I was there when my grandfather died. I remember sitting by the window watching my father and his siblings drift around his greying body. I remember the touching—hand to hand, hand to shoulder, hand to back—a type of wordless care unique to the ritual of death. When the waiting was over, my father wailed—a sound unlike anything I have ever heard escape his mouth. That uncontrolled sound of sorrow cut the staleness of hospice. I remember his forehead pressed to his father’s. He pleaded in Chinese, father, father, father, as if to call his spirit back into his body or to commit him to memory.
The Chinese word for missing someone is the same as remembering them: xiǎng (想). Remembering and missing, like the sound of my grandfather hocking a loogie into an empty can or the scent1 of my grandparents’ home.
In the 1930s, my grandparents lived through the Japanese occupation of China. They wed during World War II, which, I suppose, is a type of joy in the midst of tragedy. Let’s call it survival. Later, they escaped the rise of Mao Zedong by sailing across the strait to Taiwan. My grandmother was forced to leave her siblings behind and my grandfather would not return to China again until travel between the two countries was permitted. Over thirty years later, the homeland he visited was irrevocably and drastically changed from the one he left. Turning to the sea once again, he spent the last third of his life in America2 and suffered two strokes. It was here that people spray-painted “KKK” in orange across the facade of my grandparents’ house (a prank, we told them). All this to say, they refused to die.
My grandfather was a calligrapher and amateur Chinese ink painter who practiced shan-shui (mountain-water) painting. The fact he escaped The Cultural Revolution and was able to continue painting without fear of imprisonment or death is a wonder not lost on me. By which I mean I am grateful.
1 One part motherland and one part aging into the earth.
2 The literal English translation of America is beautiful country (美國). A country that barred “non-desirable” immigrants from owning homes and land until 1966.
The literal English translation of China (中國) is middle kingdom or country, and the word for native (本地), as in native person, combines the words origin and earth. What does it mean, then, to direct one’s gaze away from the terrestrial borders of one’s homeland and seek the sea?
The word for sea (海) is made of water (水) and every (每), which itself is born from the word mother (母), as in mother of all waters. Vaster still, the word for ocean (海洋) joins the words sea and foreign (洋)3. To seek the ocean then is to become foreign.
My parents’ photo lab shuttered in the winter of 2005. To alleviate financial strain, we sold our house and moved into my grandparents’ basement. In an effort to preserve my adolescence, my mother took me to the mall for retail therapy4. In line to purchase a pair of cheap earrings, we were surrounded by impulse racks stuffed with patterned socks and lip gloss. She greeted the cashier and I can still feel how I flinched at her heavy accent. The woman requested to examine my mother’s ID and she presented it without suspicion. The name on her credit card didn’t match. My mother pointed at her embossed name and I remember how dark her knuckle appeared, like a knot in tree bark. Yuen Yen is her Chinese name. The woman enunciated the discrepancy once more, slower and louder this time. We left the earrings on the counter and like fish bones, her name seemed wrong even within her mouth. Some time later, I allowed my pierced ears to heal and close, though I carried the shame of her for years. Which is to say, I’m sorry.
3 Alone and depending on context, the word for foreign (洋), is also the same as ocean. For example, the Pacific Ocean:
4 The act of shopping with the sole purpose of temporarily improving one’s happiness. It is of course, not actual therapy. The term was first coined in the December 24, 1986 Chicago Tribune article, “A Stopwatch on Shopping.”
My mother is a childcare provider, which means that by no small measure, she helps raise other people’s children. Her fingers, cracked and pained from overuse, have gentled over time. I hate how she loathes her knees, calloused and darkened from crawling. Who started the myth that looking after other people is unskilled labor and undeserving of recognition? Daoyou Feng (冯道友), Soon Chung Park (박순정), Xiaojie Tan (谭小洁), Hyun Jung Kim ([김]현정), Sun Cha Kim (김선자), and Yong Ae Yue (유영애) worked in massage parlors before they were murdered. Which means in all likelihood, while they were alive, they alleviated pain. That with their hands and at the expense of their own bodies, they provided care. When the body is the material one works with and from, it becomes evidence of labor, of tenderness.
To be acknowledged, one first must be seen, yet the relationship of sight to Asian bodies, particularly women’s bodies, has historically been tied to possession5 and power6. It is no wonder that we are warned by our own communities to remain inconspicuous. To live in these American bones, in the midst of anti-Asian sentiment and violence, and in the aftermath of the Atlanta-area spa shootings is to navigate racialized misogyny. I cannot count the number of times I have been patted on the head by men or have had the words ni-hao, saranghae, konichiwa, me ruv you rong time, and herro thrown at me. Anti-Asian racism is inextricable from perceived foreignness.
I am not arguing against distance, by which I mean difference. I want love without the necessity for proximity or full understanding. I want what sets us apart to be held with care—to love what is an ocean away. The closeness of the words sea and see warrants attention. It asks what would it mean for the Other to be seen without possession, fear, pain, or death? Looking, as in looking after. I am talking about tenderness.
5 Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman in America, lived her life on display—eating, drinking tea, and walking under the devouring gaze of white Americans.
6 In 1885, in Tacoma, Washington a white mob dragged a pregnant woman down a flight of stairs and marched her along with 350 Chinese people out of their homes (burned to the ground days later) and into the surrounding wilderness. I am from just north of Tacoma and was never taught this history.
Duffy, Mignon. Making Care Count: A Century of Gender, Race, and Paid Care Work. Rutgers University Press, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj9gr.
Grant, Nicole. “White Supremacy and the Alien Land Laws of Washington State.” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, University of Washington, 2007, https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/alien_land_laws.htm.
Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. One World, 2020.
Lanzendorfer, Joy. “’I Saw My Countrymen Marched out of Tacoma’.” Edited by Dana Snitzky, Longreads, 20 Feb. 2019, https://longreads.com/2019/02/18/i-saw-my-countrymen-marched-out-of-tacoma/.
Lee, Pamela M. “Our Names: An Open Letter to Asian Sisters*.” October Magazine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Apr. 2021.
Manuel, Noah. “Visit to Miss Afong Moy The Chinese Lady.” Northampton Whig., 19 Nov. 1834, https://digitalcollections.jtsa.edu/islandora/object/jts:8700.
Sen, Mayukh. “A Kind of Blueprint: The Radical Vision of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée.” The Nation, 20 Aug. 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/theresa-hak-kyung-cha-dictee-essay/.
Schmich, Mary T. “A STOPWATCH ON SHOPPING.” Chicago Tribune [Chicago], 24 Dec. 1986, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1986-12-24-8604060073-story.html.
About Rachel Hsu
Rachel Hsu is an interdisciplinary artist who works with visual art, language, and poetry. Inspired by absence, relational ruptures, and slippages in translation, she engages the yearning that emerges from distance and displacement to make mental exertion and emotional endurance felt within one’s body. Her work has been exhibited nationally including Philadelphia and New York, and has been featured in APIARY Magazine and the forthcoming Volume 38.5 of Interim. She holds an MFA from the Tyler School of Art and Architecture where she now currently teaches, and a BFA from Western Washington University. Originally from Seattle, WA, she is currently based in Philadelphia, PA.