on being chị hai ~ a poem by Kimberly Nguyễn

Light#5 by Môsieur J. (Flickr, CC).

on being chị hai (verse 1)

i am the eldest daughter* of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter

* see also: surrogate mother. i am the fraying thread my family hangs by, my parents’ makeshift boat,
their mediation, their deliverance from one plane of understanding to the next. before my mother was
a daughter, she was a mother to her mother. wanting a mother, she created the next best thing: a
daughter. i came into this world, umbilical cord wrapped around my foot, and this is my origin story.
metaphor—the ultimate connector, a bridge and an anchor. my body—both the tenor and the vehicle,
born to carry this affliction across this life into the next. once, i did not care whether i lived or died,
thought if i died, this curse died with me. i looked at my whole life ahead of me, already promised to
someone else and i was devastated by this fact. someone asked me who i am when i’m not an eldest
daughter. i looked in the mirror and there was no reflection.

on being chị hai (verse 2)

i am the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter† of an eldest daughter

† see also: translator. between motherland — immigrant — new country. by the transitive property, the
tongue—a rubber band stretched thin. the daughter on the phone with the insurance company,
ordering the pizza, calling the bank, chasing away the door-to-door evangelists, the cable tv salesmen.
the first grader sounding out stock market vocabulary, reading my mother the money section of the
sunday paper. what do i send you to school for, she cries at the faltering syllables. i am sent, like a dutiful
guard to a watchtower, to discover and then pass down in reverse a language neither of us has ever
known, to fortify this family for what i can see coming in the tower distance. “translate” is from a latin
root that means “to be carried across”. i am the gatekeeper of what is carried from the past to the
present, the barrier and therefore the bearer between the trauma behind me and the path before me.
the hand strikes me, and i do not pay it forward. the words come to me as weapons, and i disassemble
them and build homes from the scrap metal. but now my past is a barren wasteland of haunted houses
that i’ll spend the rest of my life trying to put back into words.

on being chị hai (refrain)

i am the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter‡

‡ see also: reincarnation. each reincarnation blessed with the power of each of its past iteration. i am the
eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter, the second generation of a family who
bears no sons. i forget now what language it is that says your son will always leave you; only your
daughter will return to you. my father, once desperate for a son, told me never to come back. it is why i
draw the maps, why i mark my path with houses. so even if i never want to, even if i must see my
corpses littering the path all who come after me will tread on, i can come back. i can come home. i can
remember how i got here.

on being chị hai (reprise)

i am the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter§

§ mother, how am i to know if this life is mine/ on the first day/ god said let there be light/ and i
became/ a descendant of this line/ my life was birthed still/ and i’m desperately trying to save it/ why
are you always pulling the plug while i hold the defibrillator paddles/ my life is lying comatose on life
support/ waiting for me to return to her/ i was wrong/ i thought this was matriarchy/ but this is
necromancy/ for centuries, we have birthed urns to carry our endings/ supplanted the same ghost into
a new body/ you say you gave me life/ but you gave me your life/ you cannot keep having daughters
when you need a mother/ i give up this stone cold throne/ this kingdom burns, but i am not a vessel
for the ashes/ here, mother/ i’m so sorry/ i must return to you/ this life that you have given me/ even at
your expense/ this life is not mine to keep/ i pass it back to you/ my daughter, you must be the
beginning/ not another endpoint/ your life—my gift to you/ my life, i’m returning to you/ let there be
light/ even if it shines just for me/ let there be light

Kimberly Nguyễn is a Vietnamese-American diaspora poet originally from Omaha, Nebraska now living in New York City. Her work can be found in Hobart, Muzzle Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and more. She was a recipient of a Beatrice Daw Brown Prize and a finalist for Frontier’s 2021 OPEN and New Poets Award as well as Palette Poetry’s 2021 Previously Published Poem Prize. She was a 2021 Emerging Voices Fellow at PEN America, and she has a forthcoming collection in Fall 2022.

(A poem from this series was earlier published by The Journal.)


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