Graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern


Music floods the car,

soaking the cushioned seats

and flowing out of the opened window.

My mother chose this song

by some Chinese singer

whose lyrics twist themselves into the melody

so that the words become foreign to me.

I should recognize them – something about

love, pain and home is all

that enters my ears, and when

my mother asks me something,

the song crescendos into a large wave

that crashes over and drowns her voice.

My confused look meets her understanding one.

I’ll tell you later.

And we keep driving up and down

the hills of this song.


I listened to the white man struggle.

Ng. Nasal sounds. There are many

in the language we speak,

and for this reason my sister thinks

that my voice sounds more nasally than hers

because in this language

my words flow with quicker fluidity

than hers. She hears a harsh whip of the tongue

in places I hear joyous gossip

and chirps of endless chatter.

But it is the white man who created a system

attempting to romanize our language

into something comprehensible for the white mind

so that “Canton,” not Gwongdung,

is where our roots lay

and “Cantonese,” not Gwongdung wah,

is the language we speak.

But the white man still struggles

before shouting and kicking his venomous foot

and turning to leave.


In Brooklyn,

the loudest noises and brightest colors

are not the red and blue screaming sirens

atop police cars and firetrucks and ambulances,

not the loud honks

of bright yellow taxis,

but the rainbow mix of words I hear

in and around Sunset Park,

up and down 8th Avenue,

beside and away from my seat

in this massively crowded dim sum restaurant

where the red curtains are loud in front of my eyes

and “cheung fun! siu mai! lo mai fan!”

chime in my ears.

My own voice leaves a request

sharp and clear: “mm goi, yat go cheung fun,”

a new streak of color.  


My grandmother and I speak the same words,

but it feels like FaceTime with bad service

when the connection cuts our words short.

Some words that leave my grandmother’s mouth

reveal a second accent, the inflections of people

who speak the other dialect,

the one my that grandfather also speaks,

the one that I don’t.  

But my grandmother’s words are a heavy mixture

of other things too because I hear traces

of that dialect – Toisan wah – and a splash

of Seuhndak wah, and maybe also a hint

of sadness when the connection cuts off again,

not from my grandmother’s mixture of accents

but from the silence

where our words stop flowing.


In some situations

the exchange of words is limited.

“Actions speak louder than words:” a saying

my family takes to heart.

I don’t know if I do, and sometimes

I’d like to hear them speak and not just act,

but when my mother brings me a plate of oranges

I love you rings in me when I eat a sweet slice,

so when someone pours hot jasmine tea

into my still half-full and warm cup,

with two fingers on the table

I tap twice.

Thank you.


We speak

the language of our stomachs, so when I come home late

and unlock the front door

my mother and her friends are already debating

which foods contain too much yeet hay,

words that have no meaning in English.

The delicious smell of ging do gwut greets me, which means

today we forgive ourselves and indulge.

Chatter and sizzling oil

bounce across walls and overload my ears.

My mother’s debate with her friends soon overpowers

the sound of her cooking, reminding me

that I’m home–

Sik fan la!–and just in time for dinner.