53

Filled with apologies
pooled on your tongue
blurted out into the air
without an ounce of meaning–
because your mouth
is full of them.

As if embedded in you
like mercury in
fatty tuna flesh,
you can’t even say
what you’re sorry for
just that you think
you should be.

Feeling apologetic
you’ll say anything to be forgiven
to be rid of feeling anything but
adoration;
what a waste it is
to impress
a proud person.

The first person who died from
rhubarb’s poisonous leaves
probably thought that no good
could come from this
and now, centuries later,
we learned from those mistakes
and we make pie from the stalks instead.

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52

It’s easier to assume this isn’t yours
because when it leaves, you
won’t feel disappointed.

After all your hard work
and all you have achieved
that milestone on the horizon
just out of reach
and success just doesn’t taste
as sweet as you thought.

This word, ‘just’
like a small favour to yourself
grovelling, “please, just finish this now
and relax tomorrow,”
putting necessity aside to
cross your to-do list and finally consider
this belongs to you.

Sometimes the weight of every paper stack
misaligns your spine
topsy turvy, too
aching for equilibrium.

If you fall behind because you need rest
to find your calm
thankfully, your work
is not the centre of your universe;
you are.

51

A border drawn down my spine
of believing in me
and believing others

If we were put here
to compete against our neighbour
it’s no wonder my fists are callused
and yet I still feel
defeated

Your achievements are not
my shortcomings
I’ve spent my whole life envying strong women
until I realized maybe
I’m one, too

All my failures, and their embers
the ashes of every rejection
of something done wrong and tried again
I’ll gulp the fear of not being good enough
dust off my dancing shoes
and just do my best.

50

Addiction like
a familiar fiend
staring down the bottom
of a porcelain bowl
I forfeited what I believed
I didn’t deserve.

Finding my old self there
the one who spiralled to this moment
a girl who used to believe
that size zero had gravitas to it

I felt comfort in the past
of reminding myself of who I used to be
and all I still have left
to become.

Progress is progress is progress
and relapse is not an eclipse
just a moment within this large expanse
of forgiving oneself
for turning out the light
before it got dark.

A paper boat may not sail the seven seas
and may not get to
the finish line first
but she is still a boat
and she is still
getting somewhere

49

Alone in a crowded bar
with nothing but the
ringing in my ears, I
can finally hear myself think.

Drunk off an invisible high
of every lyric falling off my tongue.
Dozens of other pairs of sneakers
sticky checkered dancefloor
a roar of us singing a song they wrote
back at them.

The bass kick like an echo in my bones
reverberating through me as if
I’ve carried this beat
every day of my life.

I once heard that no two people
hear the same song.
How many people in this bar
had their heart broken to
the tune of a song I loved?

I biked home, humid summer
sweat dripping off my nose onto the
pavement I’m leaving behind, hurriedly
I wondered if I was being
rinsed clean.

I went to a Lydia concert a few weeks ago and still think about it now. A bar filled with a hundred people knowing every lyric, this is the song I waited all night for. I’m still listening on repeat.

Thanks for coming by!

Love,
ELLE

48

My family began on the sea
fleeing a country to enter another
in high hopes of
a happier life.

My mother recounted stories of
explosions during lecture time
she fled so I would
never know what
that sounded like.

My parents worked laboriously
to keep our lives moving.
They often sighed, broken-backed
that we’d have nothing to inherit
when that time came.

I remember all five of us
decorating our artificial Christmas tree
trips to the community pool in summer
long car rides to amusement parks

Homemade birthday cakes with our names drawn on,
playing cards in candlelight
Blackout of 2003
and I know for a fact that they were wrong –
there is nothing in this world
I’d rather inherit
than this.

47

As long as I can remember, I wore Nguyen like a shirt my mother forced me to put on. I was bombarded by my peers with, “Hey, my cousin said his best friend has the same last name as you. His name is Tommy—are you related?”

During roll-call, my teachers would see a line-up of two Nguyen surnames and sigh like it was a chore to sift through and memorize us. She never did that for the three Smith surnames at the bottom of the list.

My friends would hear any Asian language and ask, “What are they saying?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that language.”

“Oh, I thought you would. They all sound the same.”

My father would call me and I would respond in English. He would growl, “Answer me in Vietnamese, please.”

My surname always felt like a bag to carry. I was always being compared to so-and-so or some restaurant that bore the same name. I felt the farthest from individual—it constantly felt as if people needed a concept to ground themselves in, before they could fathom, “Hey, it’s just a name.”

From when I was nine until at least 16, none of my friends even knew I spoke Vietnamese fluently. I never brought Asian foods for school lunch because I was terrified to be made fun of. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be just as bad at French as my peers were—even though Vietnam was a French colony for a lot of its history, and in fact, I was pretty fluent because a lot of the words were the same. I wanted to melt into this suburban mesh that I wasn’t designed for.

When we were children, kids would ask if I’ve ever eaten dog. The first thing I would think of was that my Chinese Zodiac sign is the Dog, and it means that I am honest, reliable and considerate. I’d laugh off the joke with those kids and pretend it was funny.

There are even people today in 2018, who ask me, a 23 year old adult, if I’ve ever eaten dog. In Vietnam, there are some beautiful domestic dogs in my friends’ homes, who are adored and coddled. My considerate nature only goes so far—I tell them to go fuck themselves. I don’t know anyone who has ever eaten dog, not even people born and raised in Vietnam. And so what if they did? None of our business.

I hated everything about my surname for a very long time. When I moved from suburbia to Toronto for university, I met dozens of Asian students who were unapologetically so. They brought rice and egg omelettes and watercress to class. They answered calls from their parents in their native tongue. They asked me why I was so ‘white’.

“I thought I had to be.”

The world is raving about Crazy Rich Asians. They’re obsessed with this glimpse into the lives of people they previously weren’t interested in. Representation matters so much; this is a film that celebrates Asian diversity, that celebrates those of us who dealt our whole lives trying to make our names easier to pronounce for someone else’s convenience.

In many Asian cultures, you’re identified as surname, then given name. You’re introduced as “This is Nguyen, Nhi Michelle.” Because your family comes first. Because your story begins and ends with the origins you grew into. I’m sorry to my past self for forgetting that. I’m sorry to my past self for stifling all I could have become because I was scared of what others thought of me.

The truth is, I’m filled with pride to be who I am. It took me a long time to reclaim everything I used to hate about myself. I answer calls alternating in Vietnamese and English. I read in French if I want a challenge. I’ll get bánh xèo whenever I feel like it.

Be unapologetically you. Don’t forgive those who try to demean that. You’re the sun’s first light on Tết, you’re a cart of kêm sold on a hot humid night. You’re you. And you’re worth more than the mould you’re forcing yourself into.

Love,

ELLE