by Chris Tse
Re-learning a language with a rock
in my mouth—the slow back
and forth as I think in different
lives—translation being a taste
of the oldest past, further back than
what the first word can contain
insomuch as any singular, abandoned
definition is a spark that makes it stick.
When, then? In a way it’s the rote that
prevails, syllables in mutual repetition,
building blocks compressed into presence.
Then, when a manner of speaking is the
fortuitous hook charged with getting me
across the line, repeatedly, volley at
the net, I still find myself mumbling
in English as I 拜山 at
my grandparents’ graves with well wishes
and requests for guidance.
I only make do with patterns, the far
reach and the distant hand closed
around what I can’t find the words for—
far, closed, distant, shut—and so on
until I give up trying or someone stops listening
and we go back to watching the news.
Four hours ahead in Aotearoa, I watch
the past and the future unravel on television.
In Hong Kong the protests are the crack of a
thousand umbrellas calling forth their own storm
and it’s clear the language of anger and revolt
is the same wherever there is something
to protect. The protestors’ signs make it clear:
Use Cantonese in Hong Kong.
My other tongue—the one used for ordering
蝦餃 and asking about the weather—
my other tongue has a radical power!? In English,
my name rhymes with peace, but in Chinese
it gives thanks. A revolution is the opposite of
peace and thanks—it’s our pleasantries set alight.
The radical began with radicalis, radix—
the roots, the basics. That our modern
uprisings are rooted in supposedly
dead languages cannot be ignored by
lawmakers with gangs on speed dial or
government officials who refuse to listen.
I hear every word in the world shift and so
I trade meaning for intent
wearing down the rock in my mouth
coating each word with its hardness
until there is no longer a switch—just one swift
movement, a brick cast in the middle of a protest.
I feel everything colliding 9,424km away in
Wellington, where the storm can’t take my tongue.
How to cite: Tse, Chris. “Bilingual (Occasional).” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 18 Apr. 2021, hkprotesting.com/2021/04/18/bilingual-occasional/.
Chris Tse is the author of two poetry collections published by Auckland University Press, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (winner of Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards) and HE’S SO MASC. He is co-editor of Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers From Aotearoa, due to be published later this year. He lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Visit his website for more information.