blackmail press 17
Renee Liang
new zealand

They call me a banana
A heung-jew
Yellow on the outside,
White on the inside.

So, I’m being compared
to a curvy piece of fruit
grown from a palm
somewhere in Ecuador
a heung-jew,
a fragrant fruit.

I don’t think I’m all that fruity
But I could be wrong.

you’re calling me a banana
with my yellow skin
prone to a little freckling
in my riper moments
and slanted eyes,
ching-chong they called me at school
straight black hair
that could never hold a spiral perm
and a propensity for being the teacher’s pet.

I suppose I could call you back
a coconut or gook or honkey
or nigger or wog or curry-eater
but it wouldn’t tell me anything more about you
though it may tell you about me.

Banana is a term
flung by Asians at other Asians,
it’s a reproach,
a squish in the face,
a comment that we have abandoned our culture.

It’s a subtle knife in the back during yum-cha
By my mother’s friends,
Those I have to call “Aunty” and “Uncle”

but it tells you nothing about me.

It may be true
That some of us bananas
hang around in bunches
and discuss our marks,
drink pearl milk tea
complain about our parents
bring disgusting things to eat for lunch,
and the rebels among us
have gwei lo boyfriends

But it still tells you nothing about me.

Peel me
go on
crack my top
and strip me
layer by layer
and underneath
this blubbery skin
is white, yes.

There’s white,
the Kiwi part of me,

but there’s a core
of seed-yellow
all the way though.

Go on. Take a bite.
it may surprise you,
who I am.

Guei-lo is the Cantonese equivalent of Pakeha/Palangi

©Renee Liang 2005 Auckland, 30/4/05-1/5/05


a shop lady smiled at me
and said,
“Your English is very good”

her eyes crinkled
in a let’s-be-nice-to-aliens way.

I wanted to say

-of course it bloody is,
-I was born here,
-how about you?

But of course I said nothing.
hardly her fault
we Asians all look the same

Maybe  I should have
tattooed on my forehead
except then
I’d be told off by my mother.

My mother.

When I was born
I slept in Chinese
I fed in Chinese
I cried in Chinese

pooed in Chinese even.

Mother and father
left their English
lying around the house
like lollies

they knew I wouldn’t touch
I was good then.

We kids built houses
with wooden blocks
painted with Chinese characters.
We fought over
longer characters
on bigger blocks,

better for building walls.

My mother used to say,
“No talking English at home!”

I’d brought it home like a disease
from kindy
and infected my sisters.

By the time we were teenagers
my mother was getting tired
from yelling
“No English!”

Once my sister and I decided to start speaking French.
We thought we were being smart.
Even though we weren’t too good at French.

English was my camouflage.
As long as I wore it
talked in English
dreamt in English
ate in English

even shit in English
I couldn’t be too Chinese

could I?

In Hong Kong
I am swept along the pavement
by a torrent of Cantonese
and shop ladies crinkle their eyes
in a let’s-be-nice-to-aliens way.

“Your Chinese is good,”
they say,
“for a foreigner”.
©Renee Liang 2005

Conversation on Aro Street
For Barbro

today you told me to save myself
& how you were too old now
to die young and lamented
but that I still had things to do

(such as write poetry I supposed
& find a husband and have cute babies
& generally
get a life)

& in case anyone thinks
we were being too melodramatic
I’ll say now that we were trying to cross
Aro street at the time

& there are some pretty vicious drivers out these days
on Aro street.
I agreed
life was short enough as it was

without getting killed crossing Aro street
for two avocadoes, a bag of mandarins
& some tomatoes
but I disagreed with you

about the old and unlamented bit
& it wasn’t just being polite
or that I was grateful
to stay in your house

I just couldn’t see how you could
disappear from this earth leaving
just the empty woolen cowl
of your jersey

and no one notice
the empty space between the lines

like the zebra crossing
we decide to use.
©Renee Liang Wellington, 20/5/06

To a Husband
“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress.” Anton Chekhov.

The keys are on the bench
still warm from nine years and nine months
in my white coat pocket,
nine years of wearing my name and a smile
hung from a rope around my neck.

The keys. Still warm,
worn from trying to fit
to so many locks, so many stories,
to histories,
none of which fit me.

I wrote them all down.
Wrote them down, in handwriting that slid
off the page when I was tired,
scuffed my shoes down lino corridors
the right heel wearing down first

pushed buttons on a machine to strengthen
the coffee
washed my hands between patients
tried to take only one towel each time
kept smiling.

In the early days when we went out
I remember how proudly I wore
the white coat you gave me
the heady feel of your gloved hands in mine
the beat of the oximeter marking our breaths

but even then you demanded of me
absolute devotion,
jealous of my time,
piling rosters and journals and exams
against my escape on Saturday nights.

Once you put your arm around me
whispered we’d be together forever no matter what
but, barren
I milked the smiles of babies
belonging to others.

You woke me at nights
to ask if I still loved you.
You chained a telltale canary to my hip
to remind me of my promises.
You had me constantly watched.

When I found someone else to love
I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know why.
You found out in the end anyway
you in your pinched mouth
prim pouted way,

you with your contracts
your rosters
and your moving goal posts. In the end
I just couldn’t run fast enough
and there you still stood blowing your whistle.

Honey, I tried. Sorry it didn’t work out.
The keys are on the bench.

©Renee Liang Rotorua, Sunday 27/8/06,
(Last day of fulltime work in medicine) and 3/9/06

The Villa of Reduced Circumstances

For Ross and Barbro

I see how this house has grown
into your shell,
how it has rearranged itself
a polyglot
of zigzag ceilings
and walls built with books,
of teeth and porcelain frogs
and one-eyed monkeys and empty costumes and wooden angels
of nooks for storing ornaments
and sometimes
small children.

in the morning
the tropical shower steam
meets the cool stillness
of the garden
while you count the number
of right-wing articles
in the morning paper
a deaf dog watches me eat cornflakes
and I smell the coffee you make,
dark and rich.

in the afternoon
you make Swedish buns
by feel
the flour tossed lightly
as your conversation
the yeast crackling and alive
the dough pliant
twisted together in two strands,
a knot tied to show only
part of the sweet cinnamon filling.

In the evening
a trumpet welcomes me in from the street.

©Renee Liang Wellington, 20/5/06

Renee Liang is a second generation Chinese New Zealander, patriotic Aucklander, and occasional paediatrician. As well as poetry she also dabbles in writing plays, short stories and is editing her first documentary.  She is an MC at Poetry Live on Tuesday evenings in Ponsonby, Auckland, and is also a member of the Guerrilla Poets whose mission is to bring
poetry to the people by means of chalked poems and other poetic stunts.