native tongue: poetry and prose

I’m calling this a then and now, but it’s probably closer to a translation. I remember reading a list of writing exercises (in middle school, I think), that suggested writing poetry, putting it away for a few months, then turning it into prose, putting that away, and turning that piece back into a poem. It has taken me just over a decade to try this. [For the record, I am choosing to see this not as a sign of some inherent need to procrastinate, but of (a) having an excellent memory and (b) setting really long-term goals, then following through.]

Anyway, as I mentioned before, I’ve been writing through The Undeniables since the beginning of November. (See the terrible first piece here. Or read a piece I’m actually a little proud of.) Coming up with topics has been kind of a struggle, the same struggle that has been a really convenient excuse not to write fiction for the past two decade or so. (I was a very prolific author in early elementary school.)

Today, I forced myself to submit a piece to a lit mag, something that has been on my calendar for the last three months (long-term goals, not procrastination). Instead of pulling together some of my Undeniables fiction (procrastination, goal fail), I ended up turning in a spoken-word piece, and I was going to cheat and post it to my Undeniables blog, too, but pretty much the only requirement of the Writers Workshop is that you write every day, so instead I turned the poem into prose. Fin introduction.

native tongue
(April 25, 2011)

It’s that ‘compliment’ that I know is going to make me angry:
‘Wow! You speak English so well. You’re so — eloquent! Where did you learn to talk like that?’

Where did I learn to talk like that?
Motherfucker, I was born here.

I study poems like the lines of my hands, devour novels like short stories, curl up at night with the Oxford English Dictionary tucked under my pillow –-
Actually, that was hyperbole, exaggeration used as rhetorical device.
Have you seen the Oxford English Dictionary? It’s, like, real real big

If you slept with the OED tucked under your pillow, you’d wake up with a crick in your neck and a spine as stiff as the one you pressed your cheek against.

That was wordplay, asshole.

I do double entendres, too.
I have earned my poetic license,
spent my hours behind the wheel,
passed your accent tests, too.

You — do you know what this language has cost me?
I am first-generation Chinese illiterate.
I cannot read my grandfather’s poems.
I live 6,776 miles away from the ashes of my grandmother’s bones.
And I am still searching for a way to write the word ‘home’ in a tongue that feels like my own.
I am still searching for cracks in the concrete to sink my naked roots in.

Maybe that’s why the word ‘diaspora’ depresses me.
Every time I hear it, I think of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind.

They can’t go home again.
I can’t go home again.
And I know I will write this poem again.

I know I will write this poem again
So maybe my rage is displaced —
I am aiming my anger at easy-target bigots
Instead of facing the fact that sometimes I resent my parents, for turning their backs on Taiwan,
for leaving behind tea and rice for Coke and Big Macs,
for the pursuit of an American dream built on San Francisco railroads,
built on Chinese workers backs.

Maybe I’m tired of seeing the banana in the mirror,
yellow on the outside, white on the inside,
split between a culture I’m surrounded by,
and one I don’t even really know.

Maybe I’m afraid to face my disappointment in myself,
for choosing to study French instead of Chinese;
I cannot read the stories my grandmother told to her four children.

And maybe I’m embarrassed by my shame,
embarrassed to be embarrassed when strangers mispronounce my name,
the way I mispronounce the phrases my parents spoke as schoolchildren,
the phrases they would speak if they went home again.

They can go home again.
But I — I can’t go home again
And I know I will write this poem again
In English,
which I speak
so well.

native tongue
(December 22, 2011)

Every time someone comments on my writing or the way I speak, I feel myself controlling my reaction. Most times, I accept the compliment at face value, but I’m always aware of undertones, or of the way faces register surprise. These days, most people are sophisticated enough to know they’re not supposed to ask where people “are really from,” but the question is still there, their faces comical as they desperately try to control their expressions and mask their curiosity.

Once, when I was on vacation in China, I overheard an older white couple struggling with chopsticks and trying to figure out if they could procure other utensils. When I offered to help, in fluent English, the woman practically jumped, like I was a secret agent sneakily blending in with the locals. (For the record, no Chinese person ever mistook me as a native, even before I opened my Coke-drinking mouth.)

The woman carefully pulled her eyebrows back to their normal resting place, thanked me for the offer, stuttered a bit, and finally settled for commenting on how eloquent I was.Eloquent. I hate that these strangers have imbued such a beautiful word with the dark stain of their own ignorance. I imagine running into that same woman on a street in California, wonder if she would speak slowly and loudly to me, then jump the same way at my rapid-fire, unaccented response.

During that same trip, I cursed my own inability to blend in, the way my tongue felt clumsy trying to wrap around the sounds my ears were used to hearing; there was some kind of disconnect in my brain that I just couldn’t get around, a physical metaphor of the vast gap between how I’d imagined my return to the Motherland and the hourly reminders that I was a foreigner here, too.

I jotted down fragments of thoughts in a notebook I had shoved into my back pocket, composed a few lines of what later became a spoken-word piece grappling with hyphenated identity. At the time, though, I was bitter that even my sense of loss was expressed in English, that I couldn’t document the things I was feeling in the language I grew up with but had never mastered. As a poet, being functionally conversational is not much better than not being able to speak a language at all; the nuances of words, of their tone, the complexities of their accreted meaning — all of the things that make language beautiful — are swept away when you’re using words as crude tools, enough to get by on. I wanted art. I wanted poetry. I wanted to be able to read the poems my grandfather composed during his own twenty-something existential crises.

The word “diaspora,” from the Greek for “scattering, dispersion,” has always had a haunting quality to me. All I can think of is people being thrown to the wind like dandelion seeds, incapable of finding their way back to their roots. My own parents’ journey to the States was already an echo of their own parents’ migrations: China to Taiwan to San Francisco, following the paths of so many others who, to the bai ren, all look the same. Even the stories start to sound alike, so that the second-generation kids, eager to bust out of another family history lesson and rejoin their American friends in pickup football, start to conflate the details into one shared narrative. We gave up our family to come here. To make a better life for you. To provide you with opportunities. So you could vote. So you could be free. So you could have a career, daughter. Get an education. Study hard. Make our sacrifice worthwhile.

For them, the storytellers, fate has already been sealed. Their greatest fears are realized when they finally understand that they, too, have lost the poetry of their native tongue. Their American schoolchildren do not hear the melody of their words; their alphabet-blinded eyes cannot recognize the beauty of delicate brushstrokes, the visual puns and secret messages waiting to be discovered. What use, then, is it to speak in metaphor, to imprint their daily banter with idioms?

The irony is deep, generational. I have taken the poetry of Chinese away from my parents, robbed them of an audience; they, my birthright voice, by surrounding me in a culture that promised success and demanded perfect diction as its price.

Somewhere, floating above our heads, dandelion seeds are being tossed in air currents, desperately seeking fertile soil to sink in shallow roots.

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