The Angel I Never Knew

In loving memory of Chen Shanjuan

The only photo I’ve seen of you is black and white
But every time I think of you,
I think light-

Like sunlight,
The way it triumphs the night every single morning to rouse my windows
Brushing through my hair, dusting my eyelids awake;
Like candlelight,
My sister’s fingers quivering as she lights yet another Ecoya,
Its flicker caressing her breath, lulling her pupils aglow,
So I wonder if maybe all the light in the world once gathered to hold hands
Just so you could wear it,
And I think,
Nai nai must have had the brightest halo.

I think flight,
The way father and I migrated like birds;
He, 35, packed his life into a suitcase and flew across the ocean,
And I, 18, crossed a sea to take it a step further-
Together spanning three countries,
Never once questioning why we so longed to soar,
And I think,
Nai nai must have owned a sweeping pair of wings.

I wonder if one day we were to somehow meet,
And you saw me for the first time without knowing, you’d recognise me anyway;
Perhaps from the length of my fingers, the slant of my eyes, the swell of my hips,
All speaking inexplicably like home;
If you’d listen to my voice and
Even swathed within another language,
Hear your echo in its timbre.
You see, these legacies must have originated somewhere-
Your heirlooms must have propagated somehow.

Nai nai, I write a lot now.
I spent a childhood listening to father’s stories,
Catching the words that fell from his tongue,
(Were they yours once, I wonder?)
And now I knit my own tales, with my own happily ever afters,
Ones I’ll someday pass on to my children.
But oh, how lovely it’d be if I could alter them instead,
Because if I had the chance to rewrite your story,
I’d have changed the ending a thousand times over.

So from now on, I’ll think white,
The colour of polished enamel.
Maybe I chose a lifetime of fixing smiles,
Just so I could write the way you laughed onto as many faces as possible,
Because if one day
Someone who had known you told me
There was something even vaguely familiar about the curve of my lips,
I don’t think I’d ever stop smiling.


Pieces of You

Still now, I find pieces of myself that belong to you,
Like discovering sand in my pockets long after a trip to the beach,
They burrow in old wounds like grains of salt.

Most of the time, they are quiet, wallflowers amongst the party of my memories.
Introverted, as if they are ashamed to exist;
She’s suffered enough, they must think.
Letting her forget we’re here, this much we can do for her.

Other times, they are confused,
They ask after you-
Why they have not seen you in a while,
If you’ve been well, when you’ll be back,
But I don’t know how to tell them you’re not returning;

So instead, I talk about breaking up,
How it looks like the place we met, the one that has since closed.
Sounds like your favourite song, the one the radio loves to play.
Tastes like your name, and anyone who shares it.
Smells like my lobby, where someone else wears your cologne.
You were the first one to touch my lips, after all,
And every time I kiss now it feels like break-up.

Then there are days when they unravel, snake around my lungs;
On hazy mornings after waking from a dream about you,
When I have never been more disappointed to see sunlight,
They dig their nails into my brain like an archaeologist willing for the past to reignite.
When you post a photo with a prettier girl who shares my smile,
One my wilted muscles have long forgotten how to write,
They sink their teeth into my heart like canines who have just learned how to bite.

There are evenings when I bump into you on the street,
Almost as if we’d planned to meet,
And they plead at me to reach out and hug you.
On nights when I cling to tequila like a lifeline,
They scream at me to call you,
Reciting a series of numbers I’d long since forced myself to forget,
And every time I pull me back into myself, I know I have won a battle
But somehow, this feeling is anything but victorious.

You see, I don’t know how to open the door to these pieces without letting your smile leave too;
The one, I am ashamed to admit, I still use to keep warm on bitter winter nights.
I don’t know how to cut these pieces out without tearing myself apart in the process.

On better days, I sing lullabies to the pieces of you as I tuck them in at night;
About love, about how it’ll return someday.
It may have a little less height, but hug a bit more tight, smile a fraction more bright, and feel oh-so more right.
Sometimes love can adjourn, take a turn, leave a burn, but love will always return.
And sometimes, I can almost believe it myself.


I wish you had tried to fight.
You see, I am the daughter of a soldier-
Fighting is all I know how to do.
Until the rivers run empty, until the mountains stand crumbled,
I will learn to swim on dry land, I will learn to climb thin air.

That’s why when I felt you shrinking away, I fought to fill up the space.
See, I stepped up for you, stretched myself thin for you, put myself out there for you.
I talked to make up for your stillness,
Throwing sentences at a blank wall that never bounced back,
Until I grew sick of my own voice.
Until I realised
I’d never be able to find the words to make you stay.

It was the night neither of us were completely sober.
We held hands in the back of a taxi, but only out of habit;
There was nothing left to say except admit that maybe this was the end,
So we opted for silence instead.

And now we sit in the storm, faces wet;
Yours from the rain, and mine not.
I beg the thunder to be quiet, for fear of missing you speak.
Please, break the silence, instead of my heart.
I promised myself I’d give us one last wish,
And now it’s 11:07.

Four minutes thirty-three seconds left to tell me you need me,
You can’t live without me;
Until the rivers run empty, until the mountains stand crumbled,
Tell me you will still love me.
I am still yours, I don’t know how not to be.

So at 11:11, I shut my eyes and start to wish,
But the clock ticks over to 11:12 before I can finish.
When I ask you later why you didn’t fight,
You tell me you could have,
But it probably wouldn’t have been worth it.

And perhaps you’re right.
Because you see, I once crossed all my fingers, made a wish on every star I laid eyes on-
Until the rivers run empty, until the mountains stand crumbled.
But maybe the sky got confused, and crossed our stars instead.


You tell me about a dream you had last night;
How you couldn’t remember it,
But you woke up with a heavy feeling on your chest-
So I know it was about him.

Do you still think about him?
Sometimes… but only before I sleep.
Because you won’t remember it the next morning?
No, so maybe he’ll pass through into my dreams.

You say how whenever you’re in a crowd and you catch his scent,
Even now, you still stop to look around, convinced he’s near you.
I tell you thousands of men must wear that cologne.
I know, but still.

So I ask if you believe in parallel universes, in alternate endings.
Yes, I like to think that whatever I didn’t get in this universe exists somewhere in another.
Then there’s a universe out there where you and him are together?
Of course, of course,
Maybe there are multiple universes where we are together.
Do you ever wish that this was one of them?

But you don’t reply.
Instead, you tell me you think you are too fragile for happiness;
The exhilarating kind, the kind that shoots through like an electrical current-
There’s no other way to explain why I screw it up every time.

I ask if you are afraid of the next one.
Sometimes I think I don’t even want there to be a next one.
You say what you fear most now is to see him on the streets one day, his arm around someone else,
The smile on her face so familiar, it wears almost like home-
I was her once, you know,
I had her smile too.

And what would you say to him?
I wouldn’t.
I don’t know how to talk to him without accidentally letting him know I still love him.
But if he already knew?

In another universe, I might have been happy for you,
If only I could convince myself that you are not my perfect ending.


When I was born, my parents gave me a Chinese name,
One that wore like a Made in China label across my chest,
Which didn’t bother me
Until I realised the connotations ‘Made in China’ had in today’s society;
Until I realised how similar the oriental syllables of my name sounded to the ‘ching chongs’ sung mockingly on the school playground.

When people asked me where I was from, I told them,
New Zealand.
I was born and raised there,
Always making it a point to slip in my birth,
A way of compensation for this name that does not sit flush with their tongues,
As if spending anything less than 100% of my life there deems me too much of a foreigner,
Of an immigrant.

So later on, I decided to change my name to something simpler,
Something that didn’t play touch-and-go with peoples’ tongues;
Something that could be found in the dictionary.
I can’t tell you how happy it made me the day Microsoft Word finally stopped putting a red line under my name.

My mother always told me the most basic form of respect you can show someone
Is to learn how to pronounce their name, properly,
So I wonder what it says about me that I no longer speak the name I was given-
Pushed to the back of my throat, pushed off of my birth certificate,
Syllables I still can’t speak without tasting childhood racism.

It is hard to love a country
When you are reminded of racial slurs more than you are of its customs and traditions.
I am the girl who does not know how to talk about her culture without it becoming a rant about racism-
Being told to go home in a place I call home,
Disparaged about in complaints of stolen jobs and claims of rising house prices,
Like it is a crime to have fled for something better.

I want to tell them about my mother,
Who gave up leather heels
So her daughter could run barefoot on green grass;
Surrendered her voice
So her daughter could speak a new language,
Gave her a Chinese name
If for no other reason than as a souvenir
From a land she will never know well enough to call home.

So when they tell me my last name will always wear like a tail,
Following onto every form, every application,
Stamped across resumes and IDs,
The last bit of me caught in the bamboo ceiling,
Tell them this language that stumbles so hesitantly off of my tongue
Is spoken fluently by over one billion people.
I have worried so much about being marginalised
That I forget this culture I am trying to dissociate myself from
Is the one that propagated today’s 40 billion dollar tea industry,
And this country I don’t know how to appreciate
Was the one to give me the ink and paper I so cherish today.

Remind me then, before it is too late, that there is no shame in the menial jobs my parents worked to provide for a family;
Remind me it is not my place to apologise when people pronounce my name wrongly,
And please, remind me to ask my grandmother for her tea eggs recipe.

I changed my name from a Chinese one to an English one,
And now, I am praying that I have not lost my identity in the process.

The Written World

Does it ever scare you, how much you will never read?
Because I am sure that the answers to every question I’ve ever had
Have been written somewhere, sometime.
Maybe it’s in another language, or halfway across the Earth;
Maybe this world is even romantic enough for me to find it washed up in a bottle,
But surely, I am not alone in my thoughts.

How wonderful it is, the way my mind doesn’t know what to do with written words
Except read them;
Read them, with the well-practiced voice in my head.
But there are people out there who can speak their name
And not recognise it on paper.
How strange it must be, to look at the English language and see nothing but whimsical doodles,
Mistake letters of the alphabet for odd lines and squiggles.
What a privilege it is, for me to read as easy as it is to speak,
Slide through sentences like skating across ice.

You have the power to understand scientific journals, great literature,
Yet you squander it by scrolling through social media.
Fashion trends and diet crazes,
Nourishing your body instead of your mind,
Replacing words you’ve learnt with rows of emojis.
How many times have you reflexively written ‘student’ under occupation
Without realising how fortunate you are to have an education?

These nights, I’ve been reading the dictionary,
Wrapping my tongue around new words
And gifting them to my vocabulary.
I nurture my lexicon like a cherished plant,
Crafting sentences to use words I’ve missed seeing;
Writing it down on paper
Just to feel my pen curl around these letters like a long-lost friend.
The ink gives itself in to the paper,
I give myself in to words-
They are an extension of my fingers.

So tell me that one day, I will find something-
A person who words cannot describe, maybe,
Or a question words cannot answer,
When I’ll finally be lost for words-
Naked, vulnerable.
Let me know that it will be frightening;
Of course it will be, when I’ve built a life around words.
And when I ask for the solution,
Tell me it lies not within the pages,
But written in the stars.


For Sarah (happy birthday!)

I wonder if you are looking out your window tonight
At a skyline of unfamiliar silhouettes,
Buildings so tall even the stars can’t help but bend down and kiss them.
How utterly strange it is, for you to be so far away,
For us to breathe the same air, yet see different skies.
The constellations must have changed there-
I wonder if you can still see the Southern Cross.

This is the city we grew up with in movies and magazines,
Splattered across social media and travel ads,
Landmarks so iconic we knew them almost better than the ones at home.
The name tapping against the backs of our teeth,
As our tongues fumbled around an accent too-posh-
I wonder if you are used to it yet.

I imagine you walking Piccadilly at night, among flashing billboards
That never quite dazzle the same way at noon-
This is a kind of life that awakens only once the sun has fallen asleep.
These streets are so alive-
I wonder if you’ve seen them empty,
I wonder if you’ve heard them silent.
Two days it took for me to fall in love with this city,
I wonder if you are in love.

There is another terrorist attack on the other side of the world this morning
(Eight dead, another forty eight injured),
And mixed in with the sadness and sympathy
Is an unfamiliar sense of anxiety.
I am so not used to having to pray for someone
That I almost forget to ask if you’re ok.
I wonder if, during times like these,
You wish it didn’t take you at least two plane rides to come home.

Now you fall asleep the same time my alarm rings.
I must admit, it is kind of wonderful, this cycle,
The way one of us is always awake, as if we’re keeping watch-
Not afraid of losing sleep, but scared of missing out.
Still now, I wonder if you’ve settled in,
Because I hope you like it there.
I hope you have found a home there.