The Chinese Room
The Chinese Room is a thought experiment that illustrates how a system can simulate true understanding.
The Chinese Room is full of secrets. Such as: locks
of cut off hair, mom’s battered Mandarin-English dictionary
(annotated in both languages), the first episodes
of C-dramas I gave up. I’d say it came to me in a dream
but that’s as cliché as poems about mother tongues,
and so I say instead that it came to me in a hitch
of breath mid-conversation, in the shape of clouds
at sundown, in fractal patterns and Lichtenberg figures,
in traditional Chinese. Too many lines, one too many
vertexes— is this mathematical or linguistic confusion?
Inside, the Chinese room was nice and cozy and looked
exactly like my room in my parents’ house. The sun
filtered through it. I was lying on the bed, thinking
of poles attached to too many signs, of rivers and tributaries,
of road maps, of new moons, of drinking Shanxi
black vinegar by the tablespoon, of inputs and outputs
and how I never learned how to tell right from left,
and how I knew xī only because it was the direction
Sūn Wùkōng was going, because I knew it
to be the direction boats went when they didn’t plan
on returning to port.
For weeks, she ate nothing
but sour plums and dried persimmons—
made her mouth a barrel
devoid of wine, snow
structureless flake, nothing
but form. For want
of water, she shriveled inwards,
melted her bones to slop, fed
the dogs with it until they whined.
When she put her hand
on the window her fingers
began to pass through the glass.
Outside, the maples shivered
with guilt. They, too, were beginning
to soften at the edges—
however harshly the wind whipped
them, they merely rubbed up
against each other like a girl’s
thighs as she walked.
A step away, a hungry wave
takes hold of a dead gull
and drags it out to sea.
This is the site
of an infinite swallowing.
Photograph of Jewel C. Cao by Karl Cao.