Sunday, September 2, 2007

Poetry Sunday: Buddha in Xiamen

During the summer of 1992, when I was 16 years old, I spent six weeks in Xiamen, China. The trip was the culmination of a pilot program run by the Abell Foundation that was meant to encourage high school students to study "non-traditional" languages. Freshmen who applied for the program elected to study Chinese, Japanese, or Russian for three years. If they maintained "A" averages until junior year, then they would join the top students from all four participating Baltimore magnet schools for a six-week immersion study trip to Baltimore's sister cities in China, Japan, or Russia.

I was one of nine students who went on the Xiamen trip, which was fully sponsored by Abell. It was an unforgettable experience and a wonderful program, especially for a bunch of kids from East Baltimore. For all but two of us, it was the first opportunity to see what's outside of Baltimore, much less the United States. For most of us, it was probably the last opportunity. Sadly, it seems the program was scrapped; it's no longer listed under Abell's program areas.

My journal from that trip reveals my age ["Hong Kong is so cool, I could just scream!"], but it also chronicles my first real awakening, the first time I had any thoughtful insights about a culture and society that was so different from what I knew as an American. Reading this journal is like watching myself grow up just a little bit over the course of six weeks.

I wrote this poem in September 1994, two years after the Xiamen trip. I think I needed those two years for the ideas to germinate and mature. The poem was first published in The Eclipse, a University of Maryland student paper, in 1997. It was published again in dis*orient literary magazine in 1999.

Buddha in Xiamen

If the Buddha of Prosperity
walked down Zhong Shan Lu,
would he be proud of its squalid splendor?

Would his countenance permit a smile
at the sight of a family of six living
in a room that is the size
of most American bathrooms?

Would his full stomach ache with satisfaction
after sharing a dinner of doufu and mifan
cooked over a wok propped up by cinder blocks
in the middle of the sidewalk?

Would he hold his head high, surveying this life –
a life of blessings that he has given to
the people who worship him with rich offerings
they can’t afford for themselves?

Would his gaze remain noble and dignified
when he looks at the human waste in the street,
at the young mother with empty eyes cradling
a child with thin arms and a swollen belly?

If the Buddha of Prosperity
walked down Zhong Shan Lu,
would the people know his name?
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