The Republic of Salt
We live in the dregs of Flushing, New York, where laundry hangs open and greasy on clotheslines, where snaggle-toothed men whistle at our bodies in slack-jawed Mandarin, where the stench of dead fish and ammonia stains the air. On our block, a lonely tree grows. Its roots extend outward from a patch of parched mulch, running like veins through slabs of dirty concrete. The only living thing in this industrial wasteland.
The tenement buildings sag like rows of crooked, rusty teeth. We sit on their stoops after school, let our yellow skin bake in the warm lemon sun. At night, we blister phantom under the freckled moon. We stand before the fluorescent glow of our bathroom mirrors, press tape to the almond-curve of our monolids, dream of eyes the hue of oceans that sailors drown for. We stand back. Pinch the soft fat lining our sickly bodies. Wonder what it’s like to inhabit a beauty worthy of art films, architecture, the daydream-glossy pages of Vogue. We dream of a day when we’ll look at our yellow faces in the mirror and say, How beautiful. Me, beautiful? Yes. You. Beautiful.
Weekends in Flushing, most of us yellow boys congregate at the basketball court tucked behind the schoolyard. We grope for masculinity in the lyrics of rap songs, the rigid contact of handshakes and fist bumps, the sweat dampening our sleeveless shirts. Feet blurred, swift as wind, we play basketball. Jeer at each missed shot, failed pass, intercepted dribble. Return home before twilight, where our mothers have already set us a placemat. Our mothers, who greet us by our names. Not our American names, but our names spoken in cramped living rooms, the ones our mothers dream of in their restless sleep, those they use to shake us awake. They call us by our names, and for a moment, we flinch. We turn away.
dreaming in tongues
Our mothers sing in a language raw and pulsing as muscle. The blood and sinew of its syllables rot on our baptized tongues. We press a switchblade to the ravaged flesh forking our teeth, pour rice vinegar on the edges of our memories. Sometimes, we still smell the salt of the ocean on our mothers’ tired bodies. We hear the music of a mythological homeland in the lilt of their accents.
Our mothers croon in a language whose shapes no longer fit in our mouths, and we mourn the impossible geometry of what we’ve left behind. At night, when our mothers rub our earlobes in the feverish dark, we cling to their warmth like a second skin. Let the memory of an untraceable bloodline seep into our bones. We think of our mothers uprooting their lives in foreign soil, praying for something better to grow. We wonder if we are that something, if we have done enough. We float into a dreamless sleep.
Memory is an untouchable horizon, one we will spend our whole lives walking toward. It is the blackened underbelly of a rifle shoved down a grandmother’s throat. It is the aftermath of a steel factory: sirens flecking the river delta, faces sunken with soot. It is a child’s ragdoll unraveling into yarn.
At night, when our mothers believe we are sleeping, they retreat to the solitary corner of the kitchen that smells of old leeks and surrender. Lit by the sallow glow of the stovetop, they press palms to quivering mouths, their muffled cries heard only in the space two fingers wide. Our grandparents are negative spaces in the photo albums of our hearts, the timeline of our histories blurred by radio dispatches. The architecture of memory is a war we mistake for home. Its bullets fall, unendingly, and with great violence and politics, upon the body.
At birth, each of us is assigned a body to be buried in, a country to clothe like a corpse. This is how to leave home: with passports thumbed down throats, with flags sutured along the boat-ripped banks.
In school, the pledge of allegiance is a glance shared in the room with another yellow face. It is the knowing silence between us: the motive to a crime scene yet to happen. Meanwhile, our classmates unhinge the anthem from their jaws, a mechanical recitation. Their white bodies fuse into one metallic beast.
If you really want to know, we are the color of 99¢ lemonade at our local convenience store. The color of sand at Jones Beach, where our fathers used to chase us with homemade kites tied to our wrists, the wind humming cool and wet against our skin. Color of urine. Color of dusk. Color of the mooncakes we eat on Chinese New Year, hard yolks stuffed in our soft red mouths. Color of tiger swallowtail butterflies. Color of Dutch hyacinth. Color of the sun and its brilliant, blinding light. We cry, laugh, breathe in shades of yellow. This is the only life we’ll ever know.
At night school, our mothers attempt to purge the Eastern ghosts of their tongues, green cards shredded between teeth. When our mothers pronounce water correctly, the ESL teachers say gooood jooob, slow as if talking to dogs or small children. They frown when our mothers mistake live for leave.
After class, when our mothers walk home beneath the starless dusk, a surplus of white men—bloody drunk, faces eclipsing into blood moons—stumbles toward them. They pinch their eyes into slants, jeer me so horny, love me long time. Our mothers respond in the language of silence, which is the language of survival, which is the language of unbelonging. The white men laugh celestially. Our mothers hold knives to the water in their mouths.
2:00 a.m., the sickle-peared moon hangs above a bloodless velvet sky, beams of phantom light drifting in through the second-floor apartment window. We wake up in crumpled sheets, shivering. A film of sweat paints the canvas of our bodies. From the window, we watch cars whizz past, the abrasive metal of engines echoing through the soundless streets. Where are they going, we think, so fast we want to join them. Leave behind our pasts, our tender sad wounds. Outside, a suite of rain elegizes the blue oblivion of dawn. We listen to its exquisite symphony, let its minor notes pirouette upon our skin.
Good sons and daughters, we stomach ginger root for breakfast, along with the Yangtze and its blanched-bone myths. The origin of hunger is this: a ripe moon and its river children, cheap milk bought in Beijing heat, the husk of a village elder kneeling along the roadside. 孩子, 游泳. Child, swim. Memorize the etymology of this overripe country.
Sometimes, we dream in Mandarin and have no idea what is being said. In the red smoke of the city, our past and future assassins come to greet us. We look up, and in the prism of refracted light, their faces become our own.
Here is a white stone, a white fence, a white tooth, a white jug of milk, a white country. Here is a white bar of soap to rinse out your mouth. Here is a white parasite to invade your body. Here is a white piece of chalk to trace the corpse of your forgotten motherland.
Of course they have scars. No one crosses an ocean just for fun. Their shoulders weary with the weight of a sunken hemisphere, hands stitched with the threads of a muddled lineage. In American soil, they become less citizen, more nomad. The chords of a shipwrecked hymnal hook themselves to their throats.
Sometimes, we find the topography of the Himalayas on our parents’ calloused skin, the rugged syllables of a fossilized language excavated from the tomb of their tongues. We martyr our bodies in the dark, pledge allegiance to no one. Landless as driftwood. Sometimes, we wonder what it would be like to return to China. Yet we fear that our imagined homeland too is nothing but a utopia: u- as in no and -topi as in place.
definitions of america
The Republic of Liberty. The Republic of Freedom. The Republic of We The People. The Republic of Diversity. The Republic of Capitalism. The Republic of Guns. The Republic of the White and the Powerful. The Republic of Blood. The Republic of Television Static. The Republic of Histories, Erased. The Republic of Accents. The Republic of Water. The Republic of Drowning. The Republic of Salt.
a chronology of yellowness (american history, abridged)
1869: Chinese migrants build the Transcontinental Railroad—1,776 miles of train tracks stretching from Atlantic to Pacific, the spark that propels America into modern industrialization.
1882: Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first immigration law to exclude an entire ethnic group.
1922: Due to Yellow Peril—the psycho-cultural perception that the faceless hordes of East Asian people are an existential threat to the Western world—Congress enacts the Cable Act, illegalizing marriage between Asian men and white women. Thus begins the pathology of the Asian male body.
1910-1940: Angel Island, located near Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay, serves as a de facto detention center for hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, and Filipino immigrants. For months, these detainees are interrogated and left in prison-like conditions.
1942-1945: During World War II, under Executive Order 9066, roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans are isolated in “relocation centers” located in deserts and swamplands, questioned for residency and allegiance to their country. After the war, many return to defaced and vandalized homes, leaving them impoverished and rootless.
1955-1975: Kill that gook, you gook! becomes an expression for the phenomenon in which Asian-American soldiers are mistaken for the enemy during the Vietnam War. Some are fired upon or have military care delayed when mistaken for the North Vietnamese.
1982: In Michigan, two white autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, shout racial slurs while bludgeoning Vincent Chin—27, celebrating his bachelor party with friends—with a baseball bat until his head splits open. Chin dies four days later in a coma. The judge sentences his attackers to three months probation, stating, These aren’t the type of men you send to prison. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime, you make the punishment fit the criminal.
2019: Four sleeping, homeless elderly men in Chinatown are brutally murdered. A random, motiveless crime. According to a study from the Asian American Federation of New York, roughly one in four Asian-American seniors live in poverty. Many of them come to the U.S. alone, hoping to support their families.
aftermath of a pilgrimage
Our mothers are the keepers of the four-paned window in the kitchen, catching the dying light between their fingers. Beyond the glass, our mothers see familiar soil sprouting the ripe mangoes they plucked as children under soft summer heat. They dream of a country that fits between their teeth, of constellations of languages plotted above pulsing horizons, of yellow bodies sung electric. We stumble over the desperation of their love the way our fingers stumble over piano keys, a failed attempt at grace.
Maybe there’s no learning curve. No way to navigate the sunken history creasing our palms, or the fault lines of a fractured bloodline, the telephone receiver muted in static. Home is is a word unsung, a parable left to rot in salted ocean wind.
everything we left behind
We learn the imprecision of language from the crookedness of our parents’ native tongues, the curvature of 普通话 blooming like tiny flowers from the softness of their mouths. We mistake drowning for salvation, the sea for home. In the cusp of honeysuckle June, we surrender to softness, christen our tongues with English nouns. Each word tastes of goldenrod and new fortunes, of an autumn where survival is green and endless, and no one’s shadow kisses the pavement. We light candles for the ghosts of our thirst, pray to the moon and its bloodless light. Tonight, the city we once loved now belongs to burning. Even an ocean away, we see the afterimages of unfiltered gunsmoke, of bodies alight with grenades, of blood-soaked rivers left switchblade-thin. O godless life. Pray and prey taste the same in our mouths. Tonight, we will surrender ourselves to the ruination of memory.
In monsoon season, farmers cleave the earth with rain as their weapon. From the heart of the village, rice paddies sweep a thousand black eggs, water children borne from the weeping of the river gods. History is a flood, exhaled with great velocity upon the body. Birthed from a collision of mountain and sea, we once believed we could survive its wrath. Because even as waves pulled apart the prepared flesh of holy cities, as half the world was drowning, we wanted to be the exception to prove our existence. Because all that pins us to this brief and gorgeous life is the rain falling sweetly upon our tender skin. Because nothing has ever held us as closely as water.
In spring, our mothers come home with bags of lychees, steamed pears, ripened mangoes. They share these small gifts with us, their eyes softening in the faded kitchen light. Orbed reminders of home. Soon, the juice of sliced fruit forms small rivers around our chins. Our mothers’ laughter soars in the air like birdsong. And so we come to learn that love is something we can smell. But what we don’t yet realize is that love isn’t actually a noun but a verb. That it moves. Knows the symmetry of hunger and prayer. Tries on this new country like a coat.
a lifetime of ghosts
Dusk opens its mouth, a beautiful wound. In the open streets, our mothers pin laundry to clotheslines while children clamber over concrete sidewalks. An early evening breeze flutters upon the horizon. In the waning golden light, everything transforms into a tapestry of sound and color. The ghosts of our past come to greet us, their voices stretching like blossoms through the tile floors. We watch our mothers through the screen door—the maiden-curve of their hips, the calluses sunken into their cheeks, the soft brown of their eyes. Our ghosts watch with us, yet their silence is not unsettling. Instead, it sounds like forgiveness.
After dinner, our mothers help us with homework. We listen to their crooked English, flowing like the purest water, and have never heard a sound so beautiful. Because we have never breathed so easily as right here, underwater. Because growing up yellow is learning to live. And to be kind. And to know. To know that perhaps the quietness of our existence does not have to mean unbelonging, or ineloquence, or ineptitude. That perhaps this life—this small, beautiful life we inhabit—is, and has always been, enough. Our mothers push our heads into their laps and rub our shoulders, and we try not to inhale. They mouth our names, our Chinese names, and we close our eyes. Stay there for half an hour. Later, we push our heads up and look at the gold of their faces. Our eyes make sunsets.
Jeffrey Liao is a senior at Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey. He is a 2020 National YoungArts Foundation Finalist in poetry, a 2020 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts Semifinalist, and he has received four national medals and a Best-in-Grade Award from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Additionally, he is a winner of The New York Times’ Connections Contest, a runner-up in The New York Times’ Personal Narrative Contest, and a 2019 National Student Poet Semifinalist. While his favorite form of writing is poetry, he enjoys creative nonfiction and fiction as well. He is primarily inspired by the politics of the body, the navigation of history and inter-generational trauma, and the liminality between selfhood and community.