By Emma Wong, TIWP Student
When you stop that elderly Asian woman on the street
Who is hobbling her way down the streets of Chinatown,
Carrying bags of fresh groceries
And a mask tucked over her face,
She already knows what you will say.
She has heard it too many times before.
You can claim you’ve done your research:
That those peasants in China are back at it again,
Eating bats and anything that moves,
That the dreadful virus lives on the skin of every Asian in your town.
Step in front of the woman’s tiny figure
And you will see crinkles from where she smiles too often
In front of her grandkids as she lifts them off the ground and pinches their cheeks,
You will see the tough calluses on her hands
From writing with pen and paper when a phone will now suffice,
You will see her hair, long-gone silver,
Newly trimmed at the salon a few blocks down.
But you won’t address any of that, will you?
Instead, you will spit on her.
She will flinch back and widen her eyes,
Raising her hands as she steps back.
“Go back to your country,” you’ll shout,
Jabbing your finger at her as she stutters something in a tongue you don’t understand.
Language—so powerful, isn’t it?
It carries the stories of families, communities, generations,
Its words are tossed back and forth like ripe dates at a market,
Blending and flowing and ebbing together over centuries.
When the panicked old woman forms those words full of -ers and -shis and –shens,
She is mouthing the sounds of a thousand years,
Of a thousand stories and journeys through dozens of dynasties.
She knows hundreds, maybe thousands, more words than you,
More stories, more tales of Chang’e, the moon goddess; of the turmoil and epics and legends of China and its beautiful mountains and monsoon-drenched soil.
But you won’t listen to those stories, will you?
Instead, you’ll call her things like a “dog-eater” and a “superspreader.”
You’ll tell her again to go back where she came from.
What she won’t tell you is that the country that she came from
Is being ripped apart from the inside.
What she doesn’t tell you is that Hong Kong—
Her province full of bustling highways and speeding subways,
Where the smell of bolo bao, delicious steamed pineapple buns, and cha siu, sweet roasted pork, permeates the narrow alleyways—
Is being silenced with the crush of a thousand fists.
Everywhere there are rules, rules, rules.
Cameras are being installed in schools
So that no student can ever speak up again,
Decades-long running newspapers are shut down in the blink of an eye
Because of what is deemed “conspiracy” against the government
(And that list seems to lengthen each day, mind you)
And the teenagers are being tear-gassed
As they scramble for the tenuous string of free speech that they have left.
What the old woman will not tell you
Is that she feels torn apart over who she is supposed to be.
Every day she turns on the small TV and sees a new incident where a woman just like her
is knocked to the ground; kicked, beaten, shoved.
Every day she feels a shard of her certainty that she belongs here fall away.
And at the same time, every day she sees her own country,
The one she grew up in, the one she left at twenty-three thinking she could come back and everything would stay the same,
Being picked apart by the crows of authoritarianism.
So when you will spit on her in your fit of rage
And scream at her to go back to her country,
You will knock down the fortress that she has built for herself over the decades
Out of old newspapers and worn-out slippers left by the door,
Of photos of her children and grandchildren huddled together in their front yard,
Of thriving gardens of lettuce and tomatoes that she caters to daily,
Of mahjong pieces that used to be gathered on a table as she and her friends started their own Joy Luck Club.
So stop yourself.
Let this be a story tucked away like a sudden thought,
A story untold.
The old woman stands in front of you now,
Questioning and slightly wary.
There are no traces of spit on her face,
No scratches or scars from where your words would have been.
Instead, there is just this woman,
Completely whole, if not a little frayed at the edges,
Completely content, if not a bit tense these days,
And completely, undeniably, irrevocably human.