Monday, April 14, 2008

The American

In the quiet shades of the evening,
a cool Atlantic wind blows,
bringing a hint of salt,
dispersing the long day of summer heat.
I take a break from the marching
boots in snap-steps, shining
like mirrors flashing, uniforms
spit-shined with colors—gold,
red, white, blue—paraded in a field
of dark green, among perfect
rows of white crosses clouding
the rolling hills, decorated
with American flags. I stroll
in the middle of a little Belgian
town that has seen American GIs
come on their yearly pilgrimage
of salute to these holy hills,
where their comrades had fallen
in two world wars.

I, however, out of uniform,
must be something they don’t quite expect
in an American—not Johnson Blonde,
Varnado Black, or even Chavez Brown.
I can pass for a World War II Japanese,
I could be a Chinese who has come
to open a restaurant, maybe even
a Vietnamese refugee escaping by boat
from his homeland to seek shelter in France
or here in Belgium.

The old lady, closing the door to her jewelry
shop, doesn’t know what to make of me. But
she greets me tentatively in English,
and asks where I’m from.
“The U.S.,” I answer. She pauses. “Oh!
You must be with the American soldiers.”
When I answer “Yes,” she is happy.
“We were at the ceremony today.”

She invites me in, to a room in the back
of the shop--hidden, a secret chamber
for resistance fighters, spies,
soldiers downed behind enemy lines.
I am ushered to a hearth
surrounded by three old couples
enjoying their memories,
revived with the flickering fire
and the taste of good coffee.
They greet me with smiles
and invite me to a seat in their circle.

They have an American friend, they tell me,
whom they visit yearly in Pennsylvania.
Their friend had been a pilot,
shot down, wounded, lost and helpless,
until rescued by these people,
who must have been young lovers
then, filled with the juices of fighting
for their lives.

They welcome me, I think, as a brethren
of their American friend. I accept
their extended grace, their rich coffee,
their fresh cookies, the warmth
of their fire. I don’t mind
when I think of my many American years,
exploring strip malls, supermarkets,
department stores, without
ever seeing an American hearth
or tasting homemade apple pie.

I tell them my Hmong-American story
of being born on Sky Mountain, fleeing
across the Mekong, living
in the refugee camp, coming
to America, and joining
the United States

No comments: