Saturday, April 28, 2018

NaPoWriMo Day 26: Etymology

Prompt: write a poem that includes images that engage all five senses.

I combined today's prompt with the SEAPoWriMo prompt, which was about reclamation - of words and phrases that are commonly used with a negative connotation. Not precisely on topic for that, but then I don't think it's precisely on topic here either.

It also turned out to be one of the most challenging pieces I've written, and required a complete overhaul both for lineation and for clarity. It's long (I hate writing long poems!) and it deals with many aspects of the languages spoken here in Malaysia, as well as the connotations that words can have.

Popo = Cantonese for maternal grandmother
Taugeh = Hokkien for mung bean sprouts
Taukwa = A type of firm Chinese beancurd
Mee goreng = Fried noodles
Kopitiam = A small Malaysian eatery, usually with various hawker food stalls in it.



I am the same word
       in different languages
       given different meaning
       by tonality and intent.

The boy on the street leers at me.
Ah moi[*], wei ah moi. 
2-tone whistle from pursed lips.
A bird call. Mockingbird call.     
. 妹子. Moi zhai [1].
Ngi keh moi leh? my Hakka popo asks my mother.
. Mui[2], xiu sam ah, my sister says.
Jiak moi[3], my Hokkien friend invites.

I am daughter
I am sister
I am a bowl of soft congee
           slurped and swallowed.


Her father fries mee goreng at a kopitiam.
Kelinga mee, they called it in the past
       a hybrid of fried yellow noodles
       with spicy sweet potato gravy.

       Yellow noodles, a handful
           of slippery ancestral strands
           from his father and
           South Indian grandfather

       Taugeh grown from
            the labour and sweat
            of building a nation
            that paves its  roads
            with the burnt stones
            of his ancestors’ dreams

       Chilli paste pungent
            with the bite and scorch
            of derogatory names
            and relentless sun

         Taukwa. Cuttlefish gravy.
         Sweet potato gravy.
         Fat teardrops. Potatoes.

         His wife’s hands slicing
              stars and ingredients
              into her wide metal tray
              hoping to birth a comet

         His love for his daughter
               a perfect boiled egg
               on her plate each morning
               while the rest he cuts up
               for garnish

Kelinga[4]. Kalinga[5].

A difference of one letter
       spanning the divide
       between a glorious kingdom
       and a derogatory taunt.


The walk from her father’s stall to the bus stop
       is 200 metres of narrow lane stretched out
       to 200 kilometres.

Ah moi, ah moi
The boys catcall and jeer at us
       mouths puckered  
       like wrinkled little anuses.

Beady gleaming eyes.
Rats’ eyes.

I want to spit HAM GAA CAAN [6]
       in ideograms of fire
       and pluck them from the air to hurl:
       a missile, a curse.

We are dead tigers, she and I, vanity kills
       stripped of our claws and teeth
       with knives forged from 


[*] Ah moi (n): Malaysian slang for ‘girl’.
      Context is all-important.

      The margin between ‘girl’ and ‘sex object’
              is a fine line 
not delineated 
              by the length of a skirt
              the dip of a neckline
              no matter what they say: 
              it’s all in the mind
[1] 妹子, moi4 zhai3 (n) Hakka: Daughter
      Ngi keh moi leh? : Where is your daughter?

      Where is the producer of heirs?
      Where is the iron warrior
       birthed from steel loins?
      The distinction is tonality
      and intent

[2] , mui2 (n) Cantonese: Younger sister
      Xiu sam ah: Be careful
      (but care is not always enough
       little sister
       be wise)

[3] , moi2 (n) Hokkien: Congee
      Jiak moi: Eat congee

      The sharing of a meal
       is community
       is love

[4] Kelinga: Said to derived
from ‘Kalinga’ (see [5]).

Formerly used to mean Indian
Tamil, or South Indian
Now a derogatory term
for Indians in Malaysia

[5] Kalinga:
Ancient Indian kingdom
in east-central India
corresponding to pre­sent-day
northern Telangana
northeastern Andhra Pradesh
most of Odisha and
parts of Madhya Pradesh

When did a noble kingdom
become a curse?

[6] , ham6 gaa1 caan2 (n) Cantonese:
May your whole family be dead
May your line wither, be barren
       as parched water holes
       and dead eye sockets

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