"How to Learn a Language"

Finis Origine Pendet

By
Kaylee Chen '23
May 11, 2022
Kaylee Chen

lesson 1: fly to a country you do not dare to call your own.
taste the words that flow off the tongues of your relatives,
and when you spit them out, a jam of syllables and accents,
watch for the lemon-sour purse of their lips.
can you feel your misshapen gratitude when your grandmother hands you a gift,
a souvenir? remind yourself that your time here is temporary.

lesson 2: tolerate a thousand stilted video call conversations
with your grandmother, realize you are looking for an escape
between every sentence, hiss when your mother grips you tighter.
you will whisper how do you say this in chinese?
and the phone will say connectivity issues
and while she answers your grandmother’s face will be frozen in a smile.

lesson 3: hear the arguments flare when they think you’re asleep
and let them fester in your memory when you lie awake.
remember, cancer is equally devastating in all languages.
remember, hospital bills are expensive in every country.
remember, your grandmother has curly hair, soft between your fingertips.
remember, you must pronounce her name correctly when you start praying.

lesson 4: do not learn, and do not recognize the tears that flow
when your grandmother dies the way your stiff syllables always did--
slow, painful, withering away into ash and air.
bite down on your mutinous tongue, let the blood rise sharp and hot in your mouth,
feel a fraction of the pain she must have,
count how many times you told her i love you
and know that no matter how much you practice saying it now
it can no longer be enough.

lesson 5: listen to the things your mother whispers on her knees,
the musk of incense seeping into the floorboards.
do you recognize what rots in the space between her sentences,
the crevices of her cries, the way every word trembles with regret?
speak in those lagging video calls with a grandfather
you are determined to call your own, let the words fall flat
 and pick up their remnants, because at least you are trying,
and maybe this time it is enough to say
 我爱你.
i love you.
know that this is worth all the misshapen words in the world.

Kaylee Chen ’23 received the American Voices Medal, one of the highest writing honors awarded in the 2022 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition, for this poem.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.