What is Unspoken


Author’s notes: 

Photo cred: Joon Kim

Event cred: La Causa

Inspiration cred: Denice Frohman’s “Accents” (quotes italicized)

My mom holds her accent like a shotgun, with two good hands. My mom, not knowing the stigma of middle fingers, always uses hers to tap the screen at the cash register. She takes her Chinese-ness with her everywhere she goes, with two good fingers.

English sits in her mouth remixed. Once, when asking about the “seafood” options at a restaurant, she was assured by the waiter that the restaurant only served “safe food.” The words “fart” and “fuck” are somehow indistinguishable from each other when they come from her mouth. Any attempt to correct her is met with aggressive resistance. She waited too many years for her voice to arrive to be told it needed housekeeping.

Her tongue can’t lay itself down flat enough for the English language. Not only do her words sound different, they mean different. When we talk about what it means to be “happy”, our conversations skew into two separate directions. Our notions of “home” are located in some strange in-between that no matter how hard we try, isn’t here and no matter how hard we hope, isn’t with each other. She doesn’t fit my meaning of “mother” and I don’t fit within her definition of “daughter.” Our denotations don’t apply because of our divergent cultural connotations and as a result, I am just as motherless as she is daughterless. It is hard for me to get through to her when my use of certain words becomes twisted in her ears. It is hard to understand her when everything she speaks to me is a translation.

Language is important and words are everything. They gave me words with which to label my parents. They told me to call mom “tiger mother” and dad “stone cold Asian father.” They taught me to see with Western eyes while my parents looked upon me with Chinese ones. Neither of us could see each other completely, our vision limited to the gaps in which we fell short of each other’s expectations. Words made us not belong to each other or to ourselves.

I have often characterized the love between my parents and me as a transaction and looked down on it because of that. “Asian parenting is a contract and I am an investment. When I show positive returns, my parents are relieved. When my stock is down, they are concerned. I am more than an investment,” I would claim to my journal with the silent righteousness of a victim. The reciprocal claim that they are more than investors never crossed my mind.

I now characterize all love as transactional. American parents exchange “I’m proud of you’s” and “I love you’s” with their children after every minute piece of good news and at the end of each phone call. People say that the more words are repeated, the less they really mean. Poet Phil Kaye demonstrates: “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you… See nothing.” My dad exchanges invitations to play tennis and quickly loads his rackets into the car when I say yes. My mom exchanges my favorite dishes – pita bread, steamed eggs, a tofu dish that I mistakenly named “string meat” as a young girl – and beams when my plate is clean. People say that the more actions are repeated, the less they mean.

Language is important, but words aren’t everything. Yes, words frame a perspective, create blind spots, determine what can be said, and control what is allowed to exist, but why listen to just words? I don’t need to hear “I am hurt” to listen to the crack in my mother’s voice. I don’t need to hear “I am disappointed in myself/in you/in the both of us” to sense the true intention behind her angry retorts. I don’t need to hear “I love you” to sense the care behind her efforts to speak to me even after I have bruised her with my words that she misunderstands in response to her words that I misinterpret. When our arguments have left us in the same place with just the wounds we have inflicted fresher, the dried tears saltier, and the hostility in our mutual muteness more palpable, I don’t need words to tell me that I should reach out with a white flag and say “mom” or even better, “妈妈.”

Language is important and words are everything… only if we believe in the infallibility of words, only if we subscribe to a hierarchy of language, only if we are deafened by noise and don’t hear the spaces (…) in between, only if we deny the magic in what is unspoken. My mother, not knowing the stigma of middle fingers, always uses hers to tap the screen at the cash register. This means nothing to her. The fact that she does so has probably never crossed her mind. This blasé gesture, an unintentional rejection of the language that constrained her, an unspoken “fuck you” to the cultural discourse that made her children not recognize her, forms her greatest resistance. Sometimes our hands are all we got.