Polyglot Problems

is my most used Mandarin sentence.
As if my “B in Chinese”
is my proof
that I can BE a Chinese,
我会看,会说,会写 华语,
I am no 香蕉,
will not taste good when
split in half,
crammed full of vanilla
and remade into a 甜品
my ancestors would reject
in favour of 红豆糖水。

That’s a lie that sounds good—
I have no idea what dessert
my ancestors would desert ice cream for.
My grandparents are of no help;
their idea of treats involve
cekodok, ais kacang, onde onde
and tiap tiap pagi
kalau bukan makan roti telur
makan nasi lemak.
I have their all-accepting taste buds
and the tired arms of my father
attempting to lift both 大姐 and me.
Then 弟弟 came along and poor dad
is running out of hands,

which is exactly how it feels to introduce
myself to my angmoh friends
who are always confused by:
“my first language is English
but yes, technically 我的母语是华语,”
“No, I’ve never been to China
but I know my family came from
the Fujian province,
I learned the dialect
after someone said
lu xi hokkien lang
jia hokkien beng
mana eh sai bey hiao kong
hokkien wei?”
“Yeah, i’m sort of mixed?”
“Yo se abuk Kristang.”
“Hometown? Kak saya kata
kalau kite kene luka
darah yg keluar tu pun
nampak cam gula melaka.”
“No, I’m not Nyonya, I just use Malay a lot.
It’s my 国语 which
doesn’t cancel out the first statement.
国语 is my bahasa kebangsaan,
母语 is my bahasa ibunda.
They should not cancel out each other.”

They always laugh when I am done
and I am almost proud to entertain.
I have spent years perfecting this act,
mask painted on thickly no matter
which language I am attempting
to juggle for them next.
Years ago I burned my tongue
attempting to create some sort of harmony
between English, 华语,
Bahasa Malaysia, Hokkien and Kristang
and now cannot stop sounding like a bad joke.
I guess I’ve succeeded because
it no longer matters which language I speak
when all the words finally taste the same:

all the words taste like I stole them off someone else.

all the words taste like they don’t belong.



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