In a shoe store in Aachen, thinking of what subjects we should be able to write about

When Chen Chen writes about being told
by a friend: All you write about/ is being

gay or Chinese, I want to jump up, wave
my hand in the air, and co-testify. I can’t

count how many times I’ve been told All
you write about is being a mother or Filipina

or being from Baguio or Filipino, or brown
and Filipino— which is really kind of

the same thing. I remember a graduate
student who once told me (I think admiringly)

You write about suffering so well
which set the little bell of Auden ringing

in my ear, but which immediately I felt
guilty for even thinking, because who am I

to even ascribe what I know about poetry
or about life or anything as anything

that might earn me the right to be called
an old master? And as far as my particular

kind of suffering, which many have also
described without irony as the suffering

of “my people”: of course I know
that long, dark braid goes back to the

history of being conquered many times over,
but reappears as both shadow and fantasy

wherever I go— For instance, at parties,
when I’m treated as though I’m incapable

of having conversations on topics other than
the plight of maids in Hong Kong. And in a store

on the German border, surrounded by the warm
tannin smell of pair after pair of sneakers, sandals,

and booties, I buy shoes not for any weird connection
to some former dictator’s wife but just because

pretty shoes! unusual style and color! or recently,
learning the difference between double and triple welt

and that a last is the mould of your foot, the soul
of a shoe. At first the new leather is stiff; then

with use, over time, it comes to know the exact
shape of your feet: a history you’ll wear, all your own.

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