From Letters to Mao
Jennifer S. Cheng

Dear Mao,
I want to describe for you the feeling of sleep, as described by neuropsychologist Giulio Tononi, who uses words like oscillations and waves, while his patient is noted to gather the phrase the sea moving a boat. Elsewhere are words like sleepwalking and daydreaming, so I can only conclude that sleep is a boundary whose line is slowly eroding. Sleep, like childhood, is more of a sense than an experience we can articulate from beginning to end. As a child in Texas bathed in sun, I often fell asleep in the car, even in daytime, and my father would carry me into the house with my head pressed against his shoulder. If my mother, who is much smaller, was the driver, she would crack open a window on warm afternoons, and I would later wake to the pleasure of utter silence and aloneness, the sun across my face. I want to emphasize to you that both responses were acts of love, and if by chance an airplane overhead excavated an echo in the sky, then I knew that I was cradled in its sound. Inside our home of secret languages, my mother boiled up a pot of salty rice porridge and my father watched our neighbors like a devout mockingbird: straw doormats, pine wreaths in the winter. So I want you to know that if sleep is an ocean, then it is because we are migrants inwardly sighing along to its many oscillations, unintimidated by factual distances but awash in the knowledge of three: body, bodying, embodied. And if water is a metaphor, then it is because water fills up a room, slow moving, blurry, immersive but obscured. Strangely enough, it was not my father but my mother who gave us history lessons steeped in a pale, languorous liquid: We sleep where our home is, and we build a home where we sleep.

Dear Mao,
I want to describe for you the migration pattern of birds, which has nothing to do with sleep but which I nonetheless find beautiful. When insects sleep, they are wakened only by poetic forces, like the heat of the sun or the darkness of night. The most beautiful of flying insects huddle together in sleep, but little is known about the slumbering habits of migratory birds. Birds, as far as I know, do not fear being shot down from the sky, though fear is a common warning sign for flight. Some birds, feeling their bones weighed down by air, migrate not by sky but by swimming, their wings waving down the sea as if buoyed by its girth. Other birds are wanderers, their migratory curvatures charted like flowering seeds across the globe. Here on the earth where bones are buried, the question remains: If the birds of history alight by a ritual of body and landscape, do they make the return out of longing, out of heartache? For it is the anthropologist who traces the longing for home between personal biography and the biography of the collective, a map that ends beyond locatable distances into mythical terrains, imaginary homelands. We do this: Listen to the body, gauge its violence, take flight. At the end of the day, longing for home is a narrative we are both familiar with, beginning first with a poem about the moon. If my parents never pointed at a map, it was because we already had an earthy-colored globe that I spun round and round until the smell of rice porridge drew me near the kitchen. So that ours was always a story of leaving and never an anchoring of place.

Dear Mao,
We could call this How to Build an American Home, or History Lessons, or even Dislocated Objects (misplaced nostalgia, broken cotton slippers, a shelf of souvenir dolls in slow-wave sleep). Or: I found a vast stamp collection and various paraphernalia on the top shelf of my father’s cabinet in Texas, your face was plastered on its pages. I was standing tippy toe on the counter, and my fingers got printed in dust. I suppose I could say, history is personal or history of others, but we both know how to substitute “as” for those two-letter verbs and prepositions. Dear Mao: eight hundred thousand soldiers, thirty million peasants, parades of old litter, and scrap-metal squads. Dear Mao: Waterbugs flee. Seabirds flee. They would like to make it clear: They love their kelp, their underwater tempo, but let us have ourselves a parade of sea-wings. Dear Mao: A double-ended kaleidoscope. For we hate the evils of men, yet we will measure the circular path of the moon, we will wade through marshes in our rubber boots, we will stoop and pretend tiny plants or pools of stars are forests within which we begin construction, beginning with this creaky wooden frame. Dear Mao: When I was a child I wanted to wrap my mother’s ferns and creamy violets in cozy sweaters, as this was the meaning of “potholders” I had internalized for myself. The coffee table was made of glass so I could see the carpet underneath, and it should come as no surprise that in the late afternoon, the light through the blinds cast a mesmerizing pattern of slanted stripes.

Dear Mao,
If a sleeping bird were to dream, would it dream of icebergs, rocky cliffs, humid ponds? Or would it recall the feeling of winter settling in its tiny bones, reminding it just how wide the sky is across? For I can assemble a list of the ways we build—ranch-style house, colonial house, brick house, wooden gray slats—but we will never remember exactly how we began. Estrangement from what? is the question you will never answer. Standing there on a dirt path heading toward the waves, a sudden rush of birds from the bushes might sound like mottled thunder. Dear Immigrant, the anthropologist begins. As if this were a language where I am falling, where I am always falling asleep.

Dear Mao,
In the water of my house that sleeps, the sleeping house, the house of water. In the loosening of my childhood at sea, we imagine a map of imaginary seams to bind up the blue, the sea, as if it were a sleeping bag, a blue cocoon. Imaginary maps to represent a house: boathouse, house on stilts, house ready to be pulled into the wind. House for the sleeping child, house rebuilt. Tidewater represents a yearning. In the sleeping house of intimate objects: ceramic horses; wooden baskets; stone abacus; corduroy yellow cushions; shiny ornamental ashtray. There is the water of my body navigating these landscapes, there is the extension of the body that is taking them in. Something is learned, something is enacted. In the arrangement of movement within sacred space—walls, weather, inscription. In the archaeology of ritualized movement, in the study of architectural forms: The anthropologist takes into account geography and staging, and finds in its spatial journey, its journey of sleep, a reconstruction of cosmology.


Giulio Tononi, “Sleep and Dreaming,” The Neurology of Consciousness.

Timothy Insoll, The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion.

Jennifer S. Cheng is the author of a chapbook, Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press). Her writing appears in the Seneca Review, The Collagist, Quarterly West, and Fifty-Fifty, an anthology of Hong Kong writing. She lives in San Francisco.