"the shu nu"
Recognized by Scholastic with National Gold Medal
The Shu Nu walks, legs long and graceful,
on the squeaky white tiles of high-end stores.
The Shu Nu sits, knees touching, leaned delicately
to one side, in the glass bus station.
The Shu Nu picks up a piece of
delicately chopped cucumber, one hand holding
chopsticks, the other
carefully cupping underneath.
The Shu Nu speaks
not unless spoken to,
and when spoken to, she answers
in a low voice, so as not to startle,
Shu nu has no direct translation.
In Chinese, it means something like
“elegant, obedient girl”.
It is a term commonly used
to describe the type of girl every parent
should try to raise their daughter to be,
the type of girl every husband
Shu nus fill Chinese romance shows
like flocks of sheep;
they spatter the fronts of magazines
and advertising posters
with wide, shy eyes
and white sheet skin
and red lips slightly
almost as if scared;
they serve at restaurants and hotels
bowing every time they answer
a customer’s question.
I should be more like her.
there is internal submission
to the larger ways of the world.
They see hua yi, they see eagles—brave and free;
these are the ones who have traveled to the land
across the ocean, whose skins
have worn their country’s colors with pride, whose souls
have expanded with newfound individuality, whose tongues
have strengthened enough to
speak beyond the script.
The Shu Nu enters the public bathroom
and splashes cold faucet water onto her face.
She stares at herself for a long time in the mirror,
pressing her hand against the cold silver surface.
If only she could step through the looking glass
and become the hua yi.
My feet turn outward with each heavy step
that echoes in the tunnels of underground markets.
I squat, jacket dipping in dust and crumbs,
in the smog-filled streets.
I use my bare hands to grab slabs of
sauce-covered roast duck,
stuffing the meat greedily
into my mouth.
when told not to speak,
and my speech often clangs and screeches,
scraping against the edges
of taboo, of controversy.
The name they give me is lao mei,
“old” American, the mother of which
is lao wai, foreigner,
It is a term that invites subtle hostility,
and simultaneous curiosity.
Foreign children of Chinese parents
are watched closely as they travel
these are the ones
who have forgotten the shapes
and the shades
of their native language.
These are the ones whose skin
have darkened, whose souls
have fattened, whose tongues
have sharpened enough to
the common etiquette.
My grandparents and aunts and uncles tell me
Being a shu nu, they say, is about more than
being lady-like. Shu nu are
Beyond external appearance,
This is the right path, they tell me, and by right,
they mean oldest and smoothest.
But I am not liquid,
I do not flow like water through the paths of
the known world. I
am brick, solid and stubborn.
When I plant myself down,
I am loud and firm.
When I move, I crash and tumble and cause
When I see shu nus in the streets, I see swans,
but when I watch more closely,
I find their eyes gazing back at me.
I enter the public bathroom
and splash cold faucet water onto my face.
I stare at myself for a long time in the mirror,
pressing my hand against the cold silver surface.
If only I could step through the looking glass
and become the shu nu.
For a long time, we linger there,
side by side
Then, we both walk away.