We are Girls from the East
By Paromita Talukder & Priscilla Guo
The poem speaks to our shared history as Asian-American women, emphasizing a colonial past in China and India, our liberation, and the formation of new rituals between generations all through the lens of tea.
I. we are girls from the East the Buddha's eyelids drop to the floor or a leaf blows into the Emperor's cup1 so goes, the beginning of a 5,000 year sojourn down the Yangtze, across the Ganges. drink in all the yin2 clear the humours a daily ritual spent in tonnes. from the fields to the drawing rooms3 to sate that peckish feeling in the afternoon. our exotic medicine transformed for consumption in fancy China far away from the China man. a history that is darker than the brew steeping until the water takes our color, We are girls from the East. II. our Oppression ≠ their Oppression they took Tomahawks to the ships4 our oppression was their oppression, so they said. our oppression was a distraction5 like a spill from the same cup, quickly, they slap using the flimsiest chiffon—treaties and diplomas and deeds and Deeds, the white papers browned and yellowed yet the spill seeped through. blindly the Men of Commonwealth try to give shape to the elephant carrying Ashoka's wheel here lies Pakistan and here India a Partition, blind. yet, even the elephants with stars and stripes have lost their eyes and clumsily, they charge in stampedes into the house they call home, drinking the tea, made from tobacco leaves and petrol a slow poison, too late to finally see the elephant6 III. a drink for the Leopards a 3000 B.C. Ayurvedic remedy trails trading hands hands and hands wherever we go fissure on the shell, carved with black gold stolen from the gardens of Assam crackle, sizzle, pop followed by the emancipation of an aroma that exhilarates the wind and invites guests: an excuse for a discussion an excuse that cannot be refused. sip stay alert during long court hours, the Emperor Ashoka said, it came down the Yangtze, across the Ganges bitter as it left its home cursed China in cursed China. the Angrezi, the gwailou,7 invite us to drink to accept brings a different death than to refuse and frown. blood from the kettle tainted the soil as the Red Coats trampled a path through the brown man’s garden, and men from the Middle Kingdom swam in poppy tears. Leopards keep breaking into the temple for a drink,8 once in the morning a soft pearly brown to open the sky once in the evening when it's absorbed the day’s light, the asperities of our porcelain cup dissolve in stygian waters. We are girls from the East. we write to remember the temples before the leopards came before blind men were led by blind elephants for the plants without roots to hear to hear, wails of long gone shadows chanted in the waves of the Indian Sea9 held in the march of the Children of Troubled Times,10 carried on the back of tomorrow's wind is the story of how we regained our independence on foreign soil.
1 The origin stories of how we came to have tea spoke of a tea plant springing up from the fallen eyelids of the Buddha, which he had torn off upon breaking a vow of meditation, and the happenstance of Emperor Shen-Nung.
2 Bodies are made of a balance between yin and yang elements. When there is too much yang, traditional Chinese medicine advises drinking more yin, like tea.
3 A drawing room was a parlor used by English court ladies for entertaining. It was a term widely used in India and Pakistan, dating from colonial days.
4 The Tomahawk is a type of axe-like tool used by Native Americans. They were used by the American Revolutionaries in the Boston Tea Party to feign their identities as Indigenous peoples.
5 During the War of 1812 between Great Britain and European colonists, the English were predominantly occupied with their colonies in South and East Asia. The American Revolution was merely one battle within a larger world-wide conflict with France, Spain and India. Thus, Britain was forced to use military resources elsewhere instead of America.
6 Seeing the elephant is an Americanism of the Wild West that alludes to journeys and experiences that came at a significant cost.
7 Angrezi and gwailou were names for the British in India and China.
8 “Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.” – Franz Kafka, “Leopards in the Temple.”
9 This phrase is taken from the Indian national anthem titled “Jana Gana Mana,” written by polymath Rabindranath Tagore.
10 The “March of the Volunteers,” the National Anthem of the People’s Republic of China written by Tian Han in 1934 during the Japanese Invasion of China, was first featured in the Chinese film Children of Troubled Times.
We were inspired by common practices within our distinct cultures—Chinese and Indian. After a few discussions we agreed on the topic of tea, “cha” or “chai,” which has profound historical roots in both China and India connected by colonial British enterprises. We wanted to work with the idea of history being passed down from generation to generation and emphasize the commonality of hardships faced by both of our ancestors. We also tried implementing our current American identity and America’s general role during the colonization time period and now. We were inspired by poets, such as Franz Kafka, Rabindranath Tagore, and playwright Tian Han, and quoted them throughout the poem.
Paromita Talukder is currently a junior at a high school in Bronx, NY. She has always harbored a love for creative writing that focuses on dissecting language and art that transcends language. She was intimidated by poetry until working with her Girls Write Now mentor and now writes poetry whenever she can. Talukder is a staff journalist for The Science Survey—an award-winning student newspaper—and hopes to continue journalism and poetry in college.
Priscilla is a poet, activist and AI researcher. She currently serves as a Policy Advisor for the Day One Project, developing innovative ideas in science and technology to inform the policy agenda of the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress. She holds a B.A. in Technology, Policy, and Society at Harvard, MSc in the Social Science of the Internet at Oxford, and an MSc in Global Affairs at Tsinghua. She's previously performed her poetry at Lincoln Center and written a song for Malala Yousafzai and Gloria Steinem.