Poem: “another mother tongue”

For Spencer

another mother tongue

In Taiwan, Spencer and I walk to 7-11 in the rain.
he is five and I am twelve, and at this age, 200 NT to us is a fortune,
a lifetime supply of chips and snacks. We flip flop slap our way into the store,
Fill our damp arms with food.

At the front of the line, I am still in my silence, Spencer speaking
to the cashier instead of me. They chat, my mind racing to catch
their rapid raindrop Mandarin with outstretched palms,
why is it so much easier for him?
My baby brother reaches over the counter that goes up to his chin,
takes the receipt from the cashier.
We walk home in silence.

We are fighting, about the last pineapple bun or him using my laptop,
I don’t remember, but I do remember the way we yelled. “You are STUPID!”
Spencer shouts, and I make fun of his thick accent and
he says a word in Chinese I don’t know but it sounds like a curse, and we are chasing each other around the dining table again, both of us running, running.

I am fourteen. We’ve been in Taiwan for two years,
and my tongue grows wild on the island, tangled
Like the mountain side vines or like
my hair after a day in the wet summer heat.
English in school. Chinese, or what broken puzzle pieces I can gather of it,
at the 7-11 by the school gate.
Taiwanese, all five words I know of it, to the taxi driver.
All three languages in the home, my family like the tower of babel
Falling, falling.

In my bilingualism class in college,
I bring up the idea of intragenerational language barriers
and my professor says that’s not possible. in theory, maybe, she says,
but if siblings are raised together, they will pick up the same languages.

I am thinking of mother tongues,
the ways we give ourselves to the languages we know.
Where are you from if not your mother?
I am thinking of my baby brother,
how far his typhoon tongue feels from land, the ways
I chose to make myself an island.
I am thinking of how lonely my language feels now.

After the move to Taiwan, our new apartment is a Lego block maze
of moving boxes, saran wrapped furniture, suitcases scattered across the floor.
Mama and Spencer are talking in the living room,
and I am curled up by the heating vent, listening.
you and Jiejie will be going to different schools, just for a little bit
just until Mommy and Daddy figure things out.

Okay, he says, without thinking, like he doesn’t know what it means.
Okay, like I love you, I will do this for you,
like the type of sacrifice only a child can make.
In the years to come, we will learn
how to unravel the meaning of different,
how difference grows in the shade, in the shadow of a rainstorm
never fully dry.

For now, my baby brother sits on the couch with my mama,
front tooth missing, baby gums bright pink.
For now, he is five and I am twelve,
neither of our tongues touched yet
by the languages they will learn to forget.

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