–and you, the ocean between them

by Danielle Du

A reflection on the impossible-possible things we are, as the walking legacy of our ancestors.

还 、海

《 hai 》


This is how it feels:

a foot in both doors,

so the saying goes—

but no one never warned you

and never did you imagine

that these doors stand

as shorelines on opposite ends 

of the very


you walk

(poles in their own right: north, south

east, west)

—and you, the 


between them:

a paradox inherent,

only ever close enough to 

touch either shore,

(a body of water by grace only)

churning with the runoff 

tears of both. 

What are you then?



This is how it feels:

The first time you step

through that east pole door,

this is the world you glimpse:

graveyards, tombstones

filling the spaces between

these arcing highways and skyscraping towers—

death, between every breath life takes

past, between every step present makes

and neither, neither feel like yours

It feels wrong:

the ocean turns.

“Pay your respects,” your parents insist,

“Say hello to your great-grandparents.”

But you do not know them,

never knew them,

never will know them

and these headstones gleam too smooth;

so you refuse, and watch

as your parents bow in front of

this one tomb in a forest of tombs.

(a world of blood and lives and family

you have never, never known)

“Just try it,” they say, standing now,

one final beseeching lifeline:

“there’s nothing to be scared of.

It’s just three bows, then you’re done.”

But there is more than one kind of fear

that scorches this ocean floor—

you turn away,

fix your eyes to the 

sky instead;

only half wondering if your great-grandparents 

(and their grandparents, and their parents, and theirs,

and theirs and theirs and theirs)

can see 


this paradox child of two shores 



This is how it feels:

How deeply you mourn that now,

enough to quench the heedless flames

that once roared through your own heart.

You know now,


you would kowtow a thousand times
to seize this lifeline

that, at least,

means one shore is willing

to claim you as its own.

the ocean, the ocean, ah

how it cries, longing for just one land to call



This is how it feels:

Even the sight of a clothes tag

makes you hear the voices

of your ancestors’ ghosts

whispering at the edges of your jacket,

snagging winter branches for hands

unerringly certain in 

their own inquiry, 

nonetheless afraid of your answer:

Did you forget us?

Don’t forget to remember us, now

(“made in _________,”

after all)

The cloth flaps in the breeze

of your ancestors’ rearing sorrow—

each crease and fold a sculpture


the living image of your own regret.

You can’t help but think:

this is the real tombstone

marking that final death of memory and myth.

and oh,

how the ocean weeps



This is also how it feels:

The next time you step

through that east pole door,

bearing the rains of years gone by

(years enough for 

this ocean

to calm, to settle, to fill)

you watch as the quiltwork fields and glass-sleek towers

roll past, reflected to a watery blur

against the window of 

your own wide-eyed longing.

Exist, exist,

you hear your ancestors cry

in this wind that pulls even the 

heavens westward

as you stand, stature straightened to bow again,

returned once more: 

back to this soil of your grandparents’ parents’ bones.

You wonder if they are proud:

if you have done well

at being this impossible thing—


their paradox child of two shores 


The ghosts of your ancestors

whisper at the edges of your jacket,

drifting spring petals for hands

unerringly certain in 

their own inquiry, 

nonetheless awaiting your answer:

We are not forgotten, because

you still stand strong,

child of ours:

somehow, you do. Somehow, somehow,

despite it all 

between it all

and is that not the most we can ask?

You can’t help but think:

this is the first lifeline,

(and you can’t help but hope:

the first of many more)

pulling you back towards 

this neglected eastern shore.

(And somehow then, you realize:

the ocean 

is so, so 



In the end,

this is how it feels:

Two shores,

rising on opposite ends of 

the very 


you walk

(poles in their own right)

and you, the glittering surging


between them, somehow

holding shorelines both:




(between two ends

of this earth you walk,

poles in their own right:

east, west, east, west)

ever turning, yearning, astorm, aflame

ever calming, settling, stilling at last

paradoxical perhaps

impossible perhaps

This is how it feels:

still nonetheless

(still, still)

between it all.


  • What on earth are you doing with the subtitle there? Without the accent marks, hai can refer to multiple Mandarin characters by the Pinyin system (which is used to romanize Mandarin Chinese and as a system for learning/typing the language). In this case, I picked two: 还 (hái) and 海 (hǎi). The first character, 还, is an adverb that translates to “still,” or “yet,” or “also/too.” The second character, 海, refers to the ocean. However, it should be noted that these two characters are not exact homonyms in their pronunciation: Mandarin, being a tonal language, has four distinct tones and these two characters are spoken with very different tones; hence the accent marks.
  • What does it mean put together then? Essentially, “still: the ocean.”
  • So, just to be sure—are the random divider thingies in Mandarin too? Definitely. They’re just numbers; the very first brackets contain the Mandarin character for “zero,” and the next goes to “one,” then “two,” so on and so forth.
  • Fun fact! The major turn in the poem occurs at 四 (four, sì), which traditionally is associated with bad luck due to the fact that it sounds like the character for death, 死 (sǐ). Interpret that as you please!

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