The other day a seemingly nice older man whom I don’t know exclaimed, “I really don’t care for this hot weather—are you from Japan?” Hell yeah, I should have said. In fact, you know that movie Godzilla? That’s based on my life. It makes me want to vomit radioactively and commit zombie homicide, except in my version there is more than one Asian who survives. Our real conversation was not nearly as fun, but at least it didn’t end in violence. Our daughter overheard this and admonished me: “Don’t talk to strangers, Daddy.” – from “Greek Triptych”
Confessional and personal, Bao Phi’s collection Thousand Star Hotel is preoccupied with surviving racial bullying, being a father to a daughter, and being the son of a hard-working Vietnamese immigrant. Raw, vulnerable, and full of heart-breaking, constant sorrow, these poems teach the tribulations of immigration. Dissimilation, forced assimilation, all those dirty back-breaking jobs, all that rejection in school from the cruel white girls and bullying white boys, all the words a father cannot say: all fuel these memory-based narratives.
In the prose poem “Light,” the narrator-father has brought his daughter to the circus. He cannot afford the neon toys endlessly hawked over the loudspeaker, and when he asks his daughter why she doesn’t want to be in the section with the other children: “because I don’t know if you can afford it, she whispers.” Stack this with the memory of his own father not being able to afford a promised circus visit, on top of having to leave one’s country for another fleeing an inexplicable war, sadness is unavoidable.
In “Tourist with Daughter,” the pathos is repeated:
I sit with our daughter at the top of the Space Needle
eating hot dogs we paid tourist prices for.
It’s fine, really, in this place high up, these assumptions
of who we are and what we can afford.
I want to tell our daughter that my dad could never afford
something like this for me.
But what good would that be.
These ideas are then compared to “List of Notable Asian America Poets,” which doesn’t contain the name of any poets:
On a clothesline: a constellation of lynched Chinamen.
then hang dry.
For lexical repetition in a sestina.
Dudes who think they’re more Asian than us
because they married one of us.
Clearly, Phi is not pulling punches. “Allies” are taken to task: “some dudes front like they’re the Harry Potter of antiracism.” As is the neoliberal agenda. “Token Exceptional Asian in Liberal Multiculturalism” ends with insoluble question:
Sliver of Gold
swimming in a rainbow stream.
Are you the shiniest of the school
or are you bait?
Phi attempts to mask his anger and disappointment with wit. Yet, the constant fear of getting mugged, shot, beaten is ever-present. Genocide, slavery, indentured servitude, migrant labor, police, and systematic abuse inter-splice every page, all topped with the constant fear of inadequacy of being a father, an American, a man.
If you are looking for hope, don’t check into the Thousand Star Hotel. If you want a truly raw and American experience, one that just might help explain the day-to-day culmination of white supremacy, genocide, and absurd politics, then Bao Phi has a room with a tough and vital view.