2012 Teens Between Cultures Poetry Contest Winner

I'm delighted to announce the winner of the 10th annual Mitali's Fire Escape Teens Between Cultures Poetry Contest. In the past, I've award three prizes (first, second, third), but this year I decided to pick only one. This made judging the contest harder than ever. To compound the difficulty, I received more entries this year than ever before and many of those were stellar. Agonizingly, I narrowed the best to three and then asked my friend, brilliant poet Naomi Shihab Nye, to select the winning poem.

Naomi confirmed my opinion: in her words, Moon Cake by Cathy G. is "lush and elegantly cadenced and heartbreaking," and deserved the win. With thanks to Naomi for helping me with this tough decision, please enjoy the 2012 Fire Escape Teens Between Cultures Poetry Contest winner.

Moon Cake

by Cathy G.

My mother had beautiful hands. Poised
with a brush and a palette of color,
she showed me the movement of landscape
and its words: da hai, for the sea she never
saw in childhood,
sha mo, for the desert sand of Lanzhou
in her mouth,
cao ping, for the great plains in which hundreds of
Tibetan girls sang with skirts
made from jasmine petals and rain
that was on the verge of hail.

My mother had beautiful hands.
She coiled them around the moon cakes
when our lunar calendar turned, holding mine
gently as she traced the outline of a
sky. Moon cakes are a
cure for loneliness, for homesick. We see
the same moon here and there, we have the
same moon inside us.
I was then too young

to understand tradition or void.

My mother had beautiful hands.
Time would not be as merciless,
its hair pushed back with shoulders set hard
in a Western way. My mother
slowly developed an ache
from long hours at the fabric
factory, and the year I turned twelve
she began to wear gloves.
My mother had beautiful hands.
With them she hid the outline of
a crescendo, quiet breakage like a
stone wrapped secretly in silk.
The chasm in mistranslation between
us grew with every Zodiac’s turn.
Moon cake, moon cake.

How the constellation
inside me trembles even now,

"My parents were integral in shaping my childhood experience, and this poem is for them," Cathy says. Here are her reflections on growing up between cultures:

The equilibrium between the culture of my past heritage and immediate reality has always been difficult to master. I was uprooted from the wide, rural plains of a province in central China to settle in the Connecticut shoreline. Growing up, I found myself pulled into two equally vivid ways of life. My parents exposed me to the complex truths in Oriental thought, while the world around me continued to evolve in a starkly contrasting Western way. One day I was struck by the fact that I had let separate elements of my being completely depart from each other. The urbane, American teenager in me wanted a sensational, modern life my parents did not understand. The reserved daughter in me wanted the rich history of the past. Who was I? I was neither one or the other. I was not both. I was lost in the white space between an absolute dichotomy. Reconciling those two different "essences" would prove to be the hardest (ongoing) struggle I would have to face in adolescence, but also provide the greatest reward. For I am able to experience the beauty of two sides of the spectrum together.

Photo courtesy of jimmiehomeschool, via Creative Commons. Stay tuned for the prose contest winner!