Michelle Chen

Mama, can you help me with the grammar in my essay?

No, I don’t know how.

Nearly three years after I sold my family out to the dogs I found myself at the Iowa Young Writers’ Workshop on a full scholarship, feeling unreal. When I propelled myself onto the concrete row of words at the beginning of the Writers’ Walk. I inhaled the first engraved quote, then stopped at the title of the book. Housekeeping. This single word brought back years of shame and doubt.

I was born 9,521 miles from the United States and didn’t know a word of English until I was four. My mother spent day and night taking care of me and my sister, and declining finances stressed my overworked father. If I cried too loudly first he, then my mother would begin shouting and hitting me, leaving red imprints and once, blood.

Already quiet, fear made my voice rare. As I grew up with media that showed embracing parents and children whose only punishment was to be sent to their rooms, I clammed up in class discussions. When I entered high school, clubs and teams seemed unattainable as I drew further into myself. Corporal punishment was a central part of my inherited culture, wasn’t it? Memories of red, gold-embroidered décor were already fading away and I was illiterate in my family’s main language. Did I really want to remove more of my heritage? The a-word lingered on my lips but would telling anyone here only mean that I had betrayed half of me by acknowledging western correctness, that I was only the dust that a lesser country had left behind? In the end, it was my own exhaustion that led me to wound my family with an abuse report.

The months and Child Protective Services workers ground by – I had disappointed the people I loved. But before I had spoken up I had been crumbling away underneath my life’s duality. My lengthy love of writing evolved – now I use my memoirs, poetry, and fiction to go straight to the sources of fear and prejudice, self-reliance and courage. And my parents learned too, becoming kinder and more considerate of my voice. After a few months away I caught up with my education and felt my passion and ambition revive. Over the next three years, my fear of speaking lifted like fog.

I continued giving experiences value by writing for the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. At a publishing party for the Fund, a woman shook my hand. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

Halfway through a new piece and a bag of wasabi peas I get up. My mother wants me to sound out English words. I do.

In my wildest dreams from those Iowa weeks I keep the human spirit like a house, dusting silence and fear from shelves and exhuming six-legged indifference from closets. A housekeeping I’m proud of – helping by writing and dignifying experiences.