Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lost Ship at Sea

The name I was given at birth was Bích Ty.

My mother was a demure and dreamy eyed bookworm as a girl–the kind that took to reading fantasy or fairy tale stories alone in her bedroom all day while her sister and brother were outside raising hell with other kids. There was an old romantic and nationalist Chinese poem she was particularly fond of, about a fair maiden who'd for years faithfully awaited her husband's return from battle. Each day, this woman sat by her window and gazed anxiously over a rich billowing sea of emerald-like grass that stretched beyond her vision into the horizon. When he finally appeared on the horizon, it was like a long lost ship at sea had found its way home. That oceanic field of grass is what I am named after; a body through which one finds her way home.

In the 1980s, political correctness and postcolonial theory were not as deeply embedded in mainstream culture as they might be in 2010. In kindergarten, flustered teachers and administrators who frequently mispronounced my name decided to call me Biddy; the two names are somewhat phonetically similar. In first grade, Mrs. Hart contacted my mother about kids purposely mispronouncing my name. I was called "Bitchy," she said. She urged my mother to respell and anglicize my name so as to avoid confusion and, more significantly, "help me assimilate into the American culture." It had to be explained that "in America," my name "sounds like a bad word."

So I am called Biddy. It is a common Irish name, short for Bridget, meaning "exalted one" in gaelic. The name is incidentally fitting, for the most part. But as in my case, poetry is so often lost in translation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Bona Fide Boat Person

In the dead of a Spring night, 1981, I left the country at 3 months old. My mother nearly killed me and the rest of our party. In the dark, while boarding the tiny boat, she slipped and smashed my head against the rim. My face was bright blue before an infantile shriek could awaken the jungle, and it's jingoistic patrollers. Mother's hand clamped my face shut. Drawing attention to ourselves would provoke consequences severe beyond a child suffocating. Fleeing the country is treasonous. The penalty for that would be at least imprisonment and torture. At worst and most likely, it would also mean death.

It's easy to forget that this road to Hell had been paved with good intentions. Revolutions so often merely hand injustice and power from one group to another.

My grandfather was in jail for 5 years after refusing to succumb to the whims of the new administration. After his release, prison guards who recognized him as a former detainee frequented his home, harassing him and his wife and raiding their pantry for food and liquor. Often he was expected to provide them with dinner, entertainment, and a place to crash. This was the corruption of the new administration.

The night of the rendezvous, these guards showed up at Grandfather's door. If they weren't gone by the time we were to leave, he'd have to kill them.