The poem weighs the pros and cons of such an experience, noting that while moving to the United States brings increased freedoms (particularly for women), it also means losing one’s cultural heritage. The poet brings together traditional and contemporary images in this piece to paint a broad picture of life as a female, Chinese immigrant.
Explore Lost Sister
‘Lost Sister’ by Cathy Song reflects on the experiences of Chinese women, particularly those who emigrated to America and left their homeland behind.
The poem begins by describing how in China, even the peasant families named their first daughters “Jade,” symbolizing the preciousness and hope associated with the stone’s qualities. These daughters never left home, as their movements were restricted, and they learned to endure hardships and cultivate patience.
They were bound by tradition, learning patience in a restricted life. However, a sister crosses the ocean to America, leaving behind her name and identity. While America offers opportunities, it also presents loneliness and challenges, representing a new wilderness. She clings to her Chinese heritage with a jade link on her wrist, longing for connection despite the vast ocean separating her from her homeland.
Structure and Form
‘Lost Sister’ by Cathy Song is a free verse poem. It does not adhere to a specific metrical pattern or rhyme scheme, a characteristic of free verse poetry. The narrative form allows the poet to tell a story of two cultures and the challenges faced by a woman who migrates from one to the other.
The poem is divided into distinct sections, each portraying a different scene or idea. It starts with a vivid depiction of life in rural China, transitions into the journey and experience in America, and finally speaks of a longing for the homeland left behind. The lines are irregular in length, giving the poem a conversational or story-telling style. This structure also lends flexibility to the poem and allows the poet to express her ideas more freely.
In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Metaphor: This is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things. For instance, “learning to walk in shoes the size of teacups” is a metaphor for the painful Chinese practice of foot-binding.
- Simile: This is a comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as.” For example, “the inner hills glistening like slices of winter melon” creates a vivid comparison that illuminates the description.
- Imagery: Imagery is used to create a mental picture or sensation for the reader. This poem is filled with visual, tactile, and auditory imagery, such as “the healing green of the inner hills,” “a tide of locusts,” and “a giant snake rattles above, spewing black clouds into your kitchen.”
- Hyperbole: This is an exaggeration used for emphasis. For instance, “you remember your mother who walked for centuries” is a hyperbole to emphasize the long-standing tradition and culture.
even the peasants
glistening like slices of winter melon.
The first stanza introduces the reader to the setting, China, where even peasants name their first daughters Jade. The use of “even the peasants” suggests that this practice transcends socio-economic status. The name “Jade” is significant as it is a precious stone, revered in Chinese culture for its beauty and symbolic properties, such as purity, nobility, and perfection.
The jade is metaphorically described as a stone that “could moisten the dry season”, “make men move mountains,” and hold the “healing green of the inner hills”. This could refer to the preciousness of the daughters in their families and the hope that they bring even in difficult circumstances (something that is contrasted in the next few lines of the poem).
Women have a power: the poet implies here that is represented through their symbolic name (“Jade”).
And the daughters were grateful:
the noisy stomachs.
In the second stanza of this poem, the poet highlights the challenging realities of these women’s lives. Although they’re named after a highly important stone, their freedom is very restricted. The poet uses phrases like they never left home” and “To move freely was a luxury stolen from them at birth.”
If these women want any kind of freedom, they have to take it, and the people around them aren’t going to like it. There is another reference to Chinese culture in these lines when the poet mentions “shoes the size of teacups.” This is an allusion to the tradition of Chinese foot-binding, an oppressive historical practice that changed the shape of women’s feet in a way that some found beautiful.
The poet continues suggesting that these women are oppressed through phrases like “as dormant as the rooted willow, as redundant as the farmyard hens.” The poet shows their limited roles and activities within day-to-day life.
However, they’re still quite strong. They contend with a great deal.
There is a sister
and women can stride along with men.
In the second half of the poem, the narrative shifts to describe a “sister / across the ocean.” The poet suggests that she gave up her name and the cultural identity that’s tied to it. The mixing of jade green with the blue of the Pacific could signify the blending or even the dilution of the sister’s Chinese identity with her new American life.
The poet goes on, saying that she, along with others, immigrated to new lands looking for a better life and new opportunities. In the U.S., the poet writes, there are increased opportunities and freedom for women compared to traditional Chinese culture.
But in another wilderness,
tapping into your communication systems
of laundry lines and restaurant chains.
In the second to last stanza, the poet describes the “wilderness” of this new world. Here, the feelings of isolation and the difficulties in navigating a new society are poignantly captured. The poet writes about “meager provisions” and the “sentiments / of once belonging.” These things have to be accepted in order to continue this new life.
In the next lines, the poet makes use of powerful examples of imagery. For example, ”Fermented roots, Mah-Jongg tiles, and firecrackers” are symbols of their Chinese culture, but in the context of the U.S., they form “but a flimsy household in a forest of nightless cities.”
The poet also uses images that might be alluding to industrialization and its pollutants, something that’s very different from the agricultural towns in China.
The stanza concludes with the poet writing that the “Dough-faced landlords slip in and out of your keyholes,” symbols for figures of authority, tap into “your communication systems / of laundry lines and restaurant chains.” These are places where immigrants can find one another and feel as though they can reclaim some of their heritage.
You find you need China:
the unremitting space of your rebellion.
In the final lines of the poem, the poet describes immigrants as attempting to maintain ties to their homeland while being in a foreign country. Those who’ve come to the U.S. to escape aspects of China, as the sister mentioned at the beginning of Part II, realize that their bond with their native land still remains significant and is a crucial part of one’s identity.
The speaker remembers her mother, “who walked for centuries, footless.” This could be a reference to the cultural practice of foot-binding and the historical constraints that Chinese women have faced. The mother’s walk for “centuries” shows the long-standing cultural traditions and expectations.
The poem concludes with another powerful image. The “unremitting space of your rebellion” may symbolize the speaker’s decision to leave China and forge her own path, showing a break from tradition and the challenges that come with it.
The central theme of the poem is the exploration of the immigrant experience. The poet chose to focus on the lives of Chinese women who face cultural displacement. They also contend with a clash of traditions and the struggle of assimilation in the USA.
The tone of this poem is reflective and poignant. The poem conveys a sense of longing for a past and a culture left behind and a deep understanding of the struggles and sacrifices that come with displacement.
In the poem, the “jade” symbolizes Chinese women. Jade is a precious stone in Chinese culture, signifying beauty, purity, and strength. Naming their daughters Jade reflects the value and hope that families place on them.
The poem portrays the immigrant experience as one filled with challenges. Some of these include cultural displacement, language barriers, and unfamiliarity with the new surroundings.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Cathy Song poems. For example:
- ‘The Youngest Daughter’ – explores the relationship between an aging daughter and her mother.
Some other related poems include: