My Chinese - Athena Chu

Inspired by Melissa Lozada-Olivia’s “My Spanish”


If you ask me if I am fluent in Chinese,

I will tell you my Chinese is a ghost lodged in my throat,

A dried up flower I tore from the ground long ago,



My Chinese is missing pictures in a photo album,

The first day of preschool,

A mouthful of useless characters

Ancient taste buds numbing out of existence

Leaving the bitter aftertaste of a new language.

My Chinese is old idioms and poetry

Painted with ink from different centuries,

My Chinese is kneaded dough, cut into little circles,

Filled with meat and folded over, cooked,

And served with vinegar in porcelain dishes.

My Chinese wears red dragons on silk qi paos,

Dressed in pearls and jade earrings,

My Chinese is red. My Chinese is gold.


My Chinese is something I must hide.

My Chinese is a racist joke I threw in the garbage

Wrapped in a napkin stained with my culture.

It made a sound as it hit the bottom:


Chink, as in the weakness in armor,

Chink, as in crevice, gap, hole.

Chink, as in the slits they called our eyes.


My Chinese remembers

Yellow Peril hysteria, Chinese Exclusion Act

remembers alienation, remembers otherization

remembers being banned from this land, being treated as everything but human

remembers the clanking of metals to railroads as immigrants built train tracks to connect this country.

My Chinese remembers.

My Chinese forgets.


If you ask me if I am fluent in Chinese

I will tell you that my Chinese doesn’t think it belongs here sometimes.

Sometimes my Chinese is angry.


My Chinese wonders why you think it is obligated

to spit out words you shove in its mouth

for your own entertainment.


My Chinese wonders why

 “Hey, this person I know is really into Asian girls,

you should talk to them” is a compliment.

My Chinese wonders why it is exotic,

Why you think fetishizing my culture is the same as loving it.


My Chinese wonders why it is beautiful only if it is white enough,

My Chinese wonders if it is white enough.

My Chinese wonders why it is a minority

only when it is convenient,

wonders why the massacres, mass expulsions and near genocidal policies

are missing in the history textbooks.


My Chinese wants you to know that it is not invisible.

My Chinese wants you to know that is not an accessory to wear.

My Chinese wants you to remember that it cannot be eaten and then shit out.


But even I forget sometimes.

My Chinese settles for less than what it deserves sometimes.


If you ask me if I am fluent in Chinese,

I will tell you that my Chinese sits in the back of class,

Knows the answer, but does not raise hand.

My Chinese sits quietly during family reunions,

Knows what they are saying, has something to say.

But can’t. My Chinese is reaching for words but only finding air. 


My Chinese is a loose tooth that fell out of my mouth. 

I put it in my pocket and now I can’t find it.

It is lost somewhere with my childhood. 


If you ask me if I am fluent in Chinese

I will try to tell you a story.

How my mother flew across an entire ocean,

With 40 dollars in one pocket and some dreams in another.

How she left old dreams on her nightstand at home because they couldn’t fit in her suitcase.

How years later, she’s figured out how to blend in,

How to say Thank you, how to say I love you, how to say I’m sorry in a new language,

But my friend still comments on her manners,

As if something’s still a little off, something’s still not completely right.


My Chinese is not completely right.

It never will be.

It doesn’t need to be.


If you ask me if I am fluent in Chinese,

I will take you to the grave where My Chinese lives.


On the tombstone, it says:

Here lie decomposing words,

Here lie broken skeletons and broken sentences,

Here lie rotting corpses and rotting cultures.

Here lie the missing limbs of history.

Here in memory.


Take a shovel,

and dig with me.