Elevate Difference

The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty

I have always been fascinated by the immigrant experience, especially within America. Being fifth generation American myself, it is safe to say I am quite removed from it. Yet I often do research and write about my ancestors, thinking about what they went through when they entered Ellis Island in New York and tried to make a place for themselves in a strange land. One hundred years ago, Europeans flooded our shores, and today, immigrants from many different countries make their way here. Their experiences are completely different from previous immigrant generations, right? Yes and no. I honestly believe that there are quite a few similarities.

Marilyn Chin's The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty is a powerful account of what the immigrant faces in coming to the United States – the good, the bad and the ugly. She writes lines about Mongolians on horseback and the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, as well as buying groceries at the Safeway in San Diego. She juxtaposes images that are so different, startling to the reader, but this is only a representation of what immigrants truly experience. From one country to another, so completely different in every way: it is startling. While the poet was born in Hong Kong, she was raised in Portland, Oregon, illustrating the fact that being raised in America from childhood does not necessarily negate the confusion and complexity of the migration experience.

One of my favorite excerpts is the following, from the poem entitled, "How I Got That Name: an essay on assimilation":

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g of "becoming." Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea, when my father the paperson in the late 1950s
 obsessed with a bombshell blonde transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn." And nobody dared question his initial impulse - for we all know lust drove men to greatness, not goodness, not decency. And there I was, a wayward pink baby, named after some tragic white woman _swollen with gin and Nembutal.” _

Later in the poem she draws the two worlds together, showing the reader how intertwined they can be. In fact, one might say that these lines sum up the message of the entire collection: “The further west we go, we'll hit east;/the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.” The old world is never far, regardless of how remote it can seem. Traditions, perceptions, feelings, and thousands of years of history are always with Chin and others like her, even if they must scratch the surface to see them more clearly.

Written by: April D. Boland, January 16th 2010