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Posted on Sun, Feb 20, 2011 : 5:12 a.m.

A pair of poems for our children at King School International Night

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang with Crystal's grandfather, Mr. Yunyao Chen, at King School International Night | photograph Mauricio Moeller

When I asked Crystal’s grandfather if he could write some Chinese calligraphy for King School’s International Night, I naively thought it was just a matter of his putting brush to paper and writing some pretty Chinese characters on red paper.

My job was to get a long roll of red paper from the art teacher and send it home on the school bus with little kindergartener Crystal. That I knew how to do. I wrapped it up tight in a clear plastic trash bag to safely school bus- and kindergartner-proof it. The paper was taller than she was.

I did not even think about what Crystal’s grandfather should write, other than a Chinese New Year’s poetry couplet or dui lian, from the Chinese New Year’s tradition of paired door hangings to protect the household and express wishes for the new year — usually something about family and fortune and long life. I explained to Crystal’s grandfather the sort of place King School was and all our hopes and dreams for King School’s International Night, “Bringing us together. Celebrating our diversity.”

Even then, I did not really understand, and I sort of imagined him looking something up from a giant book of poems, with that thin almost translucent Chinese paper.

The next thing I knew, he had composed two nine-word verses for us in a pocket-sized spiral notebook, the children described as a garden of multihued flowers.

I knew I was out of my depth, so I immediately took him to King School so he could see the space and measure the stage. These poems were going to be huge. He clearly knew not only the literary tradition, but also a multitude of artistic and logistical considerations. The Korean and Indian dance groups were rehearsing all around us in their colorful costumes, while on the other side of the school, another group was writing poems at a family writing workshop.

Crystal’s grandfather rewrote the two verses into a seven-word format to fit the space, each word a tightly packed literary allusion. Even though I could read and understand each individual word, it took more than 30 minutes for him to unpack the full meaning of the poems, each word representing many more.

Roughly translated, and nowhere near as poetic:

Many-colored flowers (the children) together become better and better until they turn into the most beautiful of colors (the color of spring).

Children from all eight directions (families from around the world) come together in friendship and harmony to create beautiful music (the way different individual instruments create a symphony together).

We tweaked the tradition somewhat and for the horizontal third stanza, we switched to English, "King International Night," accented with Indian textiles, white doves, and a giant yellow rabbit.

About 350 children danced and sang and more in front of those poems that night, 29 performances representing more than 25 countries and cultures, with about 1,000 people watching, taking photographs and videos to share with other friends and relatives around the world. With these two simple poems, only 14 words, all our hopes and dreams for our children were embedded so beautifully into the background of our community.

I wish I had the literary background and artistic talent to write or appreciate Chinese calligraphy, poetry, art. I know a little bit from here and there, enough to be painfully aware of how little I know. Sometimes I think I will have time when I am older, when I am a grandmother myself, but I am sure that I will not have the patience. My talents lie in Photoshop, Illustrator, Pagemaker.

Until then, I am grateful to meet and learn from grandfathers like Crystal’s, and I proudly hang Little Brother’s first calligraphy on the wall, a big bulky blob of black ink filling the page, “a Transformer.”

Note: Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is the chairperson of King Elementary School’s annual International Night celebration.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at