Mississippi Transplant: Jianqing "John" Zheng
"There’s a saying in my culture: A tree that is transplanted may die, and a person who is transplanted has a chance to survive."
What does it mean to call Mississippi home? Why do people choose to leave or live in this weird, wonderful, and sometimes infuriating place? Today we hear from the professor, photographer, and poet John Zheng.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from China, and geographically from a metropolitan river city in Central China where I lived for thirty-some years.
When did you move to Mississippi and why did you move here?
I moved to Mississippi in the summer of 1991 to pursue graduate studies. After teaching at a college for about ten years, I switched my role to being a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi. I was lucky to have the USM Foundation fellowship established by the late Dr. Don George and his wife Mrs. Nell George. My initial goal was to earn a doctoral degree in literature, but it turned out I had two concentrations—creative writing and modern literature—because Southern has such a gorgeous creative writing program that I wanted to be in.
What does “home” mean to you? How does Mississippi fit into that definition?
Home means my native land, my homestead, and my family. It’s a place where I have lived for some years and nurtured a feeling of attachment to it. I have lived in Mississippi for thirty-one years and relocated from Hattiesburg to the Delta in 1996. Day by day and year after year, I have gained a sense of place from living and working in the Delta. This sense of place depends on familiarity. And this familiarity attaches a meaning to or brings out significance from my life and job here. The longer I live here, the more I know about the place, and the better sense I will have to associate myself with the place. And this sense of place remains in hibernation, but, for instance, after you are away for a two-week trip, your sense of place wakes you up with an eagerness to go back to it.
Honestly, the place where I came from has changed too fast. It’s no longer the place I can recognize. Its visual newness and expansion have wiped out many places saved in my memory.
What do you miss most about the place where you’re from?
Thank you for the good question. What I have missed most is the family relationship or the togetherness. I feel sorry for my long absence from the city where my parents still live and where I used to live. Their old age and loneliness make me feel guilty for not being around. I wish I could spend some time with them and take good care of them. Each week I call, and they tell me not to worry about them. When I tell them to be careful when taking a walk, they joke that my mother is an ear for my father who is kind of deaf and my father is a walking cane for my mother who can’t walk steadily by herself.
Honestly, the place where I came from has changed too fast. It’s no longer the place I can recognize. Its visual newness and expansion have wiped out many places saved in my memory. In 2009 while serving as a Fulbright Scholar teaching at a university there, I wanted to go to Laotongcheng, a restaurant established in the 1930s, with a wish to have a plate of delicious doupi, a very popular food famous nationwide, but I simply couldn’t find the restaurant. It had been erased and its site turned into the exit of the underwater tunnel. I heard that it reopened its business a year later in a new place. But you know, when it no longer sits there, the sweet memory of the restaurant is gone, and the flavor and taste of its locality are gone too. In the same way, when you are a transplant for three decades, the place where you are from fades out into memories, into a place of no return, into the aromas of local foods.
How have you cultivated community in Mississippi? Who are the people who have made you feel rooted here?
Though I think loneliness is essential to being human. I also think, as Aristotle said, that human beings are social animals since we need to communicate with each other, seek friendships, and form communities. Having lived in Mississippi for three decades, I have provided community services. I served on the Mississippi Poet Laureate Selection Panel and on a few grant panels. I also served as an art ambassador for the Mississippi Arts Commission, a grant reviewer, a copy editor, and a writing instructor in the community GED program. Another kind of service, maybe indirectly, is that I chaired the Mississippi Philological Association (MPA) annual conference four times which attracted participants from other parts of Mississippi and from other states—including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin—and foreign countries to come to the Delta, stay overnight, visit local places, and enjoy local food. I also invited Mississippi poets and blues musicians to read and perform at the MPA conferences.
Personally, a good way to cultivate the community is to see it as a learning source. I like to drive in the Delta and take photographs of whatever catches my eye. Sometimes I work on a photographic project for a journal. A few years ago, I worked several times for The Southern Quarterly on photo essays about African American hospitals and clinics in the Delta, the Lower Mississippi River, Robert Johnson, and Emmett Till.
In a sense, this path has been a simple and straight one for me. I was a professor of English in China and for the past twenty-six years, I have been a professor of English in Mississippi. I have never changed a lane in a different direction.
You know, when you drive to different places to photograph, you are both a seer and a learner because you cultivate not just the communities but also the history and culture. I remember the information I found in a local newspaper of the early 1970s gave me a lead to discovering the cornerstone of the African American hospital in Greenville, Mississippi. When a local medical doctor read my photo essay, he gave me a call and thanked me for finding the cornerstone, saying he went over immediately to the location to see it. This tells me that the more you learn about the place, the better you know about what you can do for the community. In the academic arena, I directed two institutional grants, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, on Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Sterling Plumpp, three African American writers from Mississippi. I also directed a project on Emmett Till, funded by Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. These projects provided opportunities for faculty and students to learn more about the place, history, racism, and literature of Mississippi.
The people who have made me feel rooted here are my colleagues, neighbors, students, and friends. They make me feel like a member of the community and of the university and help me develop a sense of belonging. That’s why I always feel urged to write about and photograph the place to discover its internal beauty and its humanities. I also like historic photographs taken by Mississippians such as Eudora Welty and Bill Ferris. Their photographs invite me to follow their steps to different places in Mississippi and even challenge me to write my ekphrastic poetry with the intention of better understanding and interpretation of the places, people, and history presented by them.
What’s the weirdest question or assumption you’ve encountered about Mississippi (or about you as a Mississippian) by someone who’s never been here?
It could be "Where are you from?" Once I was asked where I was from, and I answered I was from Mississippi, and my answer triggered the second question, “Where are you originally from?” You know your color, identity, and accent betrayed you. Another time in New York where I was invited to do a poetry reading, one of the organizers who picked me up at the airport said the most southern place she ever went was Memphis where she went to visit Graceland. Her tone indicated that Mississippi was in the world of nowhere.
Personally, when asked where I am from, I never feel it’s the weirdest question. To me, it may be a question out of curiosity although the question itself, used on different occasions, may suggest different meanings. Some people may be sensitive, thinking the question is racial, discriminative, exclusive, but I think it expresses one’s curiosity to know more about you. One night last week at a party, when asked where he was from, the Indian student answered he was from Mississippi State University, but that was not the expected answer, so the person said she wanted to know which country he came from. Her curiosity struck up a nice chat between the two. This example indicates that a question may get an unexpected answer when one thinks differently.
One more thing to add. As a literary magazine editor, I recently published a special issue on the topic of “where you are from” for the fall 2022 issue of Valley Voices, and many writers gave thought to the question through their essays, stories, poetry, and photographs. Some of them are from other countries such as Australia and Ghana.
There’s a saying in my culture: A tree that is transplanted may die, and a person who is transplanted has a chance to survive. This can be a tipping point, and to me, this has a double meaning. Since I have transplanted myself in Mississippi, I am just like a tree not to be transplanted again.
How has living in Mississippi affected your identity and your life’s path?
Everything has a positive or negative part. Too much sensitivity to one’s identity may result in separating oneself from others, or developing a sense of exclusion. Politically and economically speaking, identity does affect one’s opinion about society and existence in a place where ethnic and cultural background is at play. Though we should feel proud of our cultural and racial identity, we also understand that identity implies certain social, economic, and political issues. Those issues may reveal one’s prejudice or attitude. But the basis for living in Mississippi is whether you can identify with the community with what you can serve. If living in Mississippi makes you feel at home and proud of it and you can see its beauty, you certainly tend to identify with it.
As an Asian American writer, I fully understand that my life’s path is long and needs to be covered with gravel of goals at each section. In a sense, this path has been a simple and straight one for me. I was a professor of English in China and for the past twenty-six years, I have been a professor of English in Mississippi. I have never changed a lane in a different direction. So, living and working in Mississippi has really helped me understand who I am, where I am, and what I do as a resident, a writer, and an academic.
What is something that you’ve learned about Mississippi only by living here? In what ways has Mississippi lived up to your expectations?
Seeing is believing. By living in Mississippi, I’ve learned that Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, and many people live in poverty here and need better education, better jobs, and a better life. It is a giant challenge for the government, politicians, and communities. However, I also feel that it’s a tranquil and less populated place where I can live a simple and quiet life and have ample time to remain conscious and write about the place. I have finished a poetry manuscript tentatively titled Relocating the Self. It’s about life in the Mississippi Delta.
Have you ever thought about moving away? Does a sense of duty keep you rooted here? Do you have a “tipping point”?
Haven’t thought about it yet. Maybe when I retire, I will ask myself whether I need to go. Be a homeless camper to travel around or move to a place close to my child but moving or uprooting may not be realistic at retirement age since housing elsewhere can be too expensive. Now I feel rooted like a magnolia tree blooming in the land of Mississippi. As for the tip, there’s a saying in my culture: A tree that is transplanted may die, and a person who is transplanted has a chance to survive. This can be a tipping point, and to me, this has a double meaning. Since I have transplanted myself in Mississippi, I am just like a tree not to be transplanted again.
What do you wish the rest of the country understood about Mississippi?
I remember when I was about to leave for America, two American teachers teaching at my university there told me that they saw lots of pine trees lining the highway in Mississippi when they had their cross-country road trip. That was all they remembered about this hospitality state. Having lived in Mississippi for more than thirty years, I feel positive that Mississippi maintains its beauty in its simplicity, flatness, and quietness. Here, you can see, feel, taste, smell, and touch its tranquility that calms you down, offers you a momentary stay against confusion if you feel confused about life, and makes you feel you are still yourself.
Do you have a favorite Mississippi writer, artist, or musician who you think everyone needs to know about?
My favorite Mississippi writer is Eudora Welty. Her writings are about different walks of life. They are significant, metaphoric, and interesting to read. She was also a great photographer. She has been widely read, loved, and studied, but in contrast to William Faulkner whose novels attract tireless and endless scholarships with even an annual conference on him at Ole Miss, Welty seems to have shied away a bit from scholars. But she’s my favorite writer to read and teach. I also adapted portions of her novel Delta Wedding into a series of haiku and portions of her One Writer’s Beginnings into found poems. Moreover, I have been fascinated by her photographs of African Americans in Mississippi and have written ekphrastic poetry about them. Three other favorite Mississippi writers are Richard Wright, Sterling Plumpp, and Jerry W. Ward, and I have edited a book about each of them.
Here, you can see, feel, taste, smell, and touch its tranquility that calms you down, offers you a momentary stay against confusion if you feel confused about life, and makes you feel you are still yourself.
If you had one billion dollars to invest in Mississippi, how would you spend your money?
What a daydream! If I had one billion dollars, the first thing I would like to do is to have our teaching building at Mississippi Valley State renovated as soon as possible or set up a new building for our department. Short of funds, our teaching building has not been renovated yet since our department moved out of it 18 years ago. Anyhow, that’s a daydream that can’t be dreamed.
What or who do you want to shamelessly promote? (It can absolutely be a project you’re working on, or something you are involved in.)
I have been shamelessly promoting many writers through the four journals I founded. One is Poetry South, which is edited now by Kendall Dunkelberg at “The W,” and two other journals still edited by me are Valley Voices and the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. What I have planned to promote is a poetry reading project which I wish to be federally funded so I can invite poets, especially Mississippi poets, to come to read their poems on our campus. I also wish to have the guts to promote my own poetry because my next poetry collection, The Dog Years of Reeducation, is to be published by Madville Publishing in February 2023. It’s about my farm life and reeducation in the 1970s.
Jianqing Zheng is the author of A Way of Looking (Silverfish Review Press, 2021), Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (Texas Review Press, 2019), Delta Sun (Red Moon Press 2018), and The Landscape of Mind (Slapering Hol Press, 2002). His edited books include Conversations with Dana Gioia, African American Haiku, The Other World of Richard Wright, and Sonia Sanchez’s Poetic Spirit through Haiku. He is a professor of English at Mississippi Valley State University where he edits Valley Voices: A Literary Review. His forthcoming collection of poetry, The Dog Years of Reeducation, will be published by Madville Publishing in February 2023.
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I had a similar experience in Moab, UT at the post office. I can’t remember why but an older couple, obviously a local, asked me where I was from. I knew what she meant but Annoyed I said, Utica, New York. She said, I mean, where are you from. Very annoyed I responded, I’m an Inuit . I’m actually Jewish and look very Mid Eastern or Indian. She looked at me quizzically for a few seconds, said Oh, and walked away.