Three Chinese Silences

31 January 2013

Chinese Silence No. 22
after Billy Collins, ‘Monday’

The Italians are making their pasta,
the French are making things French,
and the Chinese cultivate their silence.

They cultivate silence
in every Chinatown on the persimmon of earth–
mute below the towers of Toronto,
silently sweeping the streets of Singapore
clear of noisy self-expression.

The Americans are in their sport utility vehicles,
the Canadians are behaving reasonably,
but the Chinese remain silent
maybe with a cup of tea or an opium pipe
and maybe a finger puzzle or water torture is involved.

Or maybe the Chinese are playing the Chinese
game of ping-pong,
the pock-pock of the ball against their tight-lipped mouths
as their chefs dice scallions and bean curd.
The Chinese are silent
because it is their job for which
I pay them what they got for building the railroads.

Which silence it is hardly seems to matter
though many have a favorite
out of the 100 different kinds–
the Silence of the Well-Adjusted Minority,
the Girlish Silence of Reluctant Acquiescence,
the Silence that by No Means Should Be Mistaken for Bitterness.

By now, it should go without saying
that what Crocodile Dundee is to the Australian
and Mel Gibson is to the Scot,
so is silence to the Chinese.

Just think–
before I invented the 100 Chinese silences,
the Chinese would have had to stay indoors
and gabble about civil war and revolution
or go outside and build a really loud wall.

And when I say a wall,
I do not mean a wall of thousands of miles
that is visible from the moon.

I mean a noisy wall of language
that dwarfs my medieval battlements
and paves the Pacific to lap
California’s shores with its brick-hard words.

Chinese Silence No. 24
after David Sedaris, ‘Chicken Toenails, Anyone?’

We are all just animals
a pinch of human feces
scrambled eggs duck tongues
tentacle-like roots

What do you say
we go oriental?
And the egg rolls …
can you imagine?

They allowed you to brown bag
wads of phlegm
in the men’s room of a Beijing subway station
I looked at her thinking, You whore

I have to go to China
I’ve never looked forward to it
like twice-baked potatoes
or veal parmesan

It’s more real
I could dislike it
more authentically
than the sound of one person

then another
dredging up seeming
from the depths of my soul
using the other as a blowhole

In China something kept holding me back
the leg, the breast, etc.
hacked as if by a blind person
made entirely of organs

Yes, I must
shit in the produce aisle of a Chengdu Walmart
Yes, I must
disintegrate in the western-style toilet

Chinese Silence No. 46
after David Gilbey, ‘Intercultural Communication’

At the end of this poem my readers, true blue Aussies,
will buy me a beer at a dingy suburban pub.
Ply me with pies, burgers, and schnitzel
and charge it to the Chinese guy in the corner.

To return the favor, I will recite
my newly composed poem on Chinese silence
with its girls hiding their giggling mouths with their hands.
They call me mister. But I will change one of their vowels,
using the privilege of the international writer,
and make myself their master.

Everyone’s silent after my orientally delivered words.
What did I say? I’ll ask, my voice quiet as a girl’s.
But the joke’s on me. My listeners’ Chinese faces
say, now let’s hear you say that in a country of women.

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