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First Chinese Breakfast

They eat in almost total silence
All around me
In the guest professors' dormitory
Dining hall
In Chengdu
Boiled eggs, noodle soup
Sesame rolls
Noodles, almond cookies
The only noise
The slurping of tea
And spitting
As they eat
I think perhaps it's
Just the natural
Chinese way-utter
Seriousness in beginning
The day
And then I start to think
It's all the fear
Mao put in them
Especially after
The gorgeous 20 year-old
Computer-science student plops
Down next to me and
Pumps me-eyes all alight,
Pretty face glowing-
About America, where I come
From, what all the
Different cities are like-
I tell her I'm sad
To see so many beggars
In Chengdu-and homeless
She looks hurt, as
If I've given her
A personal insult
I haven't learned yet
There are strict Chinese parameters
And pretexts
For breaking silence
And to speak of human
Misery isn't one of them
Then that afternoon
In the dirty Tibetan alleys of
Chengdu I finally understand
Where all that silence
Is born as I encounter
Even more terrible
Beggars straight out of Dickens
They grab your shoulder
Or your waist
They refuse to let go-
They hold their sick and starving
Child in your face
And they force you
Either to become a saint
Or to turn away
In silence
To become less than human
Like the rest of us.

Gerald Nicosia is the author of MEMORY BABE: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF JACK KEROUAC, HOME TO WAR: A HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS' MOVEMENT, and several books of poetry. He is also a well-known reviewer and critic for many major newspapers, including the WASHINGTON POST, CHICAGO TRIBUNE, and SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. For more than the thirty years, he has been associated with the post-Beat movement in American poetry, mainly in the Bay Area of San Francisco. He also lectures on the Beats, the Vietnam War, and the Sixties at colleges throughout the United States and around the world-and was recently asked to teach Beat literature at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China.