On Forgetting a Language
By Isabella Wang
I started choreographing
in my head again,
though it’s been two years since I’ve danced,
and the calluses between my toes
have grown tender.
My feet have widened from lack of restraint,
my body no longer responds under command to
chaîné, détourné, développé
like second nature
like a head turning towards grandmother’s call
every time the telephone rang.
The studios I left behind shunned me
more than my own family
when I couldn’t remember their faces,
their names, how to write my own name,
how to write our language.
My grandmother doesn’t know why I refuse to see her.
I don’t know what my language is anymore.
After every class I lay on the ground,
rooting myself in the studio’s sprung wooden floors.
Back sticky from sweat and rosin,
legs raised to the barres where I let them hang.
I ordered a shipment of 50 pointe shoes
and pounded their tips thin.
When they say, You must feel the ground with your feet,
it is pain you feel. Pain
was how you connected to the ground
and at home, I shared it with others.
Quitting ballet isn’t like forgetting
my first language.
Now my family will not talk to me,
and I reach for the studios
once more, to the place I learned to express
words I could not say
into sharp, fluid lines honed against music.
Every once in a while I try to force my new
blubber into old leotards,
gel my greasy hair back into a tight bun,
enunciate my name in Chinese
just to get a feel of what it was once like.
If I return to my birthplace Jining now
I will return as a foreigner,
like the time I stepped on to this land ten years earlier
as a Chinese immigrant
and realized there was no place
for my language in this new country.
By Isabella Wang
1. A tanka
As other families sit
to feast at this year’s table,
on the spring rolls and nian gao
wafting out of their windows.
2. Year of the dog
My mother made dumplings for the dog today.
Flour and water embraced to dough,
a handful of dog pellets ground in a mortar
and pestle, carrots and celery chopped to a fine pulp.
Dad and I waited in the other room to the sound
of rolling pin against cutting board, floured dough scraping
hardwood as she kneaded.
Filling nursed between the tips of two silver chopsticks,
stack of paper thin disks rolled and she cupped them
in her hand the way you cup a red lotus
at the Lunar parade
each year to make a wish.
Two fingers dipped into water, edges sealed
with neat folds.
With dogs, she says, you just need to feed them and
they remain grateful forever.
Dad and I went for a stroll in the neighbourhood.
Around us, upside-down banners and red lanterns.
Fruit for luck. Tang yuan, dusted in flour, filled
with sweetened sesame, peanut, or red bean paste—
served from bamboo baskets in a circle with each glutinous
rice ball nudged tightly beside the other
like family members gathered by the roundtable. In the year
to come, they are to bring harmony and unity.
Noodles with mustard greens for longevity,
tossed with spring onions and chilli in peanut sauce.
Spring rolls for wealth. Steamed fish in ginger and soy sauce
for abundance. Sticky nian gao for progress.
We considered waiting the evening out, going up to ring
the doorbells and asking for their leftover tang yuan
and maybe spring rolls. Instead, we gorged
on these smells that will satiate us for another year.
Isabella Wang is a young, emerging Chinese-Canadian writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her poetry is published in Room Magazine, The /tEmz/ Review, Train Journal, and Looseleaf Magazine. Her essays are published in carte blanche and on Invisible Blog, and one is forthcoming in The New Quarterly. At 18, she is a two-time finalist and the youngest writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest. She is studying English at SFU, co-organizing for the Dead Poets Reading series, and serving as the youth advocate for the Federation of BC Writers, while working with Books on the Radio and interning at Room.