Poetry / December 2015 (Issue 30)

Mother Tongue

by Tegan Smyth

Language. The nexus between culture and identity or a perverse form of street cred.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you speak to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

My father-tongue is English with an Australian intonation,
Well, I might say Chinese too with some hesitation.
You see, my mum tried to speak to me in Cantonese,
As a baby, but the whiff of the language evaporated in my teens.
But her mother tongue is the more obscure Hakka,
A dialect spoken by a vanishing generation and far,
Far removed from ivory tower theory and academia,
But speakers still moved mountains, like the father of modern China.
A salt-of-the earth dialect with words churning in a gyre,
Half of my heritage but if I call myself it, I would be a liar.
As the decision that I would never learn this language was made before I was.

My mother recalled her first month in school, a clear recollection though so young,
She couldn't understand the kids making unfamiliar sounds in another tongue,
She realised that what she spoke at home invoked provincialism in their eyes,
She learnt a new dialect to integrate and succeeded - to no one's surprise.
She no longer speaks in her language to her siblings as it was long replaced
By a dialect that occupied greater political will and space.
But even that was overshadowed by the monolithic empire of Putonghua
That she had to learn as an adult, and she believed we would go far
If this was the Chinese we learnt as children.

When people call me a polyglot, I am actually a big fat phony,
When I can barely string a sentence in Canto, expressions are stony,
Reared for ten years in a city with a fragrant harbour,
But her language never permeated me, I would rather
Speak another foreign language well, than fail to master what I should know.
Like someone severed my tongue and put a fishball there to slow
Burn the cavity and dull the sounds my mouth can't chew,
Unable to keep up with the fandango of rising and falling shoes,
Nine tones like tapping feet, a dance I don't know the steps to.

I've spoken the words of Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Rimbauld, in the original,
Held my own in gutteral verlan, where the grammar is minimal.
No intention to be Gallic, no more French as a result,
Just a European language as a default.
There is a bleu blanc rouge on my flag too,
But I come from a land filled with kangaroo.
Or Mandarin, ebbing and flowing from me from years of exposure,
It's still technically Chinese but I don't have closure
Nor vinegar for that great big chip on my shoulder, I have no root in the PRC
Though I may blend in like a wolf in sheep's clothing, they will not find me
Until the staccato in my voice gives me away as half a laowai,
I'll try to cover it up quickly but I've given away my disguise.
I begin to understand the toska of Tolstoy and Pasternak,
6 cases, 3 genders and endless declining is an attack
On my mind but alluring at the same time,
But suka pozhaluysta, this language could never be mine.

These days I only hear Hakka when I go to the wet markets,
Women with wide-brimmed black hats, my mother's targets:
She finds them, they laugh and she gets a discount on her bak choy,
After each episode, her face is lit up with joy
That someone can speak the first words of her childhood,
A clan brother or sister, the nuance of culture understood,
The language that touches her heart more than anything else could.
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