(first published in Asia Literary Review, Vol. 2 (Summer 2006))
South China Morning Post, an English newspaper, is delivered
To our doorstep every morning, and we let it
Stay until all other neighbours know
Our language abilities.
We dress well, even when taking out
The garbage or buying a San Miguel
From the store downstairs.
But let's not boast to our neighbours
How much more beautiful we are,
How much more intellectually-trained.
They don't care. They live less ambiguously. They speak
One dialect only. Already they are free
From feeling embarrassed when pronouncing
/r/ as /l/, /n/ as /l/ or /z/ as /s/. They don't feel
Excluded when two real English speakers
Are in the same room, commenting on
Memoirs of A Geisha or
Bill Ashcroft's postcolonial theories.
We dare not open our mouths, lest our strong HK
Accent betrays our humble origin. The terrible
Flatness of our tone, the inflexibility of our tongue.
Here is a bit of background to the work. In 2005, my short story "Let Her Go" won a second runner-up place in a writing contest co-organised by The Standard, an English-language newspaper in the city; part of my reward was a one-year subscription of the newspaper. (The Standard is now a free newspaper.) Every morning, about seven o'clock, someone would deliver the paper to my doorstep, and one day, the sight of it on the floor inspired me to write the poem.
Despite its origin in my own life, the poem is not strictly autobiographical. You can see that in the piece, I have changed The Standard to South China Morning Post. That is not the only altered detail: in reality, we did not 'dress well' (L5) when going down to the little family-run store to buy beers -- we dressed exceptionally well (just kidding). It wasn't San Miguel, either. It was Tsing Tao. Also, nobody discussed Memoirs of A Geisha at the Department at that time, as far as I remember.
I would also hope that I am not quite as arrogant or as insecure as the narrator in the work. Still, I must confess there are authentic sentiments there. I have perhaps felt some version of the smugness evident in the first stanza, and I have certainly experienced the sense of admiration for monolingual neighbours and the feeling of deflation among 'real English speakers' of the second stanza.
I drew upon these conflicting emotions for the poem, and tried to structure the work around them. You can say that the pretentious characters in the first part of the poem have their comeuppance in the second (from boastful (L8) to humbled (L20)). The poem, to some extent, exposes the folly of self-proclaimed bilingual speakers whose sense of superiority and inferiority depends entirely on the contextual backgrounds (e.g. domestic and university).
You can read my 2010 view on language use here: "Bathing in a Ski-Suit: Writing in a Second Language".