Wednesday 20 October 2010

> Language > Place

Dorothee Lang, editor of Blue Print Review, invited me to participate in a new blog carnival themed ">Language >Place". Below is my participating post. You can learn more about the project here. You are encouraged to join the carnival.

(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.


People commonly talk about the experience of using a second language away from home. But my poem "Languages" (written in early 2006) is about using a second language, English, in my hometown, Hong Kong, a city where my mother tongue Cantonese is used by the majority of the population. English is often the language of big business, scholarship and the lingua franca between most locals and foreigners. That I often had to speak English in Hong Kong is a reflection of this general situation as well as my personal circumstances: I worked in the English Department (now School of English) of the University of Hong Kong and my partner (now fiance) is Canadian. This poem is an attempt, albeit not a wholly autobiographical one, to explore some of the issues surrounding the need to speak a second language in a city where your first language dominates.

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
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).
But it is possible that all this is in the persona's head only, for other people might simply not care (L11). The poem seems to suggest that if the good neighbours (1st stanza) do not give a damn how many different languages our characters can code-mix and -switch, the academic-inclined native speakers (2nd stanza) might likewise not pay much attention to their mismatched phonemes and occasional stiff tongue.
In the poem, I guess what I was trying to say is that when it comes to second languages, it is probably best to give up both our pretentions and insecurities.

You can read my 2010 view on language use here: "Bathing in a Ski-Suit: Writing in a Second Language".


  1. I think we all lie about the beers we drink and the books we discuss from time to time. Best is when we have the courage to admit it.

    In high school many of my friends were musicians. There was much music snobbery. You were of course allowed to love the Beatles but it had to be late Beatles. No "Love Love Me Do," and God help you if you admitted to listening to pop music on the radio. The horror!

    Then a revelation in the form of a truly self-confident friend, perhaps the best musician of them all, who was as apt to speak his love of some relatively obscure local Toronto band (ie. The Rheostatics) as he was to say how awesome the latest Christina Aguilera song (or whatever was on the radio that hour) was.

    Now that's good taste! Like a cold Tsing Tao on a hot day.

  2. Last night was my wife's birthday
    We had Hotpot and some Merlot
    It was my Wife and I
    And our daughter
    And her fiancée

    Mandarin Chinese for my wife
    California English for myself
    Japanese for our daughter
    Cantonese for her fiancée
    All of us spoke some
    Or at least a little
    Of the other's language

    Wife was happy
    Cause I got her what she wanted
    Daughter was jealous
    Cause it was what she wanted
    Fiancée was gracious
    Cause he wants to fit in to our family
    I was happy but bemused
    Cause I understood only half the words
    But most of the feelings

    What a mix we were
    Each with a different outlook
    When our daughter tossed in live clams
    She called out "Go to Hell"
    My wife wanted us all to eat more
    and tried to fill our plates
    Fiancée Spoke with slow drawl
    Keeping his cool and the wine flowing
    I mostly ate the beef, taro and tofu
    And tried to keep quiet

    The hot pot seems a good metaphor
    Bits and pieces of this and that
    Beef, fish, live clams, crab, taro, tofu...
    Each of us added in a bit of ourselves
    Each of us trying to understand
    Each of us adding a different flavor
    Each on our best behavior

    But behind the scene
    There were little tensions
    From misunderstandings
    From unmet expectations
    From stubborn personalities

    I wonder how this will play out
    When the four of us
    Go to Hawaii next month
    Should be interesting


  3. Yamabuki, I like your 'hot pot' metaphor.


  4. Nice poem and the mixed sentiments of your speaker are probably shared by many who speak English as a second language.

    It also comes with the territory. Especially in formerly colonized places there is still this lingering sense that English somehow equates to culture. So the more you know and the better you know it, the more 'cultured' you are.

    English departments are supposed to have overcome all this stuff and to have deconstructed canons, standards and the like. But in reality they continue to perpetuate many of these things -- partly because of the history they have inherited.

    But maybe things are changing and there will be a day when people (in the English department and depending on where the particular English department is) feel slightly ashamed that they do not know the latest Bolywood movie, HK movie, etc.

  5. Henry said: "I can relate to "mismatched phonemes and occasional stiff tongue.""

  6. thanks for contributing this poem to the "> language > place" blog carnival, and also for including the link. so very interesting to read about Hong Kong as a place of different languages, and the conflicting emotions connecting to it.

  7. good poem, Tammy...

    These lines are where the poem really comes alive:
    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.

  8. Living in the US, but being from a nationality so minor that nobody ever guesses it right, it's curious to notice that my native tongue is more of a code between me and my countrymen, something to be proud of and to rub in the faces of the Indian, American, Canadian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and whatever other peoples happen to be in the same room. This is similar pride as is associated with English language in HK in the poem, so maybe that pride has nothing to do with the fact of English being so prominent globally, but that it happens to be ingrained in the history and culture of a given locale in a particular way.

  9. You are slightly bemused at the vast array of neatly packed sterile jars and packets of familiar spices standing stiffly like soldiers in their muster parade ranks.No pyramid heap of ochre and chilli red and earthy brown; no paper bags rustling with fervour to puff out and hold the precious spices and smells within itself. You reach out, albeit a bit shakily, and your fingers encounter Schwartz's Coriander powder. How can that be; it's an oxymoron, a coupling of a cool Germanic name with a potent Asian spice that dazzles with its aroma. You smell the plastic packing and it smells ... well, plastic. And then from the other side of the aisle you hear soft vowels and mellifluous rhythms, the same as the ones your mother spoke to you. Dropping the packet you expertly manouevere the trolley with wonky wheels to the other side, eager to make contact. And now they are at the far end of the row, talking; dark hair, long and lustrous ripples down the woman's white jumper like a river in spate. They are still talking and you can hear the sounds float back to you, as you come back and pick up Schwartz Coriander powder.Schwartz Coriander powder.

  10. very interesting post about language and the culture and conflicts. especially enjoyed your honest poem.


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