The Foreigner, The Insomniac
Recently I visited my 78-year-old mother in her prefab modular home in an unincorporated town in rural Illinois, down the road from a supermax federal prison, among marshlands rich with crimson-capped sandhill cranes in their cool blue-gray plumage, trumpeter swans with matte-black beaks, and red-winged blackbirds whose epaulets are actually two distinct shades of flame and sunset—and not far from the Mississippi River, sometimes dotted with American white pelicans, sometimes shadowed by solitary bald eagles returning to their nests—and together we looked through haphazard sheaves of photographs, which I’d saved after my father’s death, when we sold his small rambler (apparently “rambler” and “ranch” are interchangeable, except ranches may have basements) in Alsip, Illinois. And while chatting about my arrival in the United States as an approximately 1½-year-old former legal orphan, current resident alien, from South Korea—about how I screamed and cried and wouldn’t stop screaming or crying, and how I wouldn’t sleep during my first six weeks with my new family, and wouldn’t let my mother hold me because she was blond, but would let my new father, because he had black hair—my mother said, suddenly and matter-of-factly, “Yes, we had to give you phenobarbital.”
“You gave me phenobarbital?” I asked.
“Where did you get it?”
“Dr. Wallin? With the clown paintings on the walls and the Bible stories in the waiting room?”
“Well—did it work?”
“Yes, it worked.”
Place and Restraint
Father, I had never heard the term “hospital psychosis” until you had it. You thought you were somewhere else. You didn’t want to be in the hospital, that place of interrupted sleep, drugs, lung exercises, strangers who came into your room, picked up your chart and then did things to you. You looked up at the mounted television on your hospital room wall and said, “Look at that stained glass window. We’re in church.”
The room generated timelessness. It was disorienting, not moving forward, being held there while your mind wandered into the past. Had your consciousness rejected a futureless future?
Remember that time the kind orderlies strapped those brown leather restraints on your arms and bound you to the hospital bed? Remember time-traveling to the past? Remember when you said, “I have to go to work!” while using your arms to push your torso up from the bed, forgetting you had no legs and would crash to the floor and, more importantly, that you had no office to get to, having been retired for twenty-three years after working at the same place for thirty: Electro-Motive Company, a division of General Motors, in McCook, Illinois, selling engineered and manufactured train parts.
With your high-school education you were not an engineer, but worked in customer service. You wore a tie to work, but not a suit. You must have sold tens of thousands of parts, and surely hundreds of types of parts, none of which I know the names of. It strikes me now that I cannot name one thing you sold, not one of those parts. I feel shamefully incurious and neglectful. What I would give to sit in the brown Chevy convertible van with you as you gazed, chain-smoking Marlboro Reds, at a local train derailing, looking at what exactly, thinking about what? Your lottery tickets? Forward-dating—or was it back-dating—checks that were late to pay bills? Being in between paychecks? A train not going to its destined place. That portion of time. In between.
Your job title was Parts Representative. You represented the parts. The definition of part that I like is “some but not all of something.”
In grammar, there’s a weak form of “some” and a strong form of “some.” The Cambridge Dictionary explains and gives these examples (among others):
We use the weak form of some only with uncountable nouns and plural nouns:
I’m looking for some advice. (+ uncountable noun)
Do you need some help? (+ uncountable noun)
The strong form of some is stressed. This form contrasts with others or all or enough:
Why do some people live longer than other people? (some, not others)
I would probably say it, redundantly, like this: Why do some people live longer than some other people?
Now that you’re on the Other Side, I wish I could ask you the questions that I failed to ask before. I wish I could write them on a piece of paper, fold it up, and leave it in a hole in the wall that you would check for messages once a week.
What were some of your favorite parts to sell? What were some of the most challenging parts of your job? What do you remember about dying, since I wasn’t there that night? What were some of the hardest parts about dying? What was the hardest part?
I hope that you would write back. You were good at writing letters. (Even during the ten years when I wouldn’t speak to you—because, after your divorce, after I had taken my mother’s recipe box, which she’d asked me to get from the house in which you were still living, and gave it to her without your permission, after you’d gone to the trouble of changing the locks, etc. etc., you said, “You’re a bitch just like your mother”—you still wrote me letters.) You, like my mother, punctuated your stories, in speech and in writing, with a pause and the word anyway or, in your case, ANYWAY or SO ANYWAY, as a complete sentence and a transition from one topic to the next. So anyway. I would ask you more about your job. Although maybe in your afterlife, you wouldn’t want to talk about your job.
But you loved to talk. To anybody. And everybody. Remember how when I was visiting you in the hospital a handsome youngish Black doctor came into the prep room and you—a racist, anti-immigrant, 78-year-old German-Irish-descended white man from the South Side of Chicago—said to him, cheerfully, and I would even say teasingly, “Are you a doctor?” and I felt my non-white body tense up at the shoulders and in the sternum and gut, wondering if and how I could prevent you from saying something racist, and the doctor said, “Yes, I’m Dr. So-and-So, pleased to meet you Mr. ___,” and you said, “Oh great! You look too young to be a doctor.”?
As a child, all I knew about your job was that, because of your employee discount, we had General Motors cars, American made. My most vivid, recurring sense memory is of the seatbelts—of, well, pain: the chunky square metal buckles with the boxy logo, how large and heavy they felt in my small, kid hands, and how in the 90-to-100-degree, humid Chicago summers the buckles would get so hot that mother would have to handle them with her rough, bony-knuckled, housewife-and-cleaning-lady hands—those searing untouchable clasps, thick metal clip like a tongue, fitting into the other half of the flat mouth-like catch with a satisfying glick, keeping my brother and me safe, restrained for the time being, just long enough to travel in one piece from one place to another.
Next up in the portfolio: “Seedling” by Kailee Pedersen
Sun Yung Shin (she/they) is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Wet Hex (Coffee House Press, 2022), which was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. She is also the author of two illustrated books for children, most recently Where We Come From, coauthored with Diane Wilson, Shannon Gibney, and John Coy another finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. Her forthcoming books include a collection of essays, Heart Eater: Field Notes from an Immigrant Writer (Black Lawrence Press, 2025) and a picture book, Revolutions Are Made of Love: Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs (Lerner Publishing, 2025), co-authored with Mélina Mangal. Winner of the Asian American Literary Award, Shin has received fellowships from the MacDowell Foundation and other organizations. With poet Su Hwang, she cofounded Poetry Asylum; she is also a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Shin lives in Minneapolis with her family. (updated 10/2023)