All the World Enthroned in Our Throats
My mother’s mother’s language is the music of canefields. In Yilan, she hangs her machete on the door of her home, its bright blade a mirror throwing the world back at itself. Even past 80, my ama hacks sugarcane every morning, saving the sweet, woodsy ends of the cane for the neighborhood kids to ache their teeth on. Ama’s sugarcane songs are in a dialect that Wikipedia calls the “Yilan creole,” a mix of coastal Chinese dialects, colonial Japanese loanwords, and indigenous Atayal. My ama, the daughter of an Atayal chief, the survivor of two wars and two empires, begins all her songs with the same word: gui. In this language, gui can mean many things: Ghost. Turtleback. Expensive. To kneel. To return.
In a tonal language, meaning is carried in song, not in syllable. It’s not the word itself, but how it’s said: the pitch, the dip, the rising or falling note. Some tones reach three notes: high, then low, then back up and up. Linguists claim that the invention of tonal languages is the product of climate: in the hottest, most humid areas near the equator, people’s vocal cords are looser, more flexible, more inclined to sing. If you ask my ama, who is more a linguist than any linguist, she’ll say it’s because of insects. The constant symphony of cicadas, the buzz of mosquitos, the high hum of gnats: all of it discordant and yet in harmony, all of it tonal. She’ll claim we learned to speak by listening, and what we heard first was high-toned wind, the low-toned sea, the dip-toned owl. All the world enthroned in our throats.
And still, a tone is so easy to lose. Every note that was once retrieved through the body can be chased out. I learned this in school, when our teachers told us our language was ugly, brassy, chinky. I remembering going home and standing in front of the mirror, watching the shape of my mouth as if I could catch it out of line, out of order. In home videos, I am always shocked to hear the accent I know longer have - in one shot, I’m speaking directly to the camera, and “I mean” comes out “I ming” - ming meaning light, ming meaning brightness, Ming meaning that dynasty of poets. Sometimes, when I speak to my mother over the phone, a tone falls flat or too sharp, a souring so subtle it’s the difference between morning and mourning.
When I used to complain of these losses, my mother would say it didn’t matter. Listening is more important, she said, and you can never lose that. Not recognizing a tone or its distinctions was like not recognizing the self. But still, I was afraid. I watched hours of Youtube videos teaching white people about tones. I tried to learn the seven tones of Taiwanese but couldn’t hear the difference, all of them in a key I’d never heard. The one thing I knew I’d never forget was my ama’s sugarcane songs, the song so sweet and simple it was itself a kind of sugar, a coating of the throat. The lines were short, low-pitched, loamy as soil. And yet, one things still haunted me: which gui to begin with?
If gui means ghost, the song was a sadness I’d failed to recognize. It was about the ache of her machete-wielding arm, it was about her neck bent so many times its bones rearranged, it was about coming home from the fields to aloneness: no husband, daughters, granddaughters. If gui means ghost, it means the canefields are haunted by beheaded Atayal warriors and sons, by the Japanese soldiers who chase them even in death, by the Chinese refugee who self-immolated in protest when she found out her entire family on the mainland had been executed. So she rejoined her family by fire. The canefield, too damp to catch fire, refused her ashes. Eventually, she floated into the sea, across the strait. Going home.
All these stories are ghost stories, but they are also love stories. If gui means turtle, the songs are about ang gu gui, sticky red tortoise cakes filled with mung bean and wrapped in banana leaf. My ama could make them so many ways: some were intricate and small, the size of my thumb. Some were big and glossed as helmets. Each of them were sweetened with local sugar, so sticky my fingers glued together for hours until my sweat set them free again. There is a kind of sweetness that scabs the throat: this is that kind. The tortoise cakes were bright as blood. From far away, as she kneaded the pale bean paste, the cakes were the color of meat, like something alive again.
But if gui means expensive, I know it’s an omen. It’s about living in a country where you can’t afford to bury your dead. When my mother and I toured a graveyard near our city, trying to find the perfect site for my grandfather, my mother only looked at the prices in our glossy brochure and shook her head. When she saw the sites themselves, she shook her head again. Finally, the tourguide asked what was wrong. Wasn’t there something we liked? There aren’t any Chinese people buried here, my mother said to me. He’ll be lonely without anyone to talk to. Who will he talk to? And I knew that we were again speaking of tones - who in this country would know his name and its music? Who could answer?
And if gui means to kneel, the song is holy. Is prayer. My ama says god is not the song but the mouth: the only thing we trust to speak back. In her old house in LA, she played Taiwanese Buddhist chants on the radio, and we kneeled together to listen. Years later, I would try to find that voice’s channel, but I could only find salsa music or the Top 20s or classical. It must have been some kind of witchery: only my ama could tune into that channel, available nowhere else in this country. Somehow, she had caught the tones of another home, wrangled it in a net of airwaves. I try to remember the chants, but only the vowels are there. When I try to sing now, it dissolves on my tongue like sugar.
If gui means to return, then this is the song I choose. It is the truest one. To speak is to return the body’s sound back to the body. When I speak my mother’s language back to her, I am returning myself to her body, to a time when I kicked inside her so hard, she said her belly turned neon as a bowling ball. Sometimes, I say my name in three languages to test which is truest, to test which one my body responds to. Sometimes I punish myself for answering only to Kristin, the name that means Christ, the name I don’t have a face for. But then I remember how my ama pronounces it: Ka-ree-si-ding. Each syllable like wind through cane, the sweetest scent afterwards. I can hear her machete thwack to the beat of it: Ka-ree-si-ding. Weaponry is a kind of womanhood. Language is more than loss. It is the land itself and the sugarcane too: what my ama grows carefully and then cuts down to feed me.