In America, You Are Asked, Why Are Leaves Green?

poem by JinJin Xu / film by JinJin Xu & JiaoYang Li


In America, You Are Asked, Why Are Leaves Green? 

You are a factory worker, before that, a silkworm. You spit everything you owe in this life from the pit of your past stomachs, onto an open palm which is a mulberry leaf. You do not yet know the cost of your life is the life of another is the life of your own. Your chewing clogs the teeth of a sewing machine. You beg forgiveness. A life not your own is the only thing you have.


In America, your friend tells you the legend of the silk goddess: A horse is betrayed by its owner. It kidnaps his daughter, wraps her up in its own skin and transforms her into a silkworm.


The horse only exists in China. The horse is not promised marriage.


In America, you do not want to mythologize. Even silkworms are a trap of you own creation. You are eating off their palms.


Your aunts are factory workers. They make watches, shoes for export. Your grandmother made buttons. In America, you imply your mother was a factory worker too, though your mother looks down on those women in her family.


Betrayal spits silk from her perch on the horse skin, a mulberry leaf.


I made the cartoon stickers on your shoes, your aunt-mother says. You are jealous, you wish you could work side by side with your cousins, hands busying machines instead of books.


Another lie. Only one cousin worked in a factory, the others went to college. Your mother says it’s not real college. Your cousins ask you to teach their children English.


You sit together on a couch coughing up watermelon seeds, listening to a dialect you no longer speak. Their life is not your own.


You tell your cousins you will help their children have a life like yours. Your mother says, Don’t let my sisters waste your time.


Your mother was born a horse. Every mythology returns to her. How lovely it sounds to compare mā (mother) to mǎ (horse), in English.


The silk goddess only exists in English. She is red like marriage.


You did not grow up with such legends. Neither did your friend. It is backwards, of the countryside. She says, How strange a tale, Americans will eat it up.


The silkworm chews loudly. Before America, your mother teaches you to swallow like a civilized person. Quiet those teeth.


Now you are asking, How does one churn mulberry into silk?


You are, after all, what you eat.

Audio Recording of JinJin Xu Reading “In America, You Are Asked, Why Are Leaves Green?”

JinJin Xu is a writer and filmmaker from Shanghai. Her poems and essays can be found in The Common and Women’s Studies Quarterly, and her films shown at Berlin’s Harun Farocki Institute and NYC’s Immigrant Artist Biennial (2020). She is the winner of the Poetry Society of America’s George Bogin Prize. A previous Watson Fellow, she is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at NYU, where she received the Lillian Vernon Fellowship and teaches hybrid workshops. Her chapbook There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife is forthcoming from Radix Media.