Don’t Speak For Me

Emily Yin

Every year, upon landing in Taiwan, I begin a campaign of overcorrection: exaggerating my retroflex consonants while speaking Mandarin, plucking out mackerel bones at the dinner table, gamely chewing body parts—pig’s blood cake, cow intestines, duck tongue—in a bid to establish my authenticity. I seldom reject food, no matter how exotic the fare in question, lest my refusal be interpreted as disgust. Call it the insecurity of a Taiwanese-American. Call it the ultimate form of solipsism.

While my parents saunter into Taipei Starbucks stores and ask for an Americano or mille crepe without a thought, I labor over the Chinese menu and Google translate characters I’ve forgotten or never learned. Never mind that my unpracticed Mandarin frustrates any attempt at blending in. I still flinch at the term wai guo ren, meaning foreigner, after all these years, still rail against my parents’ tendency to treat reticence as failure to understand. Early on, I learned that words can wound even when they aren’t deployed as insults. Anger was my defense. But anger is exhausting and exhaustible, and my attempts to justify it increasingly Sisyphean.

***

There are probably zero non-candid photos in which my grandfather is smiling. This isn’t to say that he’s surly, or humorless, though an onlooker might come to that conclusion. Rather, he seems incapable of manufacturing joy. My extended family recently booked a portrait session; whenever the photographer exhorted him to smile, my grandfather dutifully rearranged his face so that his teeth were bared. The result was so comical that we eventually settled on his resting serious face. Half an hour later, my young cousin blurted out a charming and riotously funny remark, as children do, and my grandfather erupted into laughter. This was the only successful image in the entire shoot.

I will never fully know my grandfather, or all the lives he’s lived, but I know who he is to me. When I was a child, he’d take me to 7-Eleven or Family Mart and buy me everything my heart desired—malt milk and pudding popsicles, chocolate cake and hand-held fans. In first grade, I was obsessed with Doraemon magnets. By second grade the interest had faded, but I continued to expand the collection. Its presence on the apartment fridge was a point of continuity, a language we both understood; by fourth grade I no longer knew whether I was doing it for his sake or mine.

Eventually the Doraemon magnets were discontinued. By then my grandfather had started taking me to department stores instead of 7-Elevens, gifting me shoes and backpacks and other more elaborate things. By then my command of Mandarin had weakened, and our conversations became increasingly stilted. What do you want? He’d ask, again and again. No doubt he sensed my discontent, but the only thing I wanted was something money can’t buy.

***

I’ve always loved Taipei with a depth of feeling that borders on violence or tears. I love it despite the suffocating humidity, the perpetual scent of joss sticks in back alleys, the reckless mopeds and taxis my parents curse—the harder I try to triangulate my affection, the more elusive it becomes. On the subway, women primp in front of the reflective doors, elderly men yield priority seats to each other and bobbed schoolgirls clutch the triangular grips, lost in their reveries. Inside department stores or roadside shops, sales personnel reel you in with free samples and hold you captive to thirty-minute-long pitches. And there is the most mouthwatering food to be found: black sugar boba, shaved ice topped with taro and condensed milk, beef noodle soup, crispy fried chicken.

On fair days, when the sun scalds overhead, parasols sprout like flowers and children, unfazed by the heat, drift irrepressibly beyond their mothers’ grasp. On rainy days, the droplets shuffle moodily across car windows, starting and stopping like pedestrians at an intersection. I love the city not as a vacation destination or home but as a memory; memory, which thrives on the slippage between truth and fiction. How much of the city have I invented or shrink-wrapped to create the perfect story? For me, it’s always been about the ache of possibility, the narrative of return.

***

We celebrated my grandfather’s ninetieth birthday this summer. Relatives, many of whom I’d only seen once or twice in my life, flocked from all over Taiwan to a hotel in downtown Taipei. I took in the scene with an air of curious detachment. People embraced, formed calyxes around the most charismatic relatives, engaged in the sort of idle chatter I’d never managed to perfect. My sparse interactions could have been turned into a drinking game: take a shot every time you hear do you understand Chinese? or I haven’t seen you since you were a little girl or you look just like your mother; take two shots every time someone mistakes you for your mother. After stumbling through one too many explanations of my major and career goals, I fled to my parents and proceeded to shadow them for the rest of the afternoon. They were, I found, all too willing to fill out my lean answers, to elaborate on my accomplishments in a way I could not.

Perhaps I could have tried harder, but I’ve never had much fight in me. As a child I tended to retreat into myself, especially in the presence of people I admired and adored. My dad would admonish me sharply; he didn’t understand that this wasn’t born of an unwillingness to engage—quite the opposite. I so desperately wanted to engage, to be liked. I yearned with all my being to be a point of interest but knew I’d never be able to land the witty remark, wear the right face. I wish I could tell myself, then and now, that everyone has a right to take up space, to speak and be heard, to not have to be entertaining and delightful and on script all the time. I never did learn that you don’t need to be lovable in order to be loved.

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Emily Yin is a junior studying computer science at Princeton University. Her writing has been recognized by the UK Poetry Society and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. She currently serves as a poetry editor at Nassau Literary Review. Her work is published in or forthcoming from the Indiana Review Online, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, decomP magazinE, and Connotation Press, among others.