Archives for category: Amphibious

My grandfather Motiram settled in Chiang Mai, working first at a watermelon farm and saving his earnings to purchase the beginnings of his small business in textiles. He started very small, and took his bolts of fabric to communities that were not used to commerce and opportunity coming to them. The people of the hill tribes around Chiang Mai became his loyal customers and also his friends. I believe they — Motiram and the hill tribe people — must have shared an understanding of what it meant to be outsiders, immigrants, people in search of community and home.

 

His idea came in a flash,

the momentary blindness that

comes from looking at the sun,

even just for seconds.  When

the spots of light floated away,

he saw what he could do.

His investment:  three bolts

of cloth, one under each arm,

one tied to his back, and a

shiny pair of scissors, hung

by a string from his waist,

catching the sunlight as they

swung back and forth.

 

When they saw him coming,

leaning into the hill, arms

full, something shiny

dangling along, they

were curious.  And when they

understood that he had

brought this cloth to sell,

they were surprised.  He was

not asking for anything –

no food, no shelter for sleep,

no favors at all.  He was

bringing something.  No

one did this.

 

The villagers ran for

their money.  Hidden

away, buried in the dirt,

rarely used.  They gathered

around the man.  As he cut

the fabric with a zip of his

scissors, the women’s eyes

sparkled with the vision of

children darting about, bright

clothes swirling, of husbands

in fresh shirts, even of themselves

draped in flowing color.

My grandfather Motiram left far northern India when he was a very young man. He came from a poor family and was seeking a better life. He was a Hindu, and the part of India where his family lived later became Pakistan. Many in my family have told the story of his travels to Thailand, looking for a new home. It sounds like an epic journey, one that defined who my grandfather would be for the rest of his life. What he did not know was that the journey also defined his children and grandchildren and how we see ourselves in the world — as people who came from somewhere, even if we are still seeking a place to call home.

Motiram had travelled far,

and he was tired.

He had carried his pack –

everything that was his –

over mountains, across

salty ocean, farther and

farther away with each step

from what he knew.  Would

he see India or his family

again?  He met whole

worlds of people along

the way.  They had their own

language and food and

laughter.  They were kind.

But in the black night, he

listened to the rustle

of bats and the hum

of mosquitoes, and felt

the empty pit of loneliness.

What Motiram did not know

was that the next morning

the sun would rise and he

would set out again.  That just

over the next mountain

was a place he would someday

call home, people he

would call his community.

Looking back, he would not

be able to point to a day

when this happened. It did

happen.  And though he

could remember the lonely

night before, it was the many

happy days at home that

slipped so quickly by.

Last spring, my cousin in this story came to Minneapolis with his wife and two adult children to visit. I have only seen him a handful of times as an adult, and it always seems surprising that he is now a grown man. My memories of visiting Thailand as a child include him — a lanky, laughing boy with a buzz cut and the school uniform of navy blue shorts, white shirt — and our adventures together. 

 

Light streams through curtains of dust.

With my cousin I climb, each step waking more dust.

Hooked on our fingers like elaborate rings

are several small straw cages,

tiny birds cheeping inside.

We come into a room, wooden beams, wooden floors,

empty, but for sunlight from the windows at front.

Dust, wood, light – these muffle the busy sounds below.

At the windows, we lean out to the sunshine.

And then we begin:  taking one cage at a time,

we open it, sending each bird into the light.

I am interested in the idea of inheritance — gifts from those who have left our earthly world. They might be material, but could also be intangible. The inheritance of language, names, physical features, mannerisms, all matter as much, or more than, money and things. My grandfather did leave things, but the inheritance I have and most love from him are the stories my family shares. This is my memory of the things — the money is gone, but the story remains.

 

The evening dragged on.  The lawyer

and my two uncles sat in the

living room, talking quietly.

For the daughters and children

of daughters, the talk hardly mattered,

and we sat around the table

eating longan fruit.

Sticky juice ran down our arms

and brown skins spilled over the

edges of the bowl.  Grandfather

was a Hindu.  We knew

everything would go to the sons.

 

“Slap!”  Papers

thrown angrily on the table.

An uncle’s loud voice,

our silence, another uncle’s voice.

The nervous lawyer, speaking

softly but too quickly.

“They are arguing about money,”

my aunty said.  The words

ran, fast, climbing higher, until they

started to descend, breathing

slowed, and the uncles

sat down again.

 

And then, as if from a dream,

someone threw handfuls of

money into the air.  Money from

Grandfather, I suppose.  Screaming with

excitement, we jumped up to catch

the money as it came down.  Colorful Thai

bills floated above us, suspended in the air

a moment or two.  Breath held, silence,

eyes focused on the soft flutter of

reds, greens, blues – nothing but

paper, but everything we had

at that moment – that seemed to rise

higher before dancing down.

Sound returned, arms reached

high, children crouched low,

crawling between the legs of

adults, reaching for our inheritance.

 

This memory of my grandfather — my only one — is among my first and most vivid memories. From it, I have been able to construct an image of him that matches the stories I have been told. I am very aware of how difficult it is to discern the truth from images and stories, but this is what I have. So I hold it close.

In my memory, the room is dark,

but sunlight filters in from somewhere above,

casting a dusty light.

A red carpeted path divides the room.

On either side are tall stacks of

paper, boxes, and bolts of cloth.

My grandfather sits at the end,

behind an enormous desk.

Dark skin, heavy eyebrows,

thick hair in streaks of

gray and white and black,

and light clothing that glows

in the dark room, against dark skin.

He is large, a giant.

I have only this one memory.

Lack of memory is nothing, weightless.

But this one pebble I hold tight.

I am afraid of losing it.

As I follow the long red path,

I feel small, but sure.  I have

done this before.  I am not

afraid of the light at the end.

When I finally arrive,

he lifts me onto his lap.

He takes the tin from behind.

It was the tin I wanted.

He opens it, the sugar smell

cuts through the dust, and

he offers me a biscuit.

I was four years old.

I have often thought that one reason for religion and spirituality is to grapple with the mystery of those no longer with us. How do we explain the power those we loved have over our lives, even after they are gone from the earth? Their presence continues on in some way, guiding us in how we, the still living, carry out our lives. My human, mortal self longs to understand the world the dead inhabit, and for a deeper connection to the world they left behind.

 

The day Grandfather died, he came to life for me,

woke up from murky memory, grew colorful in

stories.  The world – it grew larger, too, drawing

me deeper in and around it, connecting me

to the rhythm of life, not just mine, but others,

family, living and dead.  It was as if Grandfather’s

matter was reaching out to me, holding me closer

to the earth.  I have not been to the Ganges,

where his ashes float with those of others in my

family I have never known.  When I do, I will ask a

pundit waiting on the banks of the river to look

in his book, and find record of all the names of

my family brought to the river.  All

mixed in there, in the silt at the bottom, at the

muddy banks, flowing in the currents are the

dusty remains of my family.  I will cup that water

in my hands and feel the flow of relation running

through my fingers, and know them as my own.

On this coldest of winter days, I am remembering a phone call that interrupted our summer. I was nine years old and my grandfather had died. It was hard to know how to feel. He was so far away and we hardly knew him. My brother, sister, and I thought we should feel sad. But mostly we acted sad because we did not know what else to do. We had not lost anyone before. Now, in losing someone, we were learning what it was like to have him.

The phone call landed on a summer day,

our summer day of bragging about camp,

of dares and exaggerations.

It came from Thailand and

our grandfather had died.

The news fell on the adults heavily,

but for us it sat uneasily,

not knowing how to feel,

and spoiling our day.

We had not known this grandfather.

Now we did.

Before, Thailand was faraway

and fleeting:  ice cream and

cousins I would soon forget.

But, hidden on the steps,

listening to the adults whisper,

I felt the presence of others

of my tribe whispering, too,

beyond the walls of

our Midwestern house.

Loss and gain, both at once.

Who was this grandfather,

whose permanence

in my life had come at death?

I was fascinated by my parents’ grown up rituals — shaving, make-up, getting ready for their adult world. I reached for the mystery of it, so present in my daily life, yet so far away from my own childhood routine. Religion was the same in my family’s experience. I observed my father’s prayer practice, hands cupped around his Buddha charms, moving with his breath as he kneeled. When he wasn’t looking, I fingered his display of small Buddha statues and ragged postcards next to his bed. My parents observed my world, too, taking me to Catholic mass on Sundays. Somehow, our different experiences came together, shared but not shared, connected by our interest in each other. 

In the mornings,

I watched my father shave.

Perched on the edge

of the toilet seat,

I studied the glide of metal

over skin,

cutting rows through

white cream.

 

And my mother,

with her dots of lotion

and colored powders.

Opening eyes wide –

like an upright doll –

for the wand of inky mascara.

Lips stretched,

smacked,

dabbed.

 

I reached into their adult world

in the same way I reached for prayer:

watching the blur

of my father’s praying hands,

the quick slip of Buddha charms

inside his undershirt,

where they beat

alongside his heart.

 

They watched, too.

Perched on the edge of pews,

they watched over the

prayers of my world,

committed to observation,

and something more:

to reaching toward my life

a little, to stepping

just barely inside –

not into knowledge or

understanding,

but simply into view.

For immigrant families, starting a new life also means leaving something behind. My family, like so many others, left names. When my parents became U.S. citizens they dropped our long, difficult Thai name Komutdang and adopted the shortcut my father’s students used. “Mr. K” they called him. So we became Kays. My birth certificate has the old name crossed out, but still visible beneath the line, and the new one typed in next to it. My maternal grandfather had also been an immigrant, leaving India for Thailand. He chose a Thai name to match his new home. Though my name, a mix of our Indian/Thai roots and our new American identity seems completely mine, I recognize the fragility of both name and identity.

It rained on my birthday,

so they named me rain.

And, along with my father,

Komutdang,

I might be a red lotus,

floating on quiet water.

But with birth

comes assimilation

into the world,

where tiny feet

are pressed into ink,

onto paper,

and planted in

the soil of new life.

The lotus does not grow

on the Great Plains.

Here, rain comes dark

over the horizon,

with the rumble of thunder.

So the image evaporated,

sky slowly swallowed water,

leaving behind

just echoes of sound,

shadow of letters,

the fragile inheritance

of names.

Do you remember the feeling of the swing set, legs pumping, head tilted back, heart beating? I remember it well, and the moment of daring, of jumping off and flying through the sky, not knowing exactly how I would land. That memory  inspires this poem, but another memory as well. I was just four years old and I remember my mother telling me we would travel soon to Thailand to visit our family. We were standing at my bedroom window, looking out at the night and the swing set in our backyard. At four, that swing set was the edge of my world. I must have known that night that those borders were about to change.

From my bedroom window,

long past goodnight,

I watch the metal chains

sway in the moonlight.

Creaking the sound of air on steel,

bending lazily in the invisible wind.

I remember the power

of a summer afternoon

and take off:

the ground paces slowly at first,

then slides below me.

Legs pumping, heart beating,

I tilt my head back, look up:

the sky blurs by,

a sparkle of blue and sunlight.

Close my eyes –

fly through this life.

The arc of the swing is this world’s

revolution.

Air streams by, brushing against skin,

my stomach soars, then dips.

I jump off,

waiting for the moment

when body is at the edge of the sky,

suspended above my whole world,

and I decide where to land.