Poetry Feature: Memories of Saltwater on Skin - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

Memories of Saltwater on Skin


I learned to float when I was three,

When my mother carried me to the middle of the beach.

She let go,

Keeping a hand on my back as I figured out

How to relax and let the water guide me.


I learned to swim when I was five,

When she threw me into the deep end of the pool.

I remember her laughter—

I remember mine when I finally figured it out.


I grew up in Hong Kong,

The sweet-smelling harbour

Built for and around the wet markets

Selling freshly caught fish and other sea products.

We’re far from the British port colony

We were when we began,

But our past is held in our hearts,

And my people do not forget.


Just like my home,

Much of my past was built around the water.

Sandballs in lieu of snow,

Mermaid scale salt crystals drying on my skin.,

Dragon Boat Festivals and swimming lessons.

My childhood was built around the water,

My people relished in the smell of salt,

The feeling of rainwater and typhoon wind on skin.

The coast and sea our pride and joy.


Now I am far away.

I live in Arkansas, an inland state.

The closest thing I have to home,

Are memories and lakes and water.

There’s a pool next to my school and chlorine smells the same.

I see packages of fish at Walmart and remember

The old fishermen of the wet markets of home.

I burn candles with blue labels that say ‘sea’

And think of how sweet they smell.

Too sweet, not musky enough,

Pale imitations of beaches and harboursides.


The water brings me home.

Water never changes, cycles of hydrogen and oxygen.

There remains a possibility,

That the rain that falls on my face today

Once fell on my face in Hong Kong.



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