Finding a Place to Learn and Love in a New Culture


Poet Li-Young Lee has written a noteworthy poem called “Persimmons,” published in 1986 in a collection of poems called Rose. The poem gives the reader a serious glance into part of the life of a second-generation Asian-American who encountered troubling cultural challenges along the way. The poem speaks to how Asian-Americans were treated and were misunderstood during the time Lee lived in Pennsylvania. It also speaks to the difficulty of language for a newcomer to English and to the United States. The point-of-view is presented by a creative person who wishes to expose life’s push and pull, life’s unfairness, juxtaposed with life’s sweetness (as symbolized with the sweet meat of the persimmon) from the time he was in 6th grade through adulthood. Thesis: the principal theme in this poem is not just personal from the perspective of Lee; it is universal and it has happened to people from Ireland, from Vietnam and other parts of the world and it has to do with the difficulties and prejudices that newcomers to a culture encounter when they are expected to smoothly and obediently assimilate to that new culture.

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The Body Paragraphs

When a reader learns that the poet was slapped by his sixth grade teacher for failing to recognize the difference between persimmon and precision is cruel. In fact it brings to mind a history, even a legacy of meanness and discrimination present in other American histories and education-themed stories that have been shared through the generations. For example, this poet’s message brings to light other situations and scenarios that are part of American history. Native American children were cruelly prohibited from speaking their native languages in government schools that were built to hasten the assimilation of Indian children. This same bigotry and bias has been visited upon many immigrants — very much in the same ignorant, culturally demonizing way that Indian children were scorned and demeaned — whether they were from Ireland, Poland, Japan, Germany or elsewhere. The history of the United States with reference to immigrants is quite different from the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Poets use words very carefully to convey larger meanings; and in this example, as a young person Lee learned that words can bring suffering and can show a lack of love when a teachers chooses to punish an Asian-American immigrant for a pair or words that sound similar but have dramatically different meanings.

Historically, teachers are supposed to be, by a generalized cultural definition, guiding, loving, caring hands; and they often serve to provide enlightenment and stimulation to young people in their classrooms. However, to Mrs. Walker — who was apparently so limited in creative strategies for teaching immigrant children she choose to resort to violence — Lee appeared to be stupid. Hence he needed to be not only punished but intimidated and embarrassed by having to stand in the corner like a dunce. Certainly such ignorance and lack of grace should be pinned directly on the teacher for the bigotry and short-sightedness she used as a substitute for grace and understanding. The educational system at that time was focused on forcing the dominant white society’s values and rules upon immigrants to apparently hasten their assimilation. One can easily imagine this kind of arbitrary punishment being visited on newly arrived refugee children from Syria, by a teacher that is a supporter of, say, Donald Trump and hence is ideologically opposed to allowing immigrants into the United States.

“Other words that got me in trouble were fight and fright, wren and yarn.

Fight was what I did when I was frightened,

Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.

Wrens are small, plain birds, yarn is what one knits with.

Wrens are soft as yarn.

My mother made birds out of yarn.

I loved to watch her tie the stuff; a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

In the first five lines of this excerpt the poet has apparently matured a bit since that first encounter with a teacher, because he seems to make light of the words that he had earlier confused. He cleverly uses fight and fright in his own context, and there is no doubt that he understands their meaning. In the second six lines in this excerpt, the poet charms the reader with stories about his mother using yard to create wrens, a rabbit, and a “wee man.” The reader’s emotions, which were edgy after learning that his teacher struck him, are mellower knowing the context he uses for yarn and wrens. In most instances, there would be no possible way to link wrens (tiny birds) and yarn; but because he also presents a sweet and gentle description of his mother knitting (a lovely universal image) the reader goes from a sense of empathy over being slapped to a smile over yarn, birds, a rabbit and his mother.

Describing the proper way to eat the Chinese apple, the narrator provides clues about his history, his assimilation to the American culture, and his link to the past. He tosses his one-time flubs in failing to understand the difference between precision and persimmon right into the fire of his emotion as he precisely describes how to prepare the persimmon, how to “Chew the skin, suck it, and swallow.” He certainly had to swallow all the bias and white cultural rules while starting out in school. “Now, eat the meat of the fruit, so sweet, all of it, to the heart,” and here he uses “heart” not just to describe how to eat the persimmon, but as a metaphor for righteousness that transcends certain cultures and is universal.

In the fifth stanza, either the teacher has had a mellowing after her unjustified physical attack on a young Chinese student — or she came to her senses as an alert pedagogue should, and realized that a worthy lesson could be created vis-a-vis the culture that a young man from China brought with him. However, Mrs. Walker didn’t realize that the persimmon she brought to class needed some more ripening prior to eating it, but the poet knew that so he eschewed taking a bite. His mother would never have used a knife as the American teacher did, so the reader can surmise that even though the Chinese boy had to assimilate to the English language, he was not going to participate in the improper consumption of a persimmon. He mother was a far better judge of the persimmon than his white English teacher was: ” … every persimmon has a sun inside, something golden, glowing, warm as my face,” he writes. Now that his mother has been brought into the discussion, the poet can open up and tell the universally relevant story — every living person on this earth has a story of a mother, a father — that in this case embraces life, birds, fruit, his family and his childhood. Birds keep coming into the picture; a cardinal sings just outside the bedroom windowsill of a young Chinese boy. There is a sun in each persimmon and a sun in the world that helps to ripen a persimmon.

Every culture has some boldly obvious food, or landmark, or philosophy, or wildly original historical event that symbolizes the past and present. The persimmon represents a culture of love and family in China, and for the narrator the persimmon opens the door to the fact that he has been assimilated, but he has learned valuable life lessons in the process of being assimilated. One lesson is sexual, and in the process of having sex with an American woman named Donna he may fail to teach her any Chinese words but being Americanized, he tells her she is “beautiful as the moon.” Perhaps he is deliberately playing the stereotypical role of a man using his knowledge of a foreign language to charm a woman. They “lie naked / face-up, face-down,” and when he “parts her legs,” it is becoming obvious that he is using sexualized language

The light and dark contrasting images in the eighth stanza suggest his father’s mortality is lurking around the poet’s home, and while the poet has apparently forgotten Chinese words. Readers are shown the wonderful light that comes from the sun just before learning in the poem that the father is going blind. Readers are fully introduced to the poet’s family, including a father, who was ” … waiting for a song, a ghost.” Was he waiting for his meeting with mortality? He may have accepted his demise, and while waiting out those last days or weeks or months, his son brings him persimmons, “swelled, heavy as sadness, and sweet as love.” Death brings sadness but love carries on after parents are gone. Those carefully chosen words — using the persimmon as an image of life’s ebb and flow — introduce the chance for the poet to make a discovery about his family that lifts the tone of the poem to new levels of emotion. The poet has lost something, and is searching for it in the “muddy lighting of my parents’ cellar.” The juxtaposition of the earlier images of the sun, which ripens the persimmon, which burns inside the persimmon, with the “muddy lighting” shows the poet is using darker images to reflect the aging of his father. As if to prove the teacher wasn’t the only one that showed stupidity, the poet asks his father about his eyes … “All gone, he answers.”

A son returning home to his indigenous genuine culture is not original to this poem but rather the source of true pleasure is experienced on a universal level when any son returns home. In this work his reuniting with family follows his assimilation into a foreign culture — and bright joy to be welcomed by an aging father. A father welcoming that long lost son — while edging closer and closer to mortality — is a universal source of pleasure that any son or daughter would experience upon returning home after years of being away. The father is sitting on ” … the tired, wooden stairs, black cane between his knees, hand over hand gripping the handle.” Perhaps he has hand over hand because he can’t see and the grip gives him a sense of security. The cane is black, the lighting is bleak and “muddy,” but from that rather grim image there arises something beautiful and hopeful. The son has come home in part to learn something, to discover something that he didn’t previously know about his original culture. And he not only discovers paintings by his father; he experiences the love and warmth that perhaps he did not experience enough in the American culture.

Could it be that the narrator is bringing in a spiritual / religious theme when he finds scrolls that have the wonderful paintings that were put to bed many years ago? “Under the blankets, I find a box,” the poet explains. And when scrolls are referenced in a poem what comes to mind instantly are the ancient relics containing scripture — the Dead Sea Scrolls. They too were put to bed centuries ago. In the world of family discovery, many wonderful gems and memories are kept in cellars, it is again a universal message that some treasure should be found in a box under a blanket. The father thinks of persimmons as a powerful link to the past and to the family’s lore. “Some things never leave a person / scent of the hair of the one you love / the texture of persimmons.” The things that never leave any person anywhere on the planet are the things that the poet’s father, now sightless, can nonetheless see as clearly in his mind’s eye when the paintings are put in front of him for his touch.

Love between a father and a son, notwithstanding a separation of many years, is enduring and glows over time like embers in a fireplace. “He’s so happy that I’ve come home,” the poet recounts, and in addition to the reuniting of family members, by finding the scrolls with the paintings the narrator has brought the past back to light. “I sit beside him and untie / three paintings by my father,” and the three paintings are all lovely symbols of what is important in the life of this Chinese family. A father that paints a hibiscus leaf and a white flower, a pair of cats preening, and two persimmons, ” … so full they want to drop from the cloth,” is talented, sensitive to his environment, and has provided endlessly meaningful images.

In conclusion, several aspects of the poet’s life are challenging, but these challenges are not unique to this story because worldwide new cultures confront humans when they move and change. The thesis of this paper is that there is universality to the trials and joys all humans experience. In the case of a Chinese man being thrust into a new culture, his particular issues are unique to his life, but as to the universal theme, because everywhere on the planet people struggle to learn, people are persecuted for unjust reasons and change brings both pain and release from pain.

Works Cited

Lee, Li-Young. “Persimmons.” The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved December 4, 2015, from 1986

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