Ing Grish

“You need to speak Singlish to express a Singaporean feeling.”
Catherine Liu

I never learned Singlish

I cannot speak Taglish, but I have registered
the tonal shifts of Dumglish, Bumglish, and Scumglish

I do not know Ing Grish, but I will study it down to its
black and broken bones

I do not know Ing Gwish, but I speak dung and dungaree,
satrap and claptrap

Today I speak barbecue and canoe

Today I speak running dog and yellow dog

I do not know Spin Gloss, but I hear humdrum and humdinger,
bugaboo and jigaboo

I do not know Ang Grish, but I can tell you that my last name
consists of three letters, and that technically all of them are vowels

I do not know Um Glish, but I do know how to eat with two sticks

Oh but I do know English because my father’s mother was English
and because my father was born in New York in 1921
and was able to return to America in 1949
and become a citizen

I no speak Chinee, Chanel, or Cheyenne

I do know English because I am able to tell others
that I am not who they think I am

I do not know Chinese because my mother said that I refused to learn it
from the moment I was born, and that my refusal
was one of the greatest sorrows of her life,
the other being the birth of my brother

I do know Chinese because I understood what my mother’s friend told her
one Sunday morning, shortly after she sat down for tea:
“I hope you don’t that I parked my helicopter on your roof.”

Because I do not know Chinese I have been told that means
I am not Chinese by a man who translates from the Spanish.
He said that he had studied Chinese and was therefore closer
To being Chinese than I could ever be. No one publicly disagreed with him,
Which, according to the rules of English, means he is right

I do know English and I know that knowing it means
that I don’t always believe it

The fact that I disagree with the man who translates from the Spanish
is further proof that I am not Chinese because all the Chinese
living in America are hardworking and earnest
and would never disagree with someone who is right.
This proves I even know how to behave in English

I do not know English because I got divorced and therefore
I must have misunderstood the vows I made at City Hall

I do know English because the second time I made a marriage vow
I had to repeat it in Hebrew

I do know English because I know what “fortune cookie” means
when it is said of a Chinese woman

The authority on poetry announced that I discovered that I was Chinese
when it was to my advantage to do so

My father was afraid that if I did not speak English properly
I would be condemned to work as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant.
My mother, however, said that this was impossible because
I didn’t speak Cantonese, because the only language
waiters in Chinese restaurants know how to speak was Cantonese

I do not know either Cantonese or English, Ang Glish or Ing Grish

Anguish is a language everyone can speak, but no one listens to it

I do know English because my father’s mother was Ivy Hillier
She was born and died in Liverpool, after living in America and China,
and claimed to be a descendant of the Huguenots

I do know English because I misheard my grandmother and thought
she said that I was a descendant of the Argonauts

I do know English because I remember what “Made in Japan” meant
when I was a child

I learn over and over again that I do not know Chinese
Yesterday a man asked me how to write my last name in Chinese,
because he was sure that I had been mispronouncing it,
and that if this was how my father pronounced it,
then the poor man had been wrong all his life

I do not know Chinese even though my parents conversed in it every day
I do know English because I had to ask the nurses not to put my mother
in a straitjacket, and reassure them that I would be willing to stay with her
until the doctor came the next morning

I do know English because I left the room when the doctor told me
I had no business being there

I do not know Chinese because during the Vietnam War
I was called a gook instead of a chink and realized
that I had managed to change my spots without meaning to

I do not know English because when father said that he would
like to see me dead, I was never sure quite what he meant

I do not know Chinese because I never slept with a woman
whose vagina slanted like my mother’s eyes

I do not know either English or Chinese and, because of that,
I did not put a gravestone at the head of my parents’ graves
as I felt no language mirrored the ones they spoke

— John Yau

American art critic and poet John Yau was born to Chinese-American parents in Lynn, Massachusetts. His creative work (especially his earlier work) played with different facets of immigration, language, and heritage. (Art historians are probably more familiar with his work on Jasper Johns.)

[Research Note: John Yau and Thomas Nozkowski, Ing Grish (Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia, 2005)]