My Culture, Our Culture


Three children skipping
over rocks, their bamboo slippers
smack the gray gatherings of fine grains,
their small lips parting wide for Mandarin shouts,
pink zigs and pinker zags beneath inquisitive sensing,
and upside-down bowls shatter, flying straight black hair into the wind

Today the curved roofs above hold themselves upright as
cicadas flit, trembling in their song

Three children skipping
rocks with their left hands, their slick shoes clutched in their rights
For if it were the other way around, there would be no challenge
Standing right where the sand’s getting wet with salt, and hollow
shells turn glazed and whole, luscious, like the
lobster she gets for dinner and they’re wiping from her plate,
like the lacquer she wears on her nails trickling from the brush, the
sweat down their foreheads to their eyelashes
Glazed and whole, the bottoms of their sandals,
shaved smooth from so many adventures through and around
waterfalls, and under veiny leaves

Two young adults studying
calligraphy in separate quarters some years later, she
at the cool marble terrace table
A lantern supplants the sunlight-turned-moonlight, her
ink pen scratching the rough parchment, as he,
in his creaking bed in the basement, scratches
his brother’s name into his palm with his fingernail,
dirt-caked as it is, leaving fleeting indents by the blue veins
protruding from his wrists, until she rings for water

Two young adults studying
each other in the moonlight from opposite ends
of a square marble table, a glass emptied over a lantern at its center
Actually look at each other for the first time
in some years, for she had asked him to stay
Instead of his unfamiliar, deepened voice obliging her with
“hao, xie xie,” he stared at her
stoically, again her equal
The ball between the teeth of a stone lion rolls
easily, but is too large—impossible—to remove
She glimpsed past his standing figure a koi, its mouth
surfacing from the pond below, just inside the water’s frame,
those grey gatherings which polished their old sandals
It blabbers hungrily, glimmering white in a green-black hell
It pulls her away first, pushes her onto the lantern’s handle, and up,
and over the fence, against the terrace heavily, watching the candle
smack the fish’s head, dead dead
dead and smooth in the water

Tonight the curved roofs above hold themselves upright
as cicadas flit, trembling in their song


Chinatown, seven years old
Mother and I in all-purpose store; blazing past packaged foods, school supplies, and walls
of circuits and cords on our way to get next item on shopping list
Glance to right as we enter another aisle. On the shelf just above eye-level, see packages of—
is that money?
Slow down as she plows forth
Mother always okays grabbing grapes from fruit stands, always opens packages
before purchasing to make sure everything’s there
Break through flimsy plastic and count out one, two, three, four one-
hundred dollar bills. At home,
put one on each pocket of Daddy’s paperwork folder, one under
older brother Sammy’s pillow, and the last one under my pillow
Fall asleep excited. Wake up and everyone is tense. Wash hands
with Sammy in the kitchen sink after throwing out money
Daddy tells me: It’s not real.
It’s death money, the kind burned at funerals.

South Bronx, fourteen years old
Daddy told me when I was little how he and Mother earned about one-hundred dollars
each per fourteen hour day. Unbelievable.Standing—no, leaning, after
just four hours—at the counter,
taking orders, working the cash register, and picking up the phone
Need a break

34th St, six years old
Huddling and crouched on a towel on the street with Sammy,
surrounded by people with necks craned equally as far
as ours, struggling to see the Macy’s floats and balloons
Parents behind us, chatting in Fujianese through the November air, smiling
and nodding when we point out the spectacles coming our way
Only day out of three hundred and sixty-five they both take off of work
Restaurant doesn’t serve turkey anyway. Thought we could have a family day
when I took the death money

Queens, fourteen years old
Interviewing Mother for English paper. One hour in
and finally learn the details of the vague stories she uses to teach me lessons
Pulled out of school in eighth grade to work in a sewing factory with
her mother, a career which lasted fifteen years
Ask her what she wanted to be. A teacher, she says.
Realizes she’s talking to me, and corrects herself: No,
a doctor. You have the chance to follow my dream now, and help people,
and be rich

Queens, fifteen years old
Sammy starts wearing expensive, designer clothing
No idea how he affords all of it—doesn’t have a job, and we only get
twenty dollars a week for lunch money. Gets arrested stealing
sushi from Stop N’ Shop. Daddy comes home from restaurant and asks me
What do I know? Nothing. Screams
“Fuck you!” before slamming the door and driving to the precinct
Watch the steam rise from the soup in the kitchen
Here, now
Still don’t want to be a doctor. Never want to have to
worry about money. Hoping my family
will be proud of me
Not sure where I’m going, but know I want to write
I want to write their stories, I want to write my stories,
I just want to write stories


I am from the gray heavens of Lima and the red dirt of Independencia
a part of a whole trying to fill holes-but what do I know?
apples lipsticked red from constant nourishment,
and mountains purple in majesty, and all their unwant
I am from forty minutes a day
in Spanish class flipping through Exprésate,
from the accent on that e worth a fourth of a point
on a test-is this how they measure how we do our best?
I am from the self-dubbed Drama Llamas (we go crazy for llamas),
from all the Inca Kola, cerviche y causa our soles buy and our tongues roll over like r’s,
from empty suitcases of substance and heart
when our sojourn is over but our colors don’t part

I’m from fingers linked with those of orphans,
from Spanglish conversations and Prince Royce’s No lloraré,
No lloraré, oh I won’t, shed a tear

I’m from eyes lined thick to cover weariness and loneliness, eyes swept clean
after Raúl points to them, slanted, and everyone laughs
(you’re slanted)
I’m from the late night whispers and tears Natalie and I share in our Peruvian-Asian American
(because that happened to me too)
I’m from children’s shouts of Mamá, Mamá!, and their panicked chasing after our van
when we leave, godforsaken

I’m from the mothers of Independencia,
who bind cloth to their backs to carry their babies, feed all six of them with 100 USD a month,
and curse their runaway partners as fervently as they worship God
I’m from the abandoned, crumbling houses kids’ dirty, rough hands wander in,
from the puddles on soccer fields they beat us on every time,
and the holes in the nets, and the holes in the clothes
I’m from great wishes-a doctor! a policeman! the president!-and
the gangs that surround them
I’m from a huge concrete wall in a place where a dozen homes can be destroyed by ground shifting
from six times the quantity of twelve wheelbarrows of dirt, ninety shovels of rocks,
and five bags of concrete mix, plus water plus manpower plus manpower plus manpower plus

I am from handfuls of sand seeping past my hands,
from a warm fire in a cold desert night,
from endless needles of hope piercing the black sky,
from I wish I may’s, and I wish I might’s
I am from years of kneeling at the foot of my bed
to greet the same stars
I am from years of newspapers read on the subway
about the same wars
I am from crunching Central and Van Cortlandt Park gravel beneath running shoes
and gushing New York City summer rain beneath dancing feet
But I will always be from footprints winding along, under red dirt and above gray heavens


Supposedly these animals came from the circus
If you close your eyes you can imagine them dancing
Now open your mind and approach the beast
and touch its wild trunk
It’s not what you expected
rough and hairy when all you’re used to is
New York smooth city
Try to look in her soft brown eyes but suddenly
she’s pulled away and goes back to eating

Swinging around streetlight posts
feet tapping around each other
sliding on cement as if
the city’s ground was cellophane as if
you didn’t keep it down it would rise and wrap you up
Shooting words upwards
cocked already knowing they’d be lost
A ritual circus routine is what you live
You can’t make cellophane a roof of the world

A pigeon’s as wild as it gets by home
Scrutinize the forgotten pigeon corpses
those lifeless flying rats
Choke when car after car storms cartilage
and guts into road when pigeons swoop down
and peck at stale bread sitting next to carcasses
Gaze as silhouettes of the red-eyed fowl
beat their wings against the wind
push themselves forward until they soar
and flock out of tunnels in hordes
Dark winged bullets against glaring headlines
and then the starless sky
you ask if one of them maybe many more than just one
has ever wanted to tuck its wings close against its body and beat itself
against walls and trees and let inertia
carry it to wherever the laws of physics stop
to wherever the desire to succumb to darkness takes over

Watch her wild trunk wrap around stalks
and shove them into her mouth
still alone from far away

Karen Zheng
Age 17, Grade 12
Stuyvesant High School
Gold Key

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