Broken Tongues By Alex Dang

Broken Tongues

I remember not knowing how to speak.

When I was in pre-school, my family was worried
that no one would understand me.
I spoke in this Frankenstein monster tongue
of Vietnamese and English.
(The gaps between two broken
languages cannot make a full sentence.)

Every other Wednesday, during kindergarten,
I’d be called out of class to fix my speech.

My words
blurred like hummingbird wings
and the song came out as a whirlwind:
too quick to comprehend,
too fast to decipher.

There were strands of line
pouring out with different clicks
and keys. A broken Morse code
that twisted wicked confusion easy.

I learned how to smooth and comb
the knots of my talk at the same time
I was taught Chinese in school.
No one would expect chipped china plates
lined along my soft gums.

I only mastered English, though.
During family gatherings,
uncles and aunts
spoke slowly to me,
sentences hanging in the air,

while on the other hand,
I would read letters with important headings
and big government stamps to my parents.

I made speeches;
I learned to do jump-rope rhymes like
“99 nuns in an Indiana Nunnery,” or
“I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch.”
Things my parents could never say!

And in class, I studied Chinese,
found out how to say the things
I already knew how to say in English
but forgot to label in Vietnamese.

There are some Chinese words that
sound exactly like their English definition:

And there are some Vietnamese words
that sound ugly and jagged when they
dangle from my mouth:

They hang awkward and loose
from my teeth; I speak elbows
and frayed vocal cord.

As hard as I tried
to adopt back my native voice,
it never came out as smooth as
the silky, commercial talk
that I heard on television every day.

My mother is Chinese.
My father is Vietnamese.
I am American.

She speaks Chinese.
He dreams Vietnamese.
I speak repaired tongue.
I dream renovated dialect.

I’m sorry but can you say it a bit slower?
em không biết nói tiếng Việt
I’m sorry but can you repeat yourself?

It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you,
it’s just because I can’t.
It’s because I don’t know how.

I’m still trying to tell you.
I’m still holding on so tightly to the stitched words
and patched up language of my childhood.

Even in my perfect English,
There are some things I just can’t say.

Xong phim is a Vietnamese word does not exist in English.
It means
I am done.
It means
I am through with you.
I am at the end of my rope.

By Alex Dang


Alex Dang is a member of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 Portland Poetry Slam Team competing at the National Poetry Slam and the youngest representative from Portland in the slam’s history. Alex is the Eugene Grand Slam Champion of 2014 and 2015. Videos of his performances have amassed over 1.5 million views on YouTube. He has been a speaker at two TEDx events: TEDxReno and TEDxUOregon. A nationally touring poet, Alex has performed in over 35 cities, 20 states, and is a world renowned burger expert.

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