Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Hear America Singing

“So it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be,
In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.”
-America for Me by Henry Van Dyke

I got an email this week about homesickness, and sure, I get it too. Moments of desperation where I just miss America STUFF. Voodoo Doughnuts down on Burnside, reading the Willamette Weekly over someone’s shoulder on the Max, garbage disposals, Netflix, eavesdropping on idle chatter in dark movie theaters, dill pickles, buttered popcorn, pick-up basketball games at the Bo Jackson Gym, coffee after art films at Cinema 21, my junk mail shredder, drive through pharmacies, and the smallness of Portland, bumping into acquaintances at the airport or Multnomah Falls or along the promenade at Canon Beach and the quaintness of our northwest American corner making us all feel like old friends.
In fact, that’s what I miss the most. The people. How do you replace loved ones when you’re far away? You don’t. You can’t.
I remember when I was young and in love for the first time, before the internet or instant messaging, living on my parent’s farm out in Colton when even telephoning town was a long distance call. Instead, I relied on letter writing, waiting days, even weeks some times to receive a reply from some wayward girl that had no idea how much she was torturing me. Those were the times I found writers so helpful, especially American writers. I would sit in the hayloft of the barn flipping through anthologies of Dickinson describing the Amherst Train and Holmes Old Ironsides. This is where I first read Sandburg’s Jazz Fantasia, and Hughes The Negro Speaks of Rivers, e.e. cummings Portrait VIII of Buffalo Bill and Thayer’s Casey at the Bat. But mostly, this is where I found Walt Whitman. Down the long winding gravel road through the Christmas Tree farms stretching from our house on the flat green grass and straw fields to the mail box along Unger Road, I would stroll and read. Finally I would cross the highway to sit beside a wooden fenced gate to pour through Leaves of Grass.
One of my favorite Whitman poems then was I Hear America Singing. His carols of the different personalities of our country forever changed how I saw the world: the mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman, shoemaker, wood-cutter… “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…” It’s a moving portrait of what makes America great.
I was reminded of this on Mother’s Day when I couldn’t be with family and instead needed to get out of the house so I didn’t go bezerk. We took the girls by taxi to the ‘Building Country Market' across town. At least that’s how its name is translated in Chinese. It is a three to four square block area inside a run down and depleted building with vendors and shops encircling the outer rims. Here anything can be found. Fish hawkers shouting prices of fresh shark, swordfish, octopus, and live seahorse. Buddhist monks beating wooden drums and begging for change. The vegetable sellers, with their head scarves sitting beside plywood tables full of brilliant colored leaves, dirty carrots, and thirty different kinds of mushrooms. The meat packers, standing amid racks of hanging raw flesh beneath naked bulbs, or the poultry man in rubber boots spraying down his cutting area with a hose, smiling at me to take his picture, showing me he uses every part of the bird, nothing goes to waste.
There’s more, electric in smell and vibration. Vintage clothing shops, hand-made suits, cramped restaurants with old men slurping noodles and smiling children handling money in their parent’s massage parlor. I hold Xi’an and Rebekah tightly as we pass each store front.
“This is how they live. Look.” I would whisper. My girls are full of questions.
“Are we going to live this way too?”
“No, we’re just passing through.”
My answers never suffice. What I want to say is because we are Americans. Because we were born blessed and rich and that means my daughters will not have to work seventeen hour days slaving like their parents in sweatshops without the chance to go to school and try a different trade. Yet even writing that now sounds trite and erudite and makes me wince at myself. So I just hug them instead. Tell them Daddy would never let that happen.
Leaving I ask for clarification from SungJoo and she explains ‘Building Country Market’ means a kind of independence. This market has existed long before the city of Taichung came into being. It was on the backs of these people the city was formed.
We pile into the taxi and instantly hit the rush of traffic and the sweltering heat of asphalt and exhaust. The girls start coughing, they’ve been sick off and on since arriving in Taiwan. We think it’s the smoggy air. I hold Lauren Kinu in the backseat and start thinking again of Whitman and the different carols. All those faces in the market, I’m sure he would have seen them before.

“Oh, it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
I want a ship that’s westward bound to plough the rolling sea,
To the blessed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.”

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