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Song of Calling Souls
by Wang Ping

BEFORE READING

Background

Born in Shanghai, China, in 1957, Wang Ping left China for New York in 1985. She published a book of short stories, American Visa (1995) and a novel, Foreign Devil (1996). Her poetry has appeared in many periodicals, including The Best American Poetry 1993 and The Best American Poetry 1996.

"Song of Calling Souls," which appeared in Sulfur, is Ping's response to an incident that occurred in March 1994, when 286 illegal Chinese immigrants aboard the sinking Golden Venture jumped into the ocean. Ten people drowned and six unclaimed bodies were buried in a common Grave in Paterson, New Jersey. This is Ping's prayer for peace for the six people buried there. Ping explains that there is nothing worse if you are Chinese than to become a yie qui, a stray ghost, someone who dies and is buried far from his or her home.

The impulse that led Fuzhou and Changle's emigrants to board ships such as the Golden Venture continues to be powerful today. According to a June 23, 2000, article in The New York Times, in Fuzhou and Changle, "emigration to the West is the local industry." More than 80 percent of Fuzhou's men aged 20 to 40 have left the town for the United States in the last 10 years. Though illegal immigrants to the United States may pay up to $70,000 each to so-called "snakeheads"-human smugglers-and risk their lives in the attempt, illegal work in the United States can pay up to $2,000 per month, versus $40 per month in China. This ongoing wave of emigration has resulted in great prosperity for Changle, so tragedies such as the drownings of Golden Venture immigrants will happen again.

About the Author

Wang Ping (b. 1957), Chinese-born U.S. educator, poet, and short story writer, was born in Shanghai, China. She was educated at the Hangzhou Foreign Language School and earned a B.A. in English and American literature from Beijing University, Beijing, China. While studying, she lectured in English and Chinese at several Chinese universities and institutes.

In 1985 Wang arrived in New York. She earned an M.A. in English and American literature at Long Island University, followed by a Ph.D. in comparative literature at New York University. While continuing her studies, she was a resource teacher for the New York City Board of Education and a poet-in-residence at two institutions. She also taught English composition, Chinese and Asian-American studies, Chinese and Chinese literature, creative writing, and fiction and poetry writing at several colleges and institutes. Since 1999, she has been assistant professor in the English department at Macalester College in Minnesota.

In 1994 Wang published a book of short stories, American Visa, followed by a translation, with others, of Flames by Xue Di (1995) and the novel Foreign Devil (1996). In 1998 a book of poetry, Of Flesh and Spirit (1998), was published. She then co-edited a poetry collection called New Generation: Poetry from China Today (1999). In 2000 a book called Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China will be published.

Wang's poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many periodicals, including The Literary Review, The World, Lingo, West Coast Line, and The Chicago Review. She also has given readings at many places in New York City and Detroit, on National Public Radio, and at many universities. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry 1993 and The Best American Poetry 1996.

Wang's awards include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. American Visa was judged 1994's Best Book for Young Adults by New York Public Libraries. She has also won several other grants and scholarships.

Wang's other activities include involvement in poetry projects in New York. She has translated and interpreted for famous American and Chinese poets at the 1989 American Chinese Poetry Festival and the 1992 readings and conferences on contemporary Chinese poetry organized by the Academy of American Poets.

Vocabulary

1. laofan—prison.
2. Fuzhou—the capital of Fujian, a province on China's southeast coast.
3. Changle—a seacoast county in Fujian province.
4. Mao—Mao Zedong (1893-1976), Chairman and principal architect of the communist government of the People's Republic of China.
5. fared—got along, traveled.
6. "snakeheads"—Fujianese smugglers of illegal aliens, or "snakes," into New York.
7. fu—fortune; good luck.
8. perpetual—everlasting, continual.
9. Rockaway—a beach town in New Jersey near where the Golden Venture went aground.
10. rolling—moving turbulently.

DURING READING

Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection and improve your comprehension of the essay.

AFTER READING

Answer the Questions to Consider in the book as a way to deepen your interpretation of the selection.

1. Why do the drowned voices want to tell their story?

2. Where do the men come from? What had they been doing before they took the sea voyage?

3. Why did they leave China?

4. What is "home" to the men? How and why does the idea of home change from the beginning to the end of the poem?

5. Why is it so important to the men that their names be called?

Bibliography

Wang Ping

American Visa (1995)
Foreign Devil (1996)

Asian-American Writers

Carlos Bulosan. America Is in the Heart: A Personal History (1943). A classic in Asian-American literature, depicting the collective life of thousands of Filipino immigrants in the United States.

Roger Daniels. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (1988). A definitive history of Chinese and Japanese Americans in the United States.

Jean Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar (1973). A landmark memoir of a Japanese family's experiences in the Manzanar Internment Camp during World War II.

Gish Jen. Typical American (1991). An acclaimed novel about Chinese-American life in the United States by a popular novelist and short-story writer.

Mary Paik Lee. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America (1990). The autobiographical account of a Korean family's struggles in California by one of the first Korean children to live on the West Coast.

Franklin Ng. The Asians in America (1998). A six-volume study of the Asian experience in the United States.

John Okada. No-No Boy (1957). A highly acclaimed novel about Japanese Americans who resisted serving in the U.S. Army's all-Nisei regiment during World War II.

Wang Ping. American Visa (1995). A short-story collection by a popular Shanghai-born U.S. writer.

Monica Sone. Nisei Daughter (1953). A well-known autobiography that recounts the experience of second-generation Japanese Americans in Seattle.

Ronald Takaki. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989). A survey of the Asian immigrant experience by a famed Japanese-American historian and educator.

Shawn Wong. Homebase (1979). An award-winning chronicle about four generations of a Chinese-American family that emigrated to the United States.





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