Hong Kong figures both as an early childhood memory and sometimes as a what-if question in Dorothy Chan’s latest poetry collection Babe. What if Chan’s parents had stayed and didn’t take the family to the United States, where Chan was born? What if Chan could grow up with a grandmother who was always around rather than someone she saw just on visits across the ocean?
Chan’s verse is straightforward and the Hong Kong parts are especially visual. In “Triple Sonnet for Beauty Marks and Flying to America” she reminisces about her extended stay in Hong Kong and a dreaded return back to the United States.
Age 4, I’m on a plane
and the flight attendant hands me a kids’ meal
of gummy bears, a fruit cup, and a hamburger,
and I cry because of the burger, I cry, because
how will a girl like me fit in when we land
in America—I cry over the Coca-Cola Jell-O
and camel-shaped cookies I baked with Grandma
who calls me her “America Potato,” and isn’t it
ironic that at four, I don’t want to move back
to the place of my birth—I already know this
on the plane.
And in “Love Letter to Jello Salad, Time Travel, and My Mother,” Chan wonders about her mother’s teenage years in Kowloon, a simpler time that took place earlier in the decade Chan was born.
of the alternate history of sixteen-year old me building
a time machine and traveling back to 1980s Kowloon,
becoming friends with my mother, and this realty’s just
beautiful, isn’t it? I’d visit her childhood home, the size
of a celebrity’s walk-in closet, as Grandpa arrives home
from work overseas, and my teenage mother’s on the phone
with her friends, and my Grandma’s outside in the heat—
long hours at the pajama stand, local aunties and moms
Chan also addresses growing up in a Chinese family with expectations that are based on her gender. In “Triple Sonnet for Chinese Girls With No Humility”, Chan’s brother perpetuates these traditional gender roles even though he’s of the generation where there should be more equality.
My brother tells me to have some humility,
and I know this is an old Chinese standard
talking, or like my father says, women were
once judged for marriage based on their manners
at the dinner table, meaning a silent bride
is best: Be quiet. Compliment his mother’s
cooking. Eat your whole bowl of rice.
Also in connection to her Hong Kong Chinese identity, Chan writes about dating—both men and women—and in “A Poem About Killing Off Your Homophobic Characters”, she addresses the confusion other people, including her brother’s wife, have expressed about this, even though, of course, it’s none of her business.
I swear, the homophobic women my brother loves are one
recurring character in the soap opera of my life, where the actress
is replaced mid-season, and no one notices.
She doesn’t have a fan base. But of course, every show needs a villain
(or two), and the writers are writing their way out of her storyline,
Because no one needs a homophobic villain. It’s television at its laziest,
And I think about how my brother’s current wife paints me as a
villain—a bad Chinese girl because I will never worship a man
simply for existing.