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A Lao Jia Song Is a Song of Home

There were two times I heard my father sing.

Once from behind the camera, panning to my brother’s

birthday cake, his happy birthday a key off,

so bad it is valiant, my brother blushing before the table.

The second was at a feast—a mountain village

south of Kunming where, my father pointed out,

people readied for winter like animals,

mixing butter into their tea.

There was something there, his eyes watching

the long-haired buffalo graze the cold hills

as our little bus wound up and up. His favorite American books

were the Little House series, with their descriptions

of simple tasks, how they churned butter from cream.

At the dinner, roast lamb, dark pickled flowers,

a strong tea, and before long his song:

the haunting rise of an attempt at melody,

his voice breaking before it can carry.

Somehow they recognize it, the mountain family,

and they lean over and whisper “This is a lao jia song,”

because we have never heard it

in all these years, we are sitting with strangers

trying to imagine what he is mourning.


STEPHANIE NIU grew up in Georgia and earned her degrees in symbolic systems and computer science from Stanford University. Her poems have appeared in Storm Cellar, Midway Journal, Portland Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2021 Fulbright Award and currently lives in northern California.


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