I’m in year 10 poetry class, and we’re discussing Sujata Bhatt’s Search For My Tongue. In it, she details her fear of losing the ability to speak in her native language, and struggles to see how the two languages she knows can co-exist in her brain. Just as we reach the part about the poet dreaming in her mother tongue, our teacher, Mrs Garcia, looks up from her book and asks if any of us can speak a second language. A group of hands make swift draughts in the air. She zigzags between them, smiling and nodding enthusiastically as they answer. German, Punjabi, French. I do not raise my hand, because I can only speak English. She calls my name anyway.
“Don’t you speak another language?” She asks, the question more a declaration than an interrogative.
I shake my head.
“Where are your parents from?” She tries.
I tell her my dad is from Hong Kong. She nods in relief, her question now justified.
“But you don’t speak another language?” She pushes, her thin wire-framed glasses inching down the bridge of her nose.
My quiet, fidgety classmates seem just as bothered by this conversation as I am.
I shake my head again.
“That’s such a shame!” She booms, in the loud, theatrical way she seemed to round off every conversation, clapping her hands together in the air.
Red-faced, I nod limply as she turns her attention back to the poem. I’m not embarrassed because she has singled me out in front of everyone. I am embarrassed because I think it is a shame, too.
Sujata Bhatt’s search for her tongue was entirely different to mine. She already had her tongue, stored away. Even when she felt uncertain or conflicted, it was there. Mine didn’t even exist within me. Instead there was just a framework that needed to be filled. There were moments, much like that one in poetry class, where the wind blew straight through the empty scaffolding and reminded me of what I didn’t have, what I couldn’t do.
In 2016, what Mrs Garcia had really wanted to ask me came out of someone else’s mouth.
I hired a private tutor called Ka Man. She was a student in London, and she was friendly and patient. ‘Why didn’t you learn Cantonese when you were growing up?’ were the first words that she said to me in Cantonese. Luckily, it took me so long to piece together each element of the question that I also had a spare second to formulate an answer that didn’t wake the demons responsible for my ever-present feelings of shame. By that, I mean that I lied.
I did not tell her that I grew up with an old-fashioned, English grandmother. Instead, I told Ka Man that I didn’t want to learn when I was a child. That I wasn’t interested. Even saying those words, the words without even an iota of verisimilitude, made my face feel hot and my chest twinge. The fortune to have been able to choose.
“Oh,” Ka Man said, frowning in confusion.
“Yep!” I replied, animated and facetious — the way I’d learnt to play it.
No one knew how much it wrung me inside.
I am still desperate to find my tongue.