Do You Speak Chinese?

Originally published in Commonthought, Lesley University, December 2019.

No. Those rising tones, tense as a violin
note suspended on a string, died with my grandfather
when I was too young to remember his funeral
except for the juice box I drank from: 
Juicy Juice, green apple.

My dad didn’t speak the language, either—
all Chinese sounded like arguing to him—
but every accent he tried morphed in his mouth
into the shape of his father’s breath.

His father told him, “Never go to China,”
hid guns behind every door, terrified
of a place he’d once called home, a country
that shot the family he’d left behind.

At my parents’ wedding, only my aunt—tall, blonde,
with bones as sturdy as German limestone—
spoke his language. She’d been in the Chinese countryside
while tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square.
She spoke to him about a lake. 

“No,” he told her,
“do not say the lake. You must say
the beautiful lake by the three pine trees
standing alone against the autumn sky.”

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