“Language Cards” by Francis Chang2 min read

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Illustration by Anderson Lee


I keep a faded box of Chinese language cards
on the bottom shelf of a basement bookcase.
The box is almost as old as me,
the cover once bright red,
now faded, pale, the beginnings of dusk.

The box holds over a thousand cards,
a thousand Chinese characters,
each card, still relatively crisp and white.
In the past 50 years, the box has been opened up
less than twenty times,
I’d guess.

The cards were created by
the Chinese language department of Yale.
Traditional Chinese characters on front,
Yale romanization on the back.
The paper for the cards
probably originated from forests in BC,
pulp sent to China to be pressed into cardboard,
printed and boxed, to be shipped
back to academic bookstores in
North America.
All available for anxious, conflicted,
Chinese Canadian, American
parents and students alike.

My mother got these cards for me –
was I ten or twelve?
was she feeling guilty
that I didn’t seem Chinese at all?
The idea of the cards that if
you memorize them, master them,
you’ll have enough for
a basic, every day vocabulary.
My mother left me with these cards,
to memorize, to figure out,
but language isn’t an asynchronous activity.
It requires conversations,
acknowledgements of mistakes,
expressions of support.

I haven’t been able to bring myself
to throw these cards away.
I still had hope that I would learn
how to speak,
how to connect
to something that, in theory,
is supposed to be part of me.

The cards are a museum piece now, outdated,
the traditional Chinese characters of Hong Kong
surely to be replaced
by the simplified characters of the Mainland,
sooner than later.

The cards are obsolete technologically
– nowadays kids use Google Translate.
That’s how my son learned Chinese on his own.

If I don’t get rid of these cards now,
my kids will toss them.
Will there be a moment
when they look at these cards,
along with the Chinese language texts
and children’s books,
and they’ll be reminded of
my attempts,
my failures,
my sentimentality.



Francis Chang is a Chinese Canadian who was born in Tokyo, grew up in Vancouver, worked in Hong Kong, and recently returned to Vancouver again with his family. He is currently studying creative writing at The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. Francis previously practiced law for over 25 years, including 14 years working for The Walt Disney Company and Twenty-First Century Fox. Francis is currently writing poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction focused on the meaning of filial duty, love, and fragmented family histories.

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