How to Speak Hokkien
TAIWANESE IS A GAY ACCENT.
My tongue is the most terrible noun. It softly hisses out the languages it’s been whipped against—furling and impish around the feathered sounds of fricatives, cutting teeth against the hard coins of words it still has to taste out: pee-kan, uh-mare-uh-kan, kun-tem-poor-anne-it-ee.
I speak a dialect inherited from people who only understand how to exist in a colony. In English, I know a few ways to shape this voice into an auditory illusion. How to hide hesitance in thoughtful hums. How to syncopate my speech in the fluid clip of someone used to being listened to. How to send kind regards to professors who will never remember my name. And warm thoughts to colleagues with whom I share a mutually pretended friendship. In secret rehearsals of Aaron Sorkin monologues, bits of David Foster Wallace dialogue, I rolled over libraries in my mouth until each word was smooth from meaning. I liked the benevolent look of all that drama and honesty on those dicks. I was trying to convince myself I
could sound like someone who liked dick in general.
The particular humiliation of the Taiwanese accent—an easy taunt in the arsenal of Beijing schoolchildren and a whisper amongst First-Year Chinese classes in Ivy League universities—is that it’s gay. I speak sparingly in Mandarin, else it comes out of me italicized, in sparkly rainbow gel pen.
My straight voice is the one that speaks white to rub together red cents til it’s blue in the face. When it sees stars, it knows to think stripes and not bars. In its sleep, I dream of better Unions, ones where Jack hits the road.
My straight voice worked on little “m” moderate white fuckboys who turned in the same story of privileged family fiction based on his parents’ divorce every week in writing workshops, on tall brown physics majors with eyes wide and bovine like dairy cows who have explained to me over Panda Express that I was actually Chinese, on CS bros who can’t sit straight, who knock the hairy bulbs of their translucent knees into mine in dining halls hoping an accident might be translated as affection.
“Can you say something?”
They always ask. Nothing is quite as sexy to them as hearing a gay Chinese man say hairdryer.
QUERELLE DES FEMMES
She understands you in insults, fast food restaurants, and directions to the bathroom. You don’t mind cutting off your tongue to grow the balls you need to talk to her.
She is not Mr. CIA, not Mr. Multivariate deterministic functional modeling of an Asian fetish, not Mr. Three Tigers, One China. Yes, she is blonde and her skin shows when sun is spilt on her face. But a bottle of color and one gene do not break up the adequate adhesive keeping your mind stuck on the thought that she could
be someone like you.
Straight, you think. She dates the same big men in safe shoes. Not exactly handsome. More like a portrait of youth carved from an old man’s memory. Where does the incidental lesbianism of college freshmen start? Not a crush, but a feeling that smells like Walmart gingerbread and dried-out Elmer’s glue. The last time your hands were still chubby with baby fat. Wanting to run and hug your teacher at every five minute interval, the normal reaction of a child who has seen her first truly beautiful woman.
Now you aren’t a young girl anymore but a woman who recently was one. As obsessed with her own rashes as she is with the ones worn by that other girl-woman. That old vision of beauty in an angelic second grade teacher is rendered far too coherent to apply to girl-woman.
What about the constant tapes in her eyes? She tailors the world against them. They know how to skin, stretch, stitch, and style a man to dress herself. A daisy-chain around manhood measured in yellow paper inches? A voice lilted down to a permanent minor key? A walk you could recognize with eyes zipped and padlocked? You’d know that sound anywhere, the heel hitting of someone who feels like a real woman walking home, wearing the shoes her mother bought. Coppered out blonde highlights, penny-sized hole in high school backpack, sticky dented can of strawberry margarita, flake of pepper stuck on small front tooth? Soy allergy, butthole suburbs in home states where the more north you go the more south it gets, egg whites fried carcinogenic and crispy, chargers for vibrator, iPad, toothbrush, electric kettle tangled in the wheel of dorm chair? $8 H Mart peach prosecco mixed with ping guo sidra, two fingers of Vicks VapoRub, her favorite cumshot her best friend uses to jack off that she doesn’t want you to see? You wonder what comforts her.
Clothing? Language? Law?
Try on what she has for you. Throw your hair back like it’s meant to trap flies, roll your shoulders like they’re thunder, whip your skirt up as if you, too, are an empire. Wear that dress like it’s little and black enough to make you briefly happy. Act like you’re no stranger to female reality. Spring around like a girl, cross your legs like a woman, forget trying to fit into her ensemble like the man you aren’t.
Don’t be scared to use the word
Monster. From monstrum, divine portent. From monere, to warn.
Listen to angels and monsters alike. What they speak reveals tectonic things, unforeseen, under the skin, but happening.
Or she asks you where the McDonald’s is.
THE WORD FOR HELL IS EARTH PRISON.
Her mother’s favorite book is one known simply as John. Though she seldom devotes herself to verses other than Lunch 12:15. A bible is only as important as the lace doily it sits on. Which is only as important as the starched tablecloth it sits on. Which is only as important as the good afternoon light it gets from a west-facing window. Which is only as important as the light fragrance diffusing in the room—an oily chemical patchouli, years of it sedimented on the front cover of the Good Book, giving it an affected shimmer. Hospital cornered beds and Christmas lights on the lawn were symbols of self-respect, always have been. Anything less is an error of integrity, slackerish, slovenly, sloppy.
Over the phone, in my twin XL, twisting, ticking, tuttering, she is on the phone with her mother. She’s quite the actress, ankles swinging like she’s sitting in a church pew and not my mattress. The receiver translates the wet rattle in her mother’s throat, a little tick that emerged when the Nguyen family moved in next door. Hearing it for myself for the first time, I understand the way she talks is not broken. Not like I’m used to interpreting from my own parents. Rather, just deeply flawed. A vernacular regional to neighborhood watch Facebook groups, Bill Maher blowups, and a congregation ministered by a man who smiles when he speaks of hell. The Nguyens left their lawn dark in December. The closest thing to decoration was the peppering of rabbit pellets released every morning when Mrs. Nguyen opened the hutch to let them feed. “They probably raise them for food,” girl-woman’s mother said, “stereotypical g—s.”1
They aren’t us.
Us: The kind of Asians you can see wrapped around a Christmas tree in coordinated pajamas, the women with soft smiles and the father looking more like he’s baring his fangs, but give him a break, he’s trying his best, it’s not something he does often.
Us: The kind of kids you see smiling around math homework sitting at Saarinen tables on college brochures. One of the papers actually isn’t multivariable calculus: it’s a room transfer form because nice, respectable, responsible parents clearly weren’t going to allow their children to share a bedroom with hot, fruity-as-fuck, androgynous twinks whose degrees end in “studies.” To see them, flip to the back cover of the brochure.
Us: The kind of hands with wooden back scratchers2 that know how to smack obscure joints and the padded fat of bony, squirming, red-faced children who dared to be excited while in public. Don’t worry, the school photographer has plenty of experience contorting small bodies in orientations that hide birthmarks that weren’t there the day before.
We meant she was not. Not natural. Not a woman. Not enough for a boy. We were a mirror in which we saw ourselves multiplying by negatives. But there was no amount of mathematics which could plot her trajectory out of something so embarrassing. Nothing hits like postlapsarian clarity.
“I’m not sure I even believe in hell.”
“Now you’re just mocking me.”
I put down my gravity on the sides of my feet like a figure skater. Flexing them in the Chinese characters of our names and realizing “hell” was never a part of this vocabulary. What was the access code to her afterlife? If I went to hell, would she worry if I got there safely?
The word is: Dìyù, meaning, Earth prison. It doesn’t take a devil to know the short fuse to fear is familiarity. Grippy socks, jello cups, air picked clean of life in sterile chemo wards. There’s a certain danger in wishing for something specific, so I just prayed to see somewhere new. I tried to send it up so high it ended in heaven.
ALL GREAT AND PRECIOUS THINGS
I carry an artifact (I keep my long hair because I like the way it swims. Tangles of it unplugging from my head, and the strands chasing each other down the shower drain like imperial Chinese dragons) from my own maternal religion (My mom only obeyed one thing like a god: we were going to look good even if we didn’t eat well).
It grants me some curb appeal, though not enough to be mistaken for pretty. Girl-woman’s brother has a habit of pointing out my squat limbs and flaky pimples. He will ask her,
“Doesn’t looking at it give you the yuck?”
It the fluorescent adolescence of my skin?
It the slanted asymmetry of my middle class face?
He is barely 20 but looks like he’s a salsa dip into the wrong side of 30. She has the wings of ravens on her eyes, him, the feet of crows. He’s in CS too for the same reason as me–it’s his
He never says anything directly to me. But his face has an unconscious twitch that makes his eyes slit when the square planes of his cheeks raise to kiss them. He beats down the instinct to be Aztec, to squish the mass of my still-beating heart in that hand of his ringed with a promise to his god. He could never fully commit to hanging me on the wall because there were few ways of doing that to a person without resembling crucifixion.
After I leave, he will smack his thick lips into a shit-eating grin and ask her if we scissor. He likes to play with his food, chew us into a wet mash, bobble it up and down in a robin’s egg of vomit in the back of his throat because this is the closest he will ever come to a crusade.
- do you believe his horseshit?
- no, but I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell my parents :(why did you make me gay?
He fashions himself an Updike protagonist. He takes a Steinbeck class and nods at the bits that validate his own loneliness. He is named after a saint. He truly thinks he is one.
A PHILIP ROTH MASTURBATION SCENE ⋆｡°✩ for her ⋆｡°✩
Before we were keepers of brothers and mothers, we were nowhere.
I return to the blank space I saved for every white picket post that could line 2,014 square feet and a little mailbox sticking out from peonies. Every “you can call me, Dad.” Every Thanksgiving plate with white rice, a customary slice of turkey hiding fat-skinned pieces of roast duck, and green beans oil-slicked, mingling with dried red peppers. Every Christmas card carefully staged to convey the figures as partners and not sisters. A space is all it takes to bring me from nowhere to now. Here.
I should like to die in midsummer. When the days are so saturated in light, you understand that you can be drenched in something dry. Like New York is being painted by the numbers on a canvas by Hiroshi Nagai. In the teens of July, when everything seems like it is coming out of the ground, when death is on holiday, when you can’t exactly rule out resurrection as a possibility because look, how alive, when the greens in Central Park are straight out of the crayon box, shameless and slutty. I should like to die when there’s a chance I could wipe the dirt and sun off my jumper and walk right back into a house where nice people live.
After three UTIs, two haircuts she (astutely) recognized as bad and you justified as French, one sophomore spring semester, and half a year into seeing each other, romance comes to every evening with a stupid ease. It feels almost accidental. The sun is pink and makes the regular yellow of the two of you shine golden. Maybe you’re just feeling the red sauce, but you notice that even the halal vendor looks a bit Byronic. From inside his stall, flashes from the slats of the blinds sheen your retinas in long kisses you sense are vaguely dangerous. You open yourself to violets so ultra, you breathe as easily as you cry. You question what the difference is in the sky to make light fall apart inside your eyes so gorgeously. Whatever it is filters this film in which you both explore the adult happiness of knowing a second body. Though there always runs the risk of conflating what’s fresh with what’s best. But you’re pretty sure this is it.
The only harsh reality is the gross phenomenon of New York tap water when pipes that predate city codes meet heat. The too-warm water reeks of chlorine, and normally, you would sit it on the windowsill to sweat off, but your impatience for drink is constant. It is so acidic, when you try to make tea from it, the milk curdles in your cup. You close your eyes, run through the softer textures in your mind, want for her while sitting on the linoleum counter with stuck thighs like a coupon, cut out and waiting to be applied.
Rolling the slim column of her forearm in your fingers, the delicate mechanisms of her wrist click with each curl like glass marbles. You move together like the opposite of bone. Here, the two of you compose a place where friction forgets to burn. From the men in your life, you were taught how to feel from someplace fatal–your favorites to pick from are the jugular and the hip, just not the heart. From her, you hoped to find your tenderness.
OH GOD! OH GOD! OH GOD! OH GOD! OH GOD!
I have a brother too, who was, for the most part, gentle with me growing up. In a memory I’m losing to childhood amnesia, I learned early on not to fuck with a male strength two years older than me. I can twizzle out the little sisters hiding inside serious women by watching the way they live around men. Little sisters know better than anyone else that our futures are oracled between senate floors and closed doors.
Pro tip: My island faces a cultural extinction (thoughts and prayers) and not a cultural extermination (yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers!) if I can convince this country I’m
next-in-line to be white. So, yes, it is spelled T-A-I-W-A-N, but it’s actually pronounced: the next Ukraine.
In a 2022 byline from The Atlantic, “Taiwan Faces Its Ukraine Moment”: “The island’s people seem blissfully oblivious of a looming conflict with China. The U.S. can’t afford that luxury.”
Not even six months prior, a man shot up a Taiwanese church in Irvine, California, in an ethnically motivated hate crime. He shares half his name with the deceased.
In the young 20th century, a report from Governor to the Philippines and future President William Howard Taft reads: “our little brown brothers [would need] fifty or one hundred years’ of close supervision to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.”
The satirical campus newspaper invites a Jay Leno writer to kick his boots up on our desks and reminisce about his days on the Lampoon when it was still okay to, yaknow, crack jokes. Punch up, he advises us. You can say things like how Asians are good at math, genius smart but kinda, yaknow, awkward and robot-y, because no one gets offended by that, right? Right. We thank him for his time.
Similarities are what motivate a comparison in the first place. I am a W-O-M-A-N defined by how horrible I would be as a hypothetical man. I’m not sure I’m still attracted to you. I don’t want to love you. I thank her for her honesty.
My system is nervous about her by design, these small veins still siphon memories from a genocide in which we were divined to be daughters on opposite sides. Bleeding against each other’s grain. Pushing one hundred times a minute, the same reminder pulses of a boat, the one she was never fresh off of. Before girl-woman, I never considered myself to be beautiful. I grew up a child whose teachers and parents’ friends would call kind. I was never beautiful. But now I cry as if I should be. How can I be capable of breaking her heart when I don’t even have the nails to scratch the bell jar surrounding it? I try to imagine the love we made in the last nine months, how we raised mercury and shattered glass boiling it over. A thing missing fat cannoli feet, her grandma’s dimples, my dad’s schoolbus stop sign ears, and every other part of ourselves we yearned to mix together like laundry. I search desperately for the lump missing in our arms in a family portrait showing no children except the both of ourselves. My editor tells me the human gestation period is actually closer to ten months than nine. Is that all a breakup is? When you understand that what you have is too little, but you can’t stand to see more.
I tune the static in my head to some frequency that repels thought. But even that fuzz could never block the realization I was coming to, again and again, that we were becoming something other than lovers.
LSAT LOGICAL REASONING SAMPLE QUESTION:
Each question in this section is based on the reasoning presented in a brief passage. In answering the questions, you should not make assumptions that are by commonsense standards implausible, superfluous, or incompatible with the passage. For some questions, more than one of the choices could conceivably answer the question. However, you are to choose the best answer; that is, choose the response that most accurately and completely answers the question.
CONVERSATION A: ANATOMY OF A BREAK-UP
you: you didn’t say, “I love you,” enough.
you: true, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Not towards the end, in any case.
you disagree on whether you:
- could have stayed together
- could have stayed together
- could have stayed together
- could have stayed together
- could have stayed together
SWIPE RIGHT BECAUSE I LICK PUSSY LIKE A CHAMP.
Full disclaimer, ladies: I’d eat ass too, but I don’t have the health insurance.
If I can’t have either, everything else, please.
I’m a real whore of an omnivore–stuffing myself with abecedarian plates of Arby’s &
Advil & adobos & alfredo & alligator & Absolute bagels & brownies & burgers & Bud Light (Dylan’s Version) & bread & batter & bacon & burritos & bao & biscuits & Blizzards & calamari & curries & candy & catfish & Coca-Cola soda & churros & cakes & corn dogs & chilis & chocolate & cigarettes & Culver’s & chicken & cheetos & coffee creamers & chitlins & CanniBus™ edibles & canola oil & crunchwraps & Chipotle & dino nuggets & donuts & dahi toast & doritos & devilled eggs & deer patties & duck & dumplings & dim sum & drunken noodles & DiGiorno’s & delivery & Eggos & enough corn syrup snacks to put Little Debbie through med school & Elmer’s glue & eel & fish fries & filets & frog legs & fritters & footlongs & Five Guys & frosties & Fireball & Frank’s RedHot & grilled cheeses & ghee & Gatorade & General Tso’s chicken & guacamole & Gong Cha & goose & gizzards & garlic bread & gravy & gyoza & gyros & hot dogs & hot sausages & hummus & hot pot & Hardee’s & hashbrowns & hydrocortisone & ice creams & intestines (not-human) & ibuprofen & Icee’s & Insomnia cookies & jalapeno poppers & jello & jello shots & just-dropped five second rule pizza crust & karage & Krystal & katsu & Koronets & KBBQ & Kraken & Katz’ & KFC & lambs & loins & lard & lithium & lobster & lasagnas & laxatives & Listerine® Cool Mint® Zero Mouthwash Concentrate Starter Kit & Lumberjack Specials & livers & mutton & munster & mac & cheese & Melba’s & mango mochi & marshmallows & Mountain Dew & meatloaf & McDonald’s & Malibu & Mama’s Too & McSorley’s dark brew & mirtazapine 15 mg & mirtazapine 30 mg & mashed potatoes with fried shallots & milk & nachos & Nutella & nori & naan & New York cheesecake & nothing for days at a time & NyQuil & olives & Oreos & omelets & own vomit & pizzas & pie & potatoes & pig brains & Popeye’s & prosciutto & pancakes & Paris Baguette & Pumpkin Spice Lattes & pad thai & Prozac & pickles & Patrón & Peter Luger’s & poppers & quails & their eggs & quesadillas & quarter pounders & quaaludes & roasts & ramen & Rocky Mountain oysters & r oommate leftovers & red sauce & ribs & Roti Roll & sashimi & salt & vinegar chips & sugar straight out of the bag & squid & sushi & short ribs & Shake Shack & spam & tacos & toast & tenders & T-bone steaks & takis & teriyaki & three cup chicken & upside down cakes & ugly pies & Uncle Ben’s & veal & Veniero’s & vanilla extract & vodka & white rice & warm spoons of mayonnaise & white sauce & whole bricks of cold, salted butter & Whoppers & wings & whipped cream & White Castle & waffles & Whiteclaw & Wendy’s & weightwatchers & xiao long bao & Xanax & Yasmin & yorkshire puddings & zebra cakes & everything except a whole vegetable that can fit inside my wide-gawped maw.
Repeat until I convince myself: I can digest my way into a feeling.
GOING BACK TO MY COUNTRY
Home has the only floors in the world I trust enough to pillow my head against the ground. Every room houses ancestors to the regular disasters of my personality I’ve since learned to check off on clipboards and tuck away into manila folders. Little orange cylinders lined from A(djustment disorder) to P(TSD). Home is inside a map dot sapped in its own fossil fuel nostalgia, staring lovingly at its reflection in technicolor puddles of petrol. The roads are where I discovered how to pick my cuticles red and pulpy because I hated the billboards filled with babies I could either kill or save and demands to choose which afterlife I would prefer to end up in. Plus, the edges of people are the only hurting parts we can regenerate. My hometown exists because the US needed an Appalachian backwater to hide their development of a nation-ending weapon up until the very last moment when they used it against people who look like me, or rather, (great-grand)parents I look like. The project’s namesake is its origin, a university laboratory in Manhattan. Maybe the Freud-obsessed dude in Intro Philosophy was onto something: it is hard to escape ourselves.
My mother comes over to put a cold, leathery palm to my face, in a Hello Kitty apron and with a plate of sliced peeled fruit. I thought I had given all my love to girl-woman, in those whispered epiphanies about my childhood, in the confessions of the features of my body I don’t like, in the immense speeches we are supposed to make ourselves into and share with the other: this is my significance. But I was born from love done quietly. One without the need for metaphor. One that I experienced before I tried to be that third-person, the she/her girl-woman. Even before this first-person. A love for every possible outcome of you. Using my gay voice, I tell māma what I can with the restrained vocabulary of a heritage speaker, plucking lines from her favorite movies, songs, and TV shows, curating a sort of unintentional poetry to the words which weren’t quite my own. māma saw me incomplete, becoming, in the middle-of-things, and still worth a winter pear. I remembered that is a choice, too.
THIS STORY NEEDS A BETTER ENDING.
Sometimes, I wonder if the sensation in my chest is a prelude. A crescendo ripped straight from Wagner that never quite peaks, as if to say, you must listen closely, else this body may die without telling you. Ba-bum…ba-bum…ba-bum…until the dreamy three dots of the ellipses swirl around me like vultures in a death spiral. But lately, I’ve been interpreting the off ribbits and rhythms as the precise opposite: I’m going to live if it’s the last thing I do. Hokkien is a traditional dialect of Taiwanese. It’s all the froggy phonetics of French minus the sexiness. It sounds something like calling home.