Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Angel Island

I wrote my first immigration persona poem while at Antioch. I had started researching poems written inside U.S. detention centers: Japanese internment camps, Guantanamo Bay, and Angel Island. I first learned about Angel Island during my undergrad. I was taking a combination class from both the Asian American Studies and Latino American Studies departments on immigration. There were two professors, and they took turns lecturing on their area of expertise. One day the Asian American professor was lecturing on the immigration of the Chinese, the discriminatory ordinances they had to endure, and The Chinese Exclusion Act that barred entry to immigrants based on their Chinese background. And he said in passing, "You know that's when they started writing poems on the walls at Angel Island."

Angel Island has been considered the Ellis Island of the west, but as Ellis welcomed, as it says on the Statue of Liberty "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," Angel Island's main purpose was to keep Asian immigrants, namely the Chinese, out. One of the only ways a Chinese immigrant could enter the country is if he could prove citizenship through relatives already living in the country. The only way to prove such things was to endure hours of interrogation. This created "paper sons:" boys and men who claimed citizenship through false papers. Individuals were held at Angel Island from anywhere from two days to two years.
In 1970, thirty years after the detention headquarters was closed, a park ranger discovered characters etched into the walls of the old living quarters. As immigrant hopefuls were detained at Angel Island waiting to find out their fate, it seems they began to scribe poems about their journey, about Angel Island, about their heartache and hope, on the walls of their barracks.

Back at Antioch I started to research more into this topic. I read the book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. And as I worked Jenny Factor, one of my mentors at Antioch, suggested I try writing my own poem in response to what I was reading, and that's how this project first began.

An interview from Island:

"My family pushed me to come. They wanted me to make a better living. They couldn't send my older brother because he was too old to match the age of my uncle's paper son. I studied (coaching papers) for a whole summer at school. It included many, many generations. I had to remember everyone's name, the birthday, and if they passed away, when. And you had to know the different points of the village, what it looked like. I remember I had an English cap that we picked up in Hong Kong and inside the cap, my father hid some coaching notes, so that once in a while, I could refresh my memory. But I never had a chance to look at them, because you're among people all the time and you don't trust anyone. There was no private place where I could be alone to study them. One time, they were playing catch with my cap and they didn't understand why I was so upset. I was scared." --Mr. Wong, age 12 in 1933.

From my poem “Boy in an English Cap”*

Father hid coaching notes
inside grey lining of an English cap.
I wear it on board President Lincoln
to shield from harsh ocean winds.
I pray it will land in good fortune.
Papers nestling above thoughts;
head aches under the weight
of an English cap, secrets it carries.
English key to a riddle
I do not understand. Father says
it will unlock my future in distant
golden lands.

*Poems I hope to publish at a later time will only appear on this blog in portions.

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