We don’t use language like that

Part One

i) Ah Ma

when my hair was still               no talking                     cut straight across my forehead

I was watched by my Ah Ma’s                                   wooden back-scratcher


together                                                                                     it baby-sitted my blinking

always waiting for my body to stray out of bounds                                       sit quiet quiet

                     me and Ah Ma we watched the Lion King II together every day of the school

learn good                                         good

holidays after Maggi Noodles with black sauce and frankfurters sliced


ii) Bonding

I slid my pirated copy of the Lion King II out of the plastic sleeve

protecting the sun-smeared colours of Pride Rock and put in into the VCR player and my grandma’s voice faded into the sound of the


it was about a girl lion called Kiera

Nala falls in love with Kovu a boy lion and even as a kid I could tell

he was total eye-candy because it was the nineties

Kovu’s mane had a love

lock that hid his bad boy scar he had tan skin and round

peppermint lolly wrappers for eyes

but according to Simba Kovu is bad because he is related to Scar who killed Simba’s dad

when I got a bit older I wondered whether this was a tacky as hell black/white/segregation/Romeo/Juliet story

because Kovu’s skin is the colour of chocolate ice-cream and Kiara’s is the colour of a fifty-cent cone

two lions who fall in love with each other against their parent’s wishes isn’t that just so

nineties? interracial love taboos


iii) Show and Tell

when I told my Ah Ma that my boyfriend was no longer a hypothetical she asked me if he owned property what colour his skin was his vocation and told me not to change my mind

then she said

no don’t tell me don’t tell me


no I know I know you like Ang Moh

(and laughed and it did me good to hear her laugh because nowadays I miss the days when she disciplined me because at least she was alive to me then

now I’m not always so sure she knows what’s going on and it hurts me

more than her back-scratcher ever did)

in Chinese-Hokkien

Ang Moh = red hair = White People

I wonder if Babel Fish would have translated my grandma as saying

              I know I know you like rangas Or Or Or I know I know you like baboons

because in Chinese-Hokkien

ang kah chui = red butts = baboons

I told my boyfriend about the mistranslation and he didn’t find it as funny as I thought he would


Part Two

i) Nonna

when your hair was still overgrown and you showed

your two front teeth in photographs

you slid your long belly and enoki limbs under the pleather couch

hiding from the bulldog your nonna kept to protect her and only her

its eyes were like thrift-shop china cracked and pink and polished

in front of the TV you ate soccer ball ham cut thick from its paper wrapping


ii) Bonding

when you were old enough to drive your Nonno’[sign of the cross here]s battered Corolla

Nonna would sit in the passenger seat and love you more

times she would love you more

                                        times over than the rosary

you’re wearing purple today Nonna sexy!

only son of her only son she would slip fifties        Ooh new glasses Nonna

cicci bella in my car into your back pocket as you drove her to the cemetery and her mouth was always full of small talk family small talk how are the children? she would ask of your little sisters your little sisters too jealous to speak to you when you drove home bloated with love and warm-hued oil

be careful driving home and when you cross the road

drive slowly no risks you come for lunch again this week?


iii) Show and Tell

you were too afraid to tell your Nonna about me

she would have too much advice about meeting and marrying and

it doesn’t matter no I don’t mind just take all the time in the world of course

are you sure?

no yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes no yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes

well okay I’m okay if you’re okay

we’re okay



Part Three

i) The End

the day we drove past your Nonna’s house on the way to the supermarket and you pointed it out to me on the corner of Eliza St and Droop Pde

it’s very Italian you laughed

it looks like any suburban house looks

I didn’t say

I was thinking aloud less and less often around you in those days

should we go in?

you asked me always daring yourself to do things always proving to yourself that you were unscareable that you could laugh at things that made me scream

Yeah sure if you want

I was always ready to tell you yes or okay or sure not on purpose it wasn’t really conscious but sometimes you’d tell me something you wanted to do or eat or see or whatever and just the sound of you saying what you wanted made me start to wonder if that was exactly what I wanted all along only you had articulated it for me perfectly like a book and so I would say yes yes

let’s do it

you did a U-turn and braked outside her house

you opened the gate for me it was such a tiny gate

well it’s the thought that counts

I said with my heart and not my mouth

a-Nonnnnnnnnaaaaaaaah you sang like it was a musical that we were starring in

you knocked and rang and knocked and rang knocked and rang knocked and rang knocked




I’m worried. Where else could she be? She doesn’t go anywhere.

do you wanna call?

she won’t pick up

should we break in?

let’s just try the gate she might be in the backyard

your Nonna opened the gate for us

she was like a human that had been made in half-size a family mascot her eyes and chin a symbol of you

I was always bowing when she spoke to me because I didn’t want to tower over her you made a racist joke about this in front of your mum and she made excuses for you or maybe for me

Nonna this is my girlfriend

she tried not to let her eye-line bump into mine

I went to the bathroom to be alone with myself and I heard the wallpaper saying

is she a sensible girl?

yeah way more sensible than me Nonna

no you are good boy you are sensible

when I came out unsure of whether I wiped my sweaty hands on the right towel

she smiled and talked about silverbeet and the neighbour’s birthday cake and shoved a tenner and a fifty into your board shorts

does she speak English?

of course

do you love him?

we don’t use language like that Nonna                                                                  I think so

you said it like she’d sworn at me

I told her and tried not to look at you

is she a good girl?

yeah Nonna no alcohol no tatts no gambling no swearing even

if you’re a good girl I’ll like you

she told me like a truce or maybe it was a threat

how old are you


you’re such a skinny girl it’s beautiful

shyness doesn’t equal respect here you whispered in my ear

you are beautiful too

I told her going against the grain of myself

come on Nonna it’s my cicci bella! be happy for me

I am I just don’t feel too good today no bad feelings just don’t feel good I am

does your grandmother want anything from the supermarket?

I needed you to translate something not language but something else I couldn’t quite spell out

Artichokes soccer ball ham

she told me her face changing for the better

when you cross the road take care of each other look for cars

no risks

no risks

you both come for lunch this week?

hold each other’s hands when you cross the road, you hold his hand so he doesn’t take risks

and oh mama no showing off

she told you as if she could stop you


ii) Coda

you unlatched the tiny gate for me and clicked it back in place

I think our grandmas have some things in common

they would be friends if we if we if we oh if we if we if we if we if we we if we we if we

if we

I thought but did not say to your face beautiful

Image: Antifama/Flickr

Jessica Yu

Jessica Yu is a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Melbourne and the founder of Betanarratives. Her writing has been published (or is forthcoming) in The Best Australian Poems, Overland, Cordite, The Lifted Brow, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Saturday Paper and more. She is a monthly faith columnist/interviewer for Right Now.

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