Monday, April 18, 2011

Angel Island Poems

In one of my first posts I talked about the journey of Chinese immigrants through Angel Island in the early half of the 20th century, and shared the book ISLAND: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. I now realize that I didn't share any of the poetry from the book. Here are two poems from the book that were transcribed and translated from immigrant reflections scribed into the wooden walls of the detention center barracks.

For what reason must I sit in jail?
It is only because my country is weak and my family poor.
My parents wait at the door but there is no news.
My wife and child wrap themselves in quilt sighing with loneliness.
Even if my petition is approved and I can enter the country,
When can I return to the Mountains of Tang* with a full load?
From ancient times, those who venture out usually become worthless.
How many people ever return from battles?

*A Cantonese colloquial term for China.

Because my house had bare walls, I began rushing all about.
The waves are happy, laughing "Ha-ha!"
When I arrived on Island,* I heard I was forbidden to land.
I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.

*The colloquial name given to Angel Island by the Cantonese immigrants.

A facet of the immigrant journey that always fascinates me is the willingness to be cast out into the unknown, the decision to be neither here nor there. I often wonder how this decision is made knowing that venturing out might make you "worthless"? Knowing that this country will most likely see you as worthless, no matter your background, because you don't speak the language. I think perhaps because I was born in the this country, I might never understand what can be worth becoming worthless for.

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