The American

There is a new boy at school this week
fresh off the boat from America.

His big blonde head blocks the chalkboard
and I can never see past him during math class.

He brings weird things to eat like
chicken nuggets? and baked potatoes?

and he drinks milk with every meal
but eats rice with none of them.

Everyday he takes his lunch only with
the other American kids

and insists on speaking only English.

I want to ask him,
why did you move to this country if

you didn’t want to learn our language?
But this must be a new and scary experience for him,

so I hold my tongue.

Instead I invite him over to dinner one night
and teach him the right way to cut a mango.

His spoon shakes in his hands and he leaves
more flesh on the yellow skin

than he eats.

The next morning a few of us at school overhear some teachers saying
the American is good at Math but not at English.

Someone tells him,
you’re a bad American

I thought Americans were supposed to be good at English?
They tell him hey man,

leave the math to us, what, you gonna Columbus that, too?
And because it takes a lot of courage to stand up for someone

(more courage than I had, at least at the time)

I laughed along with the rest of them and came up to the American
after class when we were alone, saying, if you need me, I’m here.

And I taught him how to decode the words of his forefathers,
how to ask the kinds of questions English teachers like to hear

on Wednesdays we practiced writing essays
over bowls of sour soup

That made the American’s eyes water
but that he always finished anyways.

We are writing an essay on the Lost Generation
when he tells me he is from New England.

new england. the mayflower. baseball, witches,
I say, reciting everything I know about his home.

He says, in the months before I moved here I thought
I would be living in a thatched roof hut,

that there would be no one who spoke English,
much less English language television,

Just then our new maid walks into the room
to ask if the American is staying for dinner,

to clear the empty bowls and spoons and refilll our glasses with water.
Before she leaves, the American says ‘salamat’ and asks for her name.

A new kind of shame bubbles up inside of me when
I confess to him, you know, if you had asked me what her name was

I wouldn’t have known the answer,
He replies yeah well, if a person lived in my house

I think I would have to know their name,
but I get that it’s different here,

a cultural thing,
it must be the American in me talking.