Winner of the 2019 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship
To support my work and the fine efforts of the Poetry Society of America, you can purchase your copy of Other Small Histories for $8 at the Poetry Society of America.
The following notes accompany my poems in Other Small Histories.
Notes and Addenda
1. Hsu 许 (my maiden name): The pinyin romanization system was developed by the People’s Republic of China, and is most commonly used by most scholars and journalists. I’ve deferred to that system in this book, except for family names where I’ve kept the Wade-Giles system of romanization. For example, I grew up with the last name Hsu. When my father came to the U.S. in the 1960s, Hsu was the last name on all our paperwork, including my birth certificate in 1968. But now, my last name would be romanized as Xu. To change it now would invoke a major identity rant on my part.
2. Gee 朱 (my married name): My married last name, Gee, is common among Chinese who have emigrated from Guangdong province in southern China. In English, the same character might be spelled as Chee or Chu or Chiu or Choo or Chew. In China, the pinyin romanization would be Zhu. When you get married, your Chinese name does not change—you do not take on your husband’s last name but keep the name you were born with. Gee is the same Chinese character as Julia’s maiden name (Zhu). It felt significant that I married into a family with the same character surname as Julia, something I realized only after I’d begun to do this work.
3. (woman’s work) Tóngyǎngxí 童养媳. Direct translation: child support. I stumbled across the story of my great grandmother, who was essentially a slave and mistreated in my great grandfather’s household. Girls married into a family at a young age, but were treated as servants or nannies for several years until the son reached puberty—the girl was often several years older. At this point, she would be expected to sleep with him until she could produce offspring, ideally male. Tóngyǎngxí were often mistreated. My great grandmother was older than my great grandfather by eight years; he was 15 when my grandfather was born. She died young and was forgotten by her own son, my grandfather. My grandfather, mother and uncles don’t know her name or remember what she looked like.
4. (punctum) My great grandfather remarried a year after his first wife, my great grandmother, died. My mother’s third aunt confirmed that while he was quite fond of his second wife, he was cruel to my great grandmother. She had run away several times, once posing as a servant girl in another family, but was caught. She tried to commit suicide. How she eventually died is unclear.
5. (courtyard) My grandfather did not know his parents had arranged a marriage for him. He was studying at Yenching University, a Christian institution, in Beijing, and knew only that he was urgently needed at home. It took him several days to reach the village—by foot, bus, train—and when he arrived he found an abundance of chickens in the courtyard. When he asked what they were for, he was told, “Your wedding banquet.”
6. (an act of repair) Kàngzhàn fūrén 抗戰夫人. Direct translation: lady of the war (or lady of the resisting war). While they were separated from their families during World War II, men often had affairs and started second or third families. My grandparents were separated for five or six years. My grandfather and Julia had a civil ceremony declaring them husband and wife, even though he was still legally married to my grandmother. This occurred most commonly with high-ranking officers and members of the Kuomintang. Because they were a fairly tight-knit group, it was no secret who was the “real” (original) wife and who were the kàngzhàn fūrén. My grandfather lost his position as the deputy secretary of the YMCA because of his affair with Julia. He had graduated from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut with a degree in religious education, so having two wives was especially scandalous because my grandparents were sincerely devout, albeit flawed, Christians.
7. (a night at the movies) My luminous pearl. The name of my half-aunt, the one with Down syndrome, was Liángxùzhū 梁緒珠. There are three parts to a Chinese name: the first character is the family name (surname). The second part is the generational name, usually shared by all siblings (though sometimes girls and boys might have different generational names). The last part is the given name, unique to that individual (the given name usually refers to both the second and third character put together. My half-aunt’s name is interesting because she shares the second character with my mother and uncles, and her third character contains Julia’s maiden name. The third character means “bead” though was usually paired with another character to mean “pearl,” which was my half-aunt’s English name. Pearl.
8. (afterlife) My half-uncle grew up hearing from his mother that my grandfather promised to divorce his other wife. My mother, the source of many of these histories and a bridge between the two families, believes my grandfather probably told Julia this and might even have meant it, but upon facing my grandmother in person, could not do it. Both women were the primary breadwinners for their households, and my grandfather split his time between them, first in China and later in Taiwan. It was only when, years later, my grandmother went to live with my uncle in New York that the strain became too much for Julia. It was clear my grandfather would most likely be spending more time in the U.S., since my grandmother and two of his children were there. Plus, it was America, and everyone wanted to go America. Julia had no means of getting a green card (my half-uncle and his family were in Taiwan with her). It might have felt like the last and final abandonment.
9. (fairy tales and ghost stories) Julia, much less her suicide, was rarely if ever discussed in my family. She was 62 when she passed. She may or may not have had depression or a bipolar disorder, but that was the suspicion. According to my mother, in the weeks before her death, Julia had seemed kinder and more peaceful, and gave some of her possessions away. Julia and my grandfather, my half uncle and his wife, as well as my younger cousin who was just a toddler, all lived together in one apartment in Taipei. The family woke one morning to discover that Julia had climbed to the top of the building and jumped to her death. Her story was never discussed in our family—I didn’t learn the truth of it until I was much older. My cousins (from my uncle and half-uncle) still don’t know large parts of this story.
10. (daybreak) Growing up, I was confused about my half-uncle’s relationship to us—half how? I recall being told that my grandparents had been separated during the war (true). My grandfather later assumed my grandmother, mother and her older brother had been killed, so he remarried (false). When the war ended, he discovered they were still alive (false). In an honorable move, he tried to take care of both families, separately (false and true). It would be decades before I learned the truth, that he’d had an affair with his secretary, Julia, and that they had wed in a civil ceremony despite still being legally married to my grandmother.
11. (at the quay) Julia, who was disowned by her family when she took up with my grandfather, had an older brother who was a professor at the University of Hawai‘i in the early 1960’s. He was there when my mother was studying for her master’s degree in social work at the East-West Center. She met him at a reception and remembers he wore glasses and seemed very scholarly. They recognized each other’s last name—he asked if Liang Chuan-Chin was her father, and when she said yes, he introduced himself. They were polite, but never saw each other again. My mother does not remember his full name. My husband and I have been living in Hawai‘i for the past 19 years. To think that Julia might have relatives here, though not blood related to me, launched me on a search to find them. I came up empty.
12. (par avion) The first time my mother saw her half-brother was on the ship when they were running from the Communists. He was about a year old and accompanied by his nurse—because Julia was pregnant, my grandfather had arranged for her to fly to Taiwan just ahead of them. My half-uncle and the nurse lived in separate quarters on the ship. My mother remembers that he was a handsome baby, and that he wore a white sailor’s hat. He threw it into the water when they docked—my grandfather tried to rescue it, but failed.
13. (obeisance) My mother converted to Mahayana Buddhism in her mid-fifties. People assume she’s Buddhist because she’s Chinese, but my mother was raised in a Christian household. She gave up Christianity a few years after meeting my father (who was also raised in a Christian household). She went through a new-age stage—books by Shirley McLaine stand out vividly in my memory, though she tells me that was a short phase. She lives in a large house in rural Washington with other practicing Buddhists, studying and translating sutras day and night.
14. (taxonomy) “Half in shade” is a grateful nod to Judith Kitchen, a prolific writer who championed the creative nonfiction short form. She passed in 2014. I hadn’t been aware of how much her work would influence me when I joined the MFA program at Rainier Writing Workshop in 2017.
15. (small histories) I’ve been asked about the title of this collection, and why Julia (instead of my mother or grandmother) is named in the title. These narratives exist because of Julia—I wanted to know why we never spoke of her, how my grandfather’s decisions (or lack of them) resulted in shame, embarrassment, and unhappiness for the women he married. I think of my grandfather with great affection—everyone, including his wives, saw him as a kind man—so it is not my intention to villainize him or the men in my family. I wanted to acknowledge these women and understand who we are to one another. When I think about my own daughter and how she did not grow up with these long shadows of whispered secrets—I want her to know about the women who came before her, their hardships, their trials. So, in this handful of pages, a simple tribute. You matter. You will not be forgotten.
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