin to Western or British vowels, every classroom filled with ethnic kids listed under Janes, Alices & Brians. Names chosen because they are easier to sound. Proper nouns unquestioned, forced Western, shaved until they are well-presented, no child demonised for the traces of colour they leave behind: right?

I’ve seen thousands of adults swallow the ways their identifiers are mispronounced, mangled, their culture an othering, their history erased. Shortened and splintered. The joke end of the stick; Paul Henry and former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. In my multiracial country, no one can be bothered to pronounce a language that is not English. In Aotearoa New Zealand, no one can be bothered to pronounce a Māori place anyway. We are still feeding fitting fighting dominant mouths and narratives. So I swallow the secondhand guilt that was my mother for years; Boon Im. Ng, so they call her ‘Angie’ for short because two letters is too hard to try understanding. So I receive something easier to hold onto (harder to lose) and feel the embarrassment of Other in my back pocket. So I look mostly white, and I act mostly white; and if I am speaking vocally about race now, it is only because I tried so long to deny it.

What does it mean to belong to a place you have never visited? I guess it would sound like Ng, like Kurowski, a punchmark ode to they way they slit your throat upon entering. Strangle the letters out of you like spare change, squeeze you into postcard “postracial” spaces with all of the other Alices and Brians. Hack your tongue until you cannot belong and are too much colonial to belong anywhere else. The name on my birth certificate is Vanessa Mei. Not “May”. 梅. Not my middle name, but a full first migrant’s remembrance. The things they wouldn’t let me forget.

 

I don’t know the word for depression in Mandarin

The Chinese Community
wouldn’t know the word for depression

if it ran down the lines of our family tree like a cancer.
if before our heads hit the ground
it was night sweats sweet pillow talk,
the hardship of our ancestors.                                                           

See, the trouble with being born into a family
who know more about being poor
than clothes to celebrate the New Year
is that struggle is just the street you grew up on.
Your mother’s first name.

Call life the tooth of a canine.                                                 
Call your last name inheritance.
Call the air you breathe a cancer but never…
                                                                                                                                                  

how my uncle has been in therapy for years. 

We have the same phobias, crack apart at the same jokes
laugh but I’ve got the same genetics.

Call amnesia the way your bones break upon impact
if you climb too far up a splintered swimming ladder,

downright scared that if we peeked over water
opened up those family portraits
where bloodlines stood tall as trees and separated,
it might be enough to repair them.

These days it’s just Chinese whispers.
Murmurs of kids that should have done better                                                                            
but didn’t. The need to succeed in a world
you always had to work harder than your neighbours for.

It has been so long since we have
hugged our family members close enough
to test the edges of a word as big as lonely.

 

you left an internet trail behind

Ancestry.com smokes
my farewells into wedding rings.

We traded matchsticks and split,
renewed, chewed on refuge.
Scrolled land sites.
Married the waves, running.

I’ve worn ships not shoes
since the minute I was aware
of my own unbound feet.
I rowed a boat, built a road,
and now the Pacific still connects me –

My parents are two rivers
for which I am the meeting point.
This makes me New Kuala Lumpur
(promise and property)

School projects trace dot dot affiliations
and I spoon out the navel of the sea.
I find harbour in the ports of swelling cities.
I eat in front of the computer screen.

Decades are tides that rock us to sleep
and I’ve been hiding from the holes
I once found in my knees.

All these vowels are white-throated

so know this to be bittersweet;
I was once sugarcane.
Flat enough to knock nails in.
Yellow enough to call ugly.

I forgot I ever knew how to speak ( )
Endured the rain, then
pressed delete.

 

pink eraser / red pen

“So were you born here?
are you kiwi?
I mean, where are you from?
what’s your makeup? I mean,
your ethnicity?”

/

but my jawline is all twice removed
different hemisphere
and forgot the heat of the malay accent
they stripped out
to make my zhong wen fit smoother.
to make my cheongsams custom tailored.
so my hips are curved too much into
pale skin black brows
& english language
to be anything more than question.

 …harsh, but i burn this tongue white
every time i say i’ve never been.       

/

“That’s crazy. I would never have guessed.
You don’t look like that. Oh, but,
I knew something looked wrong with you,
which part of China are you from?

 

as the uber driver slows down to inspect my face

There is a man named Tau. He’s from the Cook Islands. He asks me where I’m from, so I say “I’m half Chinese. I say, “My mother is from Malaysia.”

I have said this to so many friends and strangers, my mouth fills in all the details automatically. I never hesitate. It is a tired Google form I have not bothered to change since I was eight. He asks “Where else?” and I say it’s just Chinese.”
He says “No. Your other side. Your father.”

It has been a long time since I have been understood by a relationship to a man.
It has been longer since “where are you from” has meant anything other than
“why you look different.”. Other than foreign. Not like how they imagined.

My tongue has forgotten its origins. This movement.

I am thinking about how nowadays I just say “I come from New Zealand” because it’s true, and it annoys people to not know my genetic makeup.
They say, “You don’t look like you’re from here. You don’t sound it.”
 
I am thinking about my birth certificate.
How many people have been satisfied with only half an answer.
No dance, just steps. Just a mystery solved.

A key unlocked so they don’t check the welcome mat.

 (Dedicated to the second Uber driver to ask this in less than 48 hours. For the 4th person this week. For all the places I have been asked this and am still asked this and the times I am asking myself)

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