My blood languages were born from a salt bath. I learned to speak two of them before the “American” portion of me became hyphenated with me. There is salt from the Taishan river four houses down from my mother’s old ancestral house and salt from the Kowloon slums and ports of Hong Kong where my father was. It is sort of expected that when you (or me, really) are descended from such ancient people that you (me again) know your own blood language. My blood languages are written into my dermis, the pitter-patter and birdcalls of all my Chineses, the Cantonese, the Taishanese, the Mandarin, they were written on my teeth so that every phone call begins with a meal and every good night ends with the gifting of an ancient and benign spirit of sleep.
We are all water-bound people, my mother, my father, my brother, me, all born near a body of water in both the Old World and the New. However, I was not born in that land where my skin, eyes, nose, and mouth would belong. I was born in the harbors of arguably the apple core city of many industries during a December sea storm. Everyone would have thought that English was written on my tongue but my tongue didn’t learn Anglicized verbal gymnastics until I was 6 to 7. For at the very least, I learned quickly and am able to switch between worlds and languages without traces of an accent.
However, I had to delete my great-grandmother’s Taishanese from the language center of my brain in order to learn English; some remnants remain but it’s mostly listening comprehension these days. If the oldest person has the truest form and handle of the language, it is already buried with her in 2006. It’s an even coarser language than Cantonese. Maybe because they had to shout their love across the river and monsoon waters, but my great-grandmother had to shout Taishanese down 51st and 52nd Streets when I crashed my bike into a concrete flower pot.
I don’t really know where my rhythm is born. My conjecture is that it comes from some sort of primordial power and poetry; poetry of the mystic, poetry of war, poetry of love. My languages fight a mighty battle in one singular body. I struggle for the next cutting word of hurt in my Cantonese arsenal to use against kin. I don’t know why though. What is all that poetry for, then, if it’s function is to hurt? It’s a competition of hurt, really, old wounds cut open and rubbed with salt. My father’s mother did it to him. My mother’s mother did it to her. Both of them still cut me to this day because their language is so small and limited and the only one they’ll know.
I dream in almost always English now. But I think I’ll always be waiting for the salt of the crowded port city and slums and the salt of the river to collect in the shores of sleep.