Issue > Poetry
Anthony Tao

Anthony Tao

Anthony Tao’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Borderlands, Frontier, Kartika Review, Cottonwood, Asian Cha, Poetry East West, plus the anthology While We're Here: China Stories from a Writers' Colony. He currently lives in Beijing, where he captains an Ultimate Frisbee team and previously coordinated the international China Bookworm Literary Festival. Follow him @anthonytao

Growing up with Beijing


"Dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere, and never seek hegemony"
      - Mao Zedong

Our families lived
in the shadow of
nuclear obliteration.
They dug because
Mao decreed it -
deeper, harder -
before engineers
installed air locks and filters.
We lived longhand,
planting today
what keeps the idea
of being alive
alive, like saving
the fat off meat
to fry cabbage,
then scraping woks
to extract seasoning
for family stews.
The cities we built
callused our hands
and slept in our feet,
wondrous labyrinths
glowing in tunnels
and dank promises,
proud if only to know
what pride is worth.
You need another
language to describe
what we cherished,
fought and died for,
and killed for,
waiting in the off-hours
on dusty curbs
for green buses
in grit-colored overalls
or pedaling down
the Avenue of Eternal Peace
glancing at our savior
thinking we believed.
We were too humble
to say it out loud,
so we learned
how to toast,
how to walk
under fogcover,
how to swallow trauma
and store it in the basement
of tomorrow, even if
by tomorrow they'd be
flooded and sealed up
like old grudges.
When we realized
God - Mao - could die,
we performed duty
and ablution, looked
at our city permanently
reconstructed,
and did not cry.
Our childhoods would
live on in street signs,
our trees memorialized
by restaurants,
the old city gates,
arrogant and noble,
now traffic circles
and overpasses.
First let a few grow rich,
the new leader said,
and then let the trees
and memories of persimmons
and birds under the eaves
return (he implied),
those days before envy.
But always forward,
no questions of cost,
what desecration can buy,
how much our identities
were written on old walls.
We became distracted
by skyscrapers, malls,
McDonald's.
It was no time
to let silences
speak, lecture us
about price.
We all paid.
We knew then
what none do now:
only we can obliterate
what is ours.
Our children never
have to know
the games we played,
what majesties we knew,
and hopes were harbored.

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