Literally. There is shit all over my black boots. The chicken kind, to be exact. It’s dry and green, brown and yellow, all the pretty colors of the shit rainbow, and it’s screaming at anyone and everyone proudly: I ammmm poooooop!
I pause in the middle of the lobby in the building where I work. My boots look like a mistake against the pristine floor. I look up. No one has noticed. Everyone is too busy trying to get to their respective offices. For a moment I think about driving all the way back home. I think about calling Alex and asking him to bring me another pair of shoes. I think about all the ways I could’ve dressed this morning, about the black pencil skirt hanging in my closet and the green summer dress that hid all my tummy fat.
Then I thought, “Oh, piss off inner voice. I’m proud of the chicken poop on my boots.”
Living on the other side of the train track
A train track runs through the west end of Chico, and every morning at precisely 7:00 we drove across it, first to drop off my brothers at the middle school, then to get to Pleasant Valley High School right before the first bell rings. In Chico there are only two high schools, and Mom and Dad did everything they could to make sure we went to the “good” school. Even if it meant driving us across town every morning. Even if it meant throwing us in with the sharks. The school we went to catered to a specific population—the kind that lived in the suburbs in houses with white picket fences. The kind that sat on PTAs and organized fundraisers to send their kids to Hawaii for a senior trip. It was the kind of school where no matter how much I tried to swim with the sharks, I couldn’t.
At the end of the day, we went back to our cockroach-infested apartment on the other side of the train track. The apartment had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen and a tiny living room that we’d overflow every time we had guests over. Being the children, my siblings and I would retreat to the kitchen or to the bedrooms. I spent years plucking freshly slaughtered chickens in that kitchen on a spread of old newspapers. The feathers, wet from being dunked in boiling water, clung to my fingers and the more I tried to fling them off, the harder they seemed to cling.
In high school, it felt like this townhouse was the chicken poop on my boots.
You can take them out of the ghetto
Last year, Sister bought a house north of town and moved Mom and Dad in, a dream we had had for as long as I could remember. The house is so new, Mom has a difficult time cooking on the stove. Dad set up a station in the back patio with their old microwave so he doesn’t have to use the new one in the kitchen. The first time I visited, Sister gave me a wry look and drawled, “You can take them out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of them.”
A little while ago, they had a small soul-calling ceremony, and by the time Alex and I got there, Mom had lain a few feet of industrial paper on the back patio. A pot of water boiled on the gas burner, and in a crate nearby, I heard the clucking of several chickens.
The Hmong believe a soul could be separated from a body through illness, a moment of great fear, or through the interception of a malevolent force—such as a spirit. And when such an activity occurred, a soul-calling ceremony—a hu plig—would return the soul to the body and restore the individual’s health. An animal is often sacrificed in this process, and chickens are the go-to for small ceremonies. As Mom expertly slaughtered the chickens, dunked them into the pot to loosen the feathers, and tossed them onto the industrial paper for me and my brother to pluck, I wondered whether the neighbors heard the clutter we made.
I squatted and began to pluck the wet feathers off a chicken in front of me. While my fingers worked as quickly as they could across the steaming body, I felt a pull in the corner of my eyes. From my vantage point, I could see the neighbor’s roof rise above the fence that surrounded my parents’ house. I estimated that their front door was roughly thirty yards away from my parents’ back patio, which meant if they were inside their house, they probably couldn’t hear the chaos that took place here (I mean, have you ever helped slaughter a chicken? They’re loud.). But, just in case they did and just in case they called the cops, as I plucked the chicken in front of me, I listened for sirens, and I rehearsed a speech about our First Amendment Rights.
When we finished, I realized I had chicken poop on my boots.
Fear and fighting
During that moment on the back patio, I was on high alert, and at first I thought it was embarrassment. Here we are, living in a first-world country, and my parents are still choosing third-world living conditions. I recognized the nervous discomfort at the core of myself. A fight or flight sensation that made it hard to breathe. I had felt it many times before—translating for my parents at the doctor’s office, hearing the word “welfare” uttered in my middle school cafeteria, trying to explain to our apartment manager that we needed a replacement slat for our window blinds (without the proper vocabulary).
But it wasn’t embarrassment, it was fear. For years I dreamed my family would be able to live in a home with no cockroaches. I dreamed my parents would have new couches (we had only ever had used ones from the thrift store) and a fridge that made its own ice. We’d have a backyard, a place of our own, and we’d be safe. And I was scared because I knew I would fight if anyone came to my parents’ door and told them they couldn’t have their hu plig. I would have the words to educate those people, I would have the education to back those words up, and I would have the courage to tell them to get the hell off my parents’ property.
Sometimes poop is more than poop
There’s one thing I know. Although my childhood was fraught with uncertainties, I always rest assured that my soul was in good hands. Dad was the spiritual head of our family, and he knew the chants like I know the lyrics to Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (JK, he knows those chants way better than I would ever know BSB’s songs—hehehe).
When my parents moved, I wanted to donate their old microwave—the one Dad put on the back patio. I was going through a minimalism phase, and when he insisted on keeping it, along with a truck load of knick knacks, I was frustrated. Why would he want to keep all this shit?
I quickly learned that for Dad, it wasn’t shit. Just because I’m uncomfortable with all of those things and what they represent, doesn’t mean that he is. His refugee experience is different than mine. His experience with capitalism, with having and not having, with assimilation, with racism, with anything and everything in America is different than mine. What is shit to me may not be shit to him. It may be treasure.
Be proud of the chicken poop on your boots
At first, I wanted to change my parents—to turn them into those sharks I couldn’t swim with in high school—but now I realize how wrong I was. Everyday they remind me that chicken poop isn’t bad. Yes, it stinks. Yes, other people might not understand it. But chicken poop anchors me to my roots and to my true self.
I went to work that day with chicken poop on my boots. That afternoon, I had a class presentation. As I began my speech about why students needed to visit The Writing Center where I work, I saw a girl in the front row look at my boots, saw her eyebrows come together as she recognized the green, brown, yellow colors of the shit rainbow. And you know what? It didn’t even phase me.
I’m proud of the chicken poop on my boots. I realize I will never be able to get certain chicken poop off of them, but maybe some poop are meant to stay, and I'm okay with that.
In this post I’ve used the chicken poop on my boots as a metaphor for the different parts of my life and identity. What’s the chicken poop on your feet?