I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g of "becoming."
The speaker begins by telling us her name, "Marilyn Mei Ling Chin." Then she gets into some grammar. She comments on the "I am" that the poem opens with, saying that she loves how resolute, or solid, those words are.
The speaker's comments on the words "I am" are a little sarcastic. "I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin" is a statement of fact, whereas actually the speaker suggests that it's probably better to say something like "I am becoming Marilyn Mei Ling Chin." Our identity isn't static or fixed, in other words.
Already, in these first few lines, we're seeing all kinds of questions about identity being raised. The speaker's words make us ask questions like: Who is this speaker? And how do we define her? Is identity a fixed thing, or is it something that is always changing, or "becoming" something else?
Another focus of these first few lines is language. By focusing on grammar, and what the words "I am" mean, the speaker is raising questions about the relationship between language and identity. For instance, what's the relationship between a name and a person's identity?
The language in these first few lines sets the rhythm for the rest of the poem. The diction is informal, the meter is irregular, and it sounds just like a regular person speaking to us.
Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea, when my father the paperson in the late 1950s obsessed with a bombshell blond transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn."
The speaker tells us that her name had been changed by her father "somewhere between Angel Island and the sea." Angel Island refers to an immigration station in California.
So the speaker's telling us that, upon his arrival in America in the 1950s, her dad, who was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, changed ("transliterated") "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn."
The speaker describes her father as "the paperson." That's a term that was used for Chinese men who entered the U.S. using fake documents.
These lines bring up the issue of assimilation: by telling us about how her father changed her name to the American "Marilyn," the speaker is pointing out how much her father wanted to assimilate into the new American culture he was entering into.
And nobody dared question his initial impulse—for we all know lust drove men to greatness, not goodness, not decency. And there I was, a wayward pink baby, named after some tragic white woman swollen with gin and Nembutal.
The speaker says that nobody questioned her father's desire to change his daughter's name. She says that her father was driven by a "lust" for "greatness." She then describes herself as a "pink baby" who is named after Marilyn Monroe.
The speaker describes Marilyn Monroe in these lines as a "tragic white woman/ swollen with gin and Nembutal." Monroe, of course, was an alcoholic who was also addicted to medications (Nembutal), and she infamously ended up committing suicide.
By referring to Monroe's tragic fate here, the speaker is also hinting at her own "tragic" fate as someone who will not fit easily either in China or America.
The reference to Monroe as a "white woman" also brings up the issue of race. The speaker of the poem isn't white, of course. She's Chinese, so the reference to Monroe's race works to remind us just how different this little Chinese girl is from Marilyn Monroe.
My mother couldn't pronounce the "r." She dubbed me "Numba one female offshoot" for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die in sublime ignorance, flanked by loving children and the "kitchen deity."
The speaker tells us that her mom couldn't pronounce the "r" in her American name "Marilyn," so she referred to her daughter as "Numba one female offshoot'" instead. That's some nickname.
The mother's inability to pronounce the name "Marilyn," though, brings up the issue of language. The fact that her mom can't even say her new American name properly points to how the speaker's new name estranges her from her own family. There's a tension between the two languages—Chinese and English.
The speaker's mom "will live and die in sublime ignorance." These lines are ambiguous. Could they refer to the fact that the mom has no awareness of her children's cultural struggles?
The speaker says that her mom is surrounded by her "loving children" and the "kitchen deity." The "kitchen deity" is a reference to one of the gods in Chinese popular religion, who's believed to protect the family and home. This cultural reference points up just how much Chinese culture continues to be a part of the family's life, even though they now live in America.
While my father dithers, a tomcat in Hong Kong trash— a gambler, a petty thug, who bought a chain of chopsuey joints in Piss River, Oregon, with bootlegged Gucci cash. Nobody dared question his integrity given his nice, devout daughters and his bright, industrious sons as if filial piety were the standard by which all earthly men are measured.
In these lines, the speaker turns back to her dad, telling us about his origins in Hong Kong. She also talks about how he "bought a chain of chopsuey joints/ in Piss River, Oregon." "Piss River" is a nickname for Rogue River, a city in Oregon, where the family first settled in America.
The speaker tells us that her father bought a chain of Chinese food joints from money he earned selling fake Gucci merchandise.
The picture that the speaker paints of her father in these lines depicts him as a hustler. He's "a "gambler, a petty thug."
But, even though her father is a hustler, the speaker says that his nice family—his "devout daughters/ and […] bright, industrious sons" meant that he was viewed as a respectable man.
The speaker's reference to her father as a "tomcat" is an example of a metaphor. She's describing her father in terms of a male cat—a bit wild and roving. In this line (26) we can also see some alliteration happening: the letter T is repeated in the words "a tomcat in Hong Kong trash." Check out "Sound Check" for more on the sounds happening in this poem.