Grace V.S. Chin

Grace V. S. Chin, a for­mer Malaysian jour­nal­ist, holds a PhD in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture from the Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong. She cur­rently teaches Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and Drama Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Brunei Darus­salam. Her poems have been pub­lished in Hong Kong U Writ­ing: An Anthol­ogy, Sweat & The City: Sto­ries and Poems from the Hong Kong Work­place, and Cha: An Asian Lit­er­ary Jour­nal.




In His­tory class, I sat with my eyes
closed, lis­ten­ing, to the drone
of the teacher’s voice, each word
los­ing its way in the drowsy
after­noon heat. A fu-
fuzzy-faced boy entered
my day­mare, his dis­jointed arms
reached out, jar­ring me
into wakefulness. 

“Why,” he asked
in plain­tive tones,
“you can­not speak
Mandarin-ah? It’s your
Mother Tongue.” 

Groggy and stunned, I groped
in waver­ing Can­tonese, voice strained
with expla­na­tions, syl­la­bles leak­ing
with every trans­lated Eng­lish word. 

do I describe
my patch­work
self? I speak
Can­tonese at
home, dream,
think and talk
with friends, learn
to read
and write Malay
at school. 

do I  sift      
these jumbled-up
tongues, as deli­cious
as rojak, sep­a­rate one
from the other, and you lose
their pre­cious taste. 

That after­noon, his ques­tion rang
in my head, and only the branch                                           
the win­dow pane out­side
spoke for me.


Con­ver­sa­tions with my dead mother

Con­ver­sa­tions with my dead mother are rare
I should think
but she keeps com­ing to me
when I am quiet and pli­ant
in my sleep. It’s not fair,
I cry, hear­ing the slush
of heavy water in my bones.  

“You don’t eat enough,” she declares
each time we meet. As if stuff­ing face
would help ease my pangs, or take away
the silted mem­o­ries. She sits
with legs crossed on the kitchen
stove, a fat female Bud­dha
with Mona Lisa’s smile, grandly wav­ing
her spat­ula like a wand, grant­ing me wishes
that never came true for her. 

She spent her life here,
boil­ing black bit­ter­sweet
med­i­c­i­nal herbs to chase away
our child­hood demons, cook­ing 
all day long in her big black
steel wok, a thou­sand aro­mas hung
in the air, each defin­ing her
in ways we never knew — her
long­beans stir fried in belachan,
chicken braised in soya sauce
and chopped red chilis, nasi lemak,
onde onde, pan­dan chif­fon cakes,
curry chicken, square tofu topped
with minced pork — while lit­tle brother
and I played on the table, hands deep
in floury dough as she chopped
her way into our stom­achs
and hearts, and scrubbed
her wok until fin­gers were raw
and wrin­kled. She aged
before our eyes but we
did not know it, shut­ting
our eyes and ears to the smash­ing
of glasses thrown onto walls, the yelling
for us to leave her alone, the cry­ing
when father failed
to come home, the crash­ing
of her body on the floor. 

All at once, I am
my mother’s daugh­ter again,
chop­per in hand, dic­ing small,
red onions at the sink, eyes blinded
by the sting of tears, they fall, one
after the other, flow­ing
like unspo­ken words
into the sinkhole.