Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities redefines vulnerability, blurring the distinction between the victim and the perpetrator of conflict and emotional violence. Chen Chen juxtaposes the voice of a young boy struggling with his identity amidst a tumultuous reality, with the voice of that grown-up boy that has come into himself and become wiser, while having to deal with the aftermath of that trying environment and years of personal dissension and uncertainty. “In The Hospital” presents a speaker wrestling with their identity whilst their mother is sick in the hospital, and his current self, recognizing the flaws in his past ways of thinking. Chen Chen sets forth this tension from the very first line “My mother was in the hospital & everyone wanted to be my friend”. On the surface, this line introduces the temporal setting of the speaker as looking back on the past. However, upon deeper analysis, this phrase functions in a much deeper sense to reveal the tension of the speaker, both in the moment of his mother’s suffering and in the moment of reflecting on the ignorance of his past self.
One such embodiment of this tension exists in Chen Chen’s choice of the ampersand rather than the fully written word “and.” The consistent use of the ampersand throughout the poem appears to be pragmatic in orthographically representing the speaker’s listing off of his memories, but the content of these memories proves the use of the ampersand inappropriate, as it implies a sense of nonchalance about a subject that is anything but. The speaker’s methodical, passive listing off his younger experiences while in the present moment enacting the list as a means of coming to terms with his past experiences; thus the ampersand stands as a connection between these two disparities. Not only does the content within this phrase do work, but the phrase itself, particularly in its recurrence, dually serves as a representation of the speaker’s ignorance in his youth and self-awareness in his growth.
The first lines behave as an anaphora, by which the phrase “My mother was in the hospital & everyone wanted to be my friend” is repeated and modified in subsequent clauses. The initial phrase and its subsequent modification, “My mother were in the hospital & I didn’t want to be her friend” highlights the flaws of the speaker’s past self, indicating a level of narcissism and self-concern the speaker experienced that overshadowed his mother’s pain in the moment of her suffering. However, the modified lines “My mother was in the hospital & no one wanted to be her friend”, and “My mother was in the hospital & she didn’t want to be her friend” suggest a level of self-awareness by the speaker; as an adult, he is able to recognize the extent of his mother’s pain and suffering when she was in the hospital.
Therefore, analyzing the culmination of these phrases indicates this same juxtaposition of the present and past character of the speaker; the tension between the actions and feelings of the younger and the present speaker’s growth and reflection and judgment on the ignorance of his former self. This idea of opposites is further conveyed within the imagery Chen Chen employs. The speaker introduces images in a short, bulleted manner to list details of the past settings, also well as characterize his feelings. Such examples include, “Good dog, bad citizen, short skeleton, tall mocha” , “Tall latte, short tale, bad plot, great wifi”, “Low-fat yogurt, firm tofu”. The vague content of these images and the passive way in which they are presented further represent this tension between the past and present, as though they may seem to be banal, these images are anything but.
Chen Chen’s struggle with his identity and lifelong experience with emotional pain is not a one-sided experience, as we see in his relationship with his sick mother. Both have been victims and perpetrators of emotional pain; in the moment of “In the Hospital,” the confusion experienced by the character of the past speaker in regards to identity, and how his parents have failed to convey explicit acceptance it, prevails over concern for his mother’s health. The speaker externalizes this processing of intense and indeterminate emotion by projecting imagination of himself and his feelings on seemingly commonplace objects. Chen Chen’s imagery ultimately tears down the childhood construction of the “mother figure” as an all-powerful and perhaps unforgiving force, to reveal an understanding of his mother and their relationship as deeply human, tinged with memory and loss, and most importantly, personal growth.