In my gym shoes, I drew the striped blocks
of my Japanese name, strained
and skewered during roll call
until I sounded like an exotic bird
or an Asian cell phone brand.
People used to ask my mother
where I was adopted. She did not give me
her tall frame, pale eyes, or wheat-colored hair.
Nor did my father give me his language
because I needed to sound like the American
that I am. I learned that What are you?
is a question of geography
and the voices that ask will bray
even louder if I say something smart
like girl or American or simply
human. After an hour of WWII history
my sixth-grade crush followed me
into the girls’ bathroom
to tell me about his grandfather at Pearl Harbor—
weren’t the Japanese stupid, wasn’t I ashamed?
I appealed to the teacher for reinforcement,
coffee-tongued grimace, square-shouldered barricade
and heavily punctuated breaths informing me
that, in fact, they were stupid
for messing with America. He later uncrossed his arms
and conceded to the fifth period study hall
we are fortunate to do business with them,
that they gave us good technology,
and he showed us his Seiko watch. That afternoon
we and they meant different things.
When my grandmother was a child,
she saw the orange plume,
a dancer’s sky-blown veils billowing
against a hushed horizon.
Squinting, she cradled it in the crook
of her saliva-webbed thumb. To her,
it was beautiful. What are you?
is a question of histories and how many
one can hold all at once.
I lecture my composition students
on how to say and spell my name
and a nineteen-year-old English major
tells me that in his interview with the Naval Academy
they are asking boys if they can drop bombs
without thinking, to save America. He adds
his resounding Yes.