Poetry & Prose

Something Beautiful in these Words

I used to sit with you on the carpet floor,

cross-legged, with mugs of tea so large they tasted like water.

I would teach you my language, your face

round and soft and glowing in the kitchen light.

I thought it might’ve been something like love, or making love,

watching your tongue curl around my name—

a thin sound from the lips, something deeper from the throat.

I taught you that these words have faces,

hai: harmful, ocean, return, startle, child.

That we mean more than the sounds we make,

xiao: small, dawn, laugh, remove, filial piety.

I taught you that our words mean a million little meaningless

things: red for happiness, green for adultery; four for death, eight for fortune;

chopsticks for Sons arriving, pears for love departing.

I would lie on the floor when you fell asleep, arms brushing, breathing

deeply in the dark with a sharp emptiness in my stomach.

I would think about how rain in my language was not a sound in yours,

how rain in any language was slippery and indescribable, like

tea with you in the cold, like my mother’s voice mixed with yours—

like loving you and the taste of pears in springtime,

and wondering whether it was the Chinese in me

that turned your face gently to the moon.