How I Got That Name

Marilyn Chin

 

an essay on assimilation

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g
of "becoming."  Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn."
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn't pronounce the "r."
She dubbed me "Numba one female offshoot"
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the "kitchen deity."
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men are measured.
*
Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
How we've managed to fool the experts
in education, statistic and demography—
We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.
Indeed, they can use us.
But the "Model Minority" is a tease.
We know you are watching now,
so we refuse to give you any!
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
The further west we go, we'll hit east;
the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn't hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of "Santa Barbara"
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a "bitch."
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!
*
Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
peered down from his kiosk in heaven
and saw that his descendants were ugly.
One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge
Another's profile—long and knobbed as a gourd.
A third, the sad, brutish one
may never, never marry.
And I, his least favorite—
"not quite boiled, not quite cooked,"
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—
too listless to fight for my people's destiny.
"To kill without resistance is not slaughter"
says the proverb.  So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.
*
So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack "the patriarch"
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
and G.G. Chin the infamous,
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
survived by everbody and forgotten by all.
She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
it swallowed her whole.
She did not flinch nor writhe,
nor fret about the afterlife,
but stayed!  Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!
 
From The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty by Marilyn Chin, published by Milkweed Editions. Copyright © 1994 Marilyn Chin. Used with permission.

Poems by This Author

from Two Inch Fables by Marilyn Chin
Yellow gold is meaningless
One Child Has Brown Eyes by Marilyn Chin
One child has brown eyes, one has blue
Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony by Marilyn Chin
Gaze gaze beyond the vermilion door


Further Reading

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At the Public Market Museum: Charleston, South Carolina
by Jane Kenyon
Deer Dancer
by Joy Harjo
How Palestinians Keep Warm
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Ladders
by Elizabeth Alexander
Many Asked Me Not to Forget Them
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Nunaqtigiit
(people related through common possession of territory)

by Joan Kane
On the Gallows Once
by Kofi Awoonor
On this Very Street in Belgrade
by Charles Simic
Passing
by Carl Phillips
Post-Dissertation-Intervention (i.)
by Ronaldo Wilson
Prayer for My Unborn Niece or Nephew
by Ross Gay
Snow
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Teach me I am forgotten by the dead
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart
by Jack Gilbert
The Multitude
by Ellen Hinsey
What I Am
by Terrance Hayes