I. My grandmother’s first job in America was at a sweatshop is South L.A. She was the buttonhole maker, her hands boiled raw as the ginger she rubbed on our chests when we were sick. My mother was 13 when she started working: when she walked home after overtime, night clawed into her lungs like the dust and rearranged her insides. Every morning she woke up, she felt like a cloth doll with one of its limbs sewn askew, a crooked smile of beads, an eye trimmed away by accident. There were a lot of accidents at the factory: a knee crushed to salt, fingertips plucked off like berries. It was a family affair, mothers and daughters sharing their lunches out of jars. The shadow of the next-door factory knifing through the window. The window so dust-choked the people outside slurred to ghosts. It was a family affair. Our grandmothers talked husbands, the best time to buy a chicken, how many baby blankets they still had to border. During the holidays, they saw the blouses they’d sewn selling at the store for more money than they could make in a life. The year I went to junior prom with a boy who smelled like something burning, my grandmother offered to make my dress. Like she’d made my shirts, my socks, the doll I’d named Tangerine after the color of my mother’s pitted palms. I wanted a dress to spin in, tulle or satin, and no sleeves. My grandmother didn’t like anything in the windows. It wasn’t our style, she said. Wear something collared, she said. Every time an employee asked to help us – always a blond girl from the school across town – she hid her hands.
II. Selected words from Yelp reviews of my grandfather’s restaurant
days of grease
take a life
III. Grandmother, I know you dream of swimming back to the island of your birth. Where sons grow like sugarcane, feed us the sweet sap of their bones. Where all your lost bones remember what it was like to touch you
and touch you. Where papaya seeds pepper our gums and we dance every night in the arms of terracotta boys. Grandmother, in every dream I kill you. The white family that sits by the fishtanks, that orders lo mein and two lemon chickens, the father who doesn’t tip people like you, the mother who once called you illiterate, their son I once kissed under the bleachers, his tongue in my mouth like a fishhook. Grandmother, when you tell me that one in five people are Chinese and I know that is your way of saying
you are lonely.
Kristin Chang is a student in New York. She is melancholic, diasporic, and trying to learn more languages. She is currently on the poetry staff of Winter Tangerine Review. You can find her on tumblr.
Photo by Sophia Yuet See.