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  • Writing in Two Tongues
  • Wang Ping (bio)

Seventeen years ago, I walked into a creative writing class by accident and started writing. I wrote in two languages, Chinese, my mother tongue, and English, which I studied in my early twenties before I came to the USA. There was a huge gap between my Chinese poems and the English ones, and I couldn't see it until I tried to translate the English poems into Chinese and found the task nearly impossible. Putting them side to side, I realized that when I wrote in Chinese, I automatically walked the line of three thousand years of poetic tradition: cultured, flowery, cluttered with historical allusions, images, and metaphors. However, my English poems were simple, bold, and straightforward, both in form and content, playful paintings by a child who knows no fear or inhibition, who never hesitates to point and shout, "The emperor has no clothes!"

I was a virgin till twenty-three, then always had more than one lover at the same time-all secret.

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The asshole in Chinese: the eye of the fart.

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The most powerful curse: fuck your mother, fuck your grandmother, fuck your great-grandmother of eighteen generations.

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We don't say "fall in love," but "talk love."

When I left home, my father told me: "never talk love before you're twenty-five years old." I waited till twenty-three. Well, my first lover was a married coward. My first marriage lasted a week. My husband slept with me once, and I never saw him again.

(from "Of Flesh & Spirit")

Such vulgarity! Such horror! My mother tongue would never allow them to surface to my consciousness, let alone let them out in writing as a poem. It is simply unimaginable, unthinkable, and unspeakable-and therefore, untranslatable.

The discovery shook me. True, mother tongue soothes and nurtures like a cradle, but it's also a pointing finger, telling me what to see, where to go, how to think and feel. It provides the ground for my imagination while setting the boundary. It works subtly, unconsciously, and ubiquitously. I speak, write, and think in Chinese without a second thought, taking it for granted. It's like going home through a forest path so old and familiar that I can do it with my eyes closed. And I often do; therefore, I no longer see.

To write poetry in a second tongue, however, I do not have such luxury. I have to keep my eyes, ears, and mouth open all the time for new sounds, new expressions, new meanings. I constantly stop a conversation and ask, "What does it mean?" or "What are you really trying to say?" Most of the time, people laugh kindheartedly, give me the definition of the word, then go on. Sometimes they get annoyed for being interrupted, or become condescending. My questions force them to reexamine the words they use, revealing unintentionally that they don't really know what they are saying, or don't mean what they are trying to say. Some people would feel threatened, and start mocking my accent and my grammatical mistakes. But I don't care. Marked forever as a linguistic child by my foreign accent, I have a giant playground with endless toys to play with. I can break rules, challenge the authority of the language, and bypass the old ways of seeing and thinking. And I feel no shame to stumble and fall.


She walks to a tableShe walk to tableShe is walking to a tableShe walk to table now [End Page 13] What difference does it makeWhat difference it makeIn Nature, no completenessNo sentence really complete thoughtLanguage, like womanLook best when free, undressed

A word is not just a word, but a universe pulsing with the lives and histories of the people who speak it, write it, and live it. Yet it can also become stagnant from the forced rules, become grimy and clichéd from careless use. A poem must first of all yank us out of the familiar ground we stand on to make us see things in a new light. It must challenge the...