“Bilingual (Occasional)” by Chris Tse

Bilingual (Occasional) 
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.


One bow.
Two bows.
Three bows.


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 radicalisradix

      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.

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