Happy National Poetry Month. I thought I would celebrate by sharing some of my favorite poems from the Angel Island Immigration Station.
Angel Island was the point of entry for almost 300,000 immigrants coming to America from 1910-1940. The majority of those immigrants (around 175,000) were from China.
The process of immigrating and landing on American shores differed greatly from what immigrants experienced on Ellis Island. Officials processed immigrants in 2-3 hours on Ellis Island. On Angel Island, immigrants were detained for an average of two weeks. That average only tells part of the story. European and Australian immigrants who landed on Angel Island were sometimes detained overnight. Chinese immigrants were detained months.
While they were imprisoned on Angel Island, Chinese immigrants vented their frustration on the walls of the men’s barracks by carving and writing tibishi poems, poems of travelers. They are beautiful windows into the immigration experience, and I have always thought that they are still relevant to what many immigrants from all over the world face today. They tell of sacrifices and hopes. They beat with frustration and pain.
I have pulled a few of my favorites from Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung.
Here is one that I often read and re-read. I can picture a man carving into the walls of the barracks at Angel Island, and I can also imagine it typed into an email sent home yesterday. That is the power of these poems for me. They capture the experience of leaving home and following the whisper of a hope that there might be possibilities somewhere else. I think that is a familiar experience to people around the world.
For what reason must I sit in jail?
It is only because my country is weak and my family is poor.
My parents wait at the door but there is no news.
My wife and child wrap themselves in quilt, sighing with loneliness.
Even if my petition is approved and I can enter the country,
When can I return to the Mountains of Tang with a full load?
From ancient times, those who venture out usually become worthless.
How many people ever return from battles?