“Mother Tongue” by Amy Grace Lam4 min read


Illustration by Anderson Lee

At age four, I entered
a world completely foreign
to my Chinese roots

At the long dining room table
of my Argentinian babysitter’s home
I sipped mate through a straw
used a fork to eat
fried pork chops and salad
and drank powdered chocolate milk

When we’d go out
she would fix my hair
I was like one of her daughters
high ponytail splashed with
Jean Naté
perfume on my head

And like a little bird
I followed along
Greeted people with
a kiss on the cheek
Listened to salsa music
blasting from the car
Dreamt about having
a gold chain necklace
in the shape of my name

In the Bronx, I was
allowed to exist
without the watchful eye
of a reserved Chinese mom
who said I was
a wild horse, mouth
too expressive and unbridled
for my own good

Muy rico,
más por favor
With a foreign language
on my tongue
I was practicing how to fly


I practiced speaking English
watching Barbara Walters
on 20/20

I watched her
calm collected manner
skilled at interviewing
notorious killers and
movie stars alike
She taught me
how to make small talk
about the latest NY Times story
present scientific data with objectivity
and confidently ask rich folks
about their legacy and contribution
to society

A friend once heard me
speak at a conference
“Wow, that was so white”
She stared at me in awe
I smiled back
feeling the tension in my jaw
I was still on camera


I learned French at age 14
when my family moved
to Montréal
My family was thrust
in the middle of a silent war
we knew nothing about
Like the time Mom
went to the post office
to mail a package
The teller spoke
only French
Mom pointed
with her fingers
and spoke
only English
All the bilingual clerks
just stared

Sometimes there was
a stalemate,
like in restaurants
“Qu’est-ce que
vous voudriez manger?”
“Smoked meat sandwich and poutine”
“A coke”

I thought a dictionary
would help
show I was eager
to learn and
make peace
like the time my teacher said
“six quarante-neuf”

I looked in the dictionary
but couldn’t find
the word
I didn’t even know
I had to look up
two words
In defeat
I whispered for help
from my classmates
They chuckled
“It’s the Canadian lotto”


I thought I had forgotten
I was Chinese
after 14 years of marriage
to a white man

My mouth forgot
how to speak
Chinese, my taste buds
had grown accustomed
to swirling a fork to eat
spaghetti and meatballs
with red sauce
Though my lips
still missed
slurping chewy fat noodles
in vinegar soy sauce
with chopsticks and
a bowl to my face

Then one day
I found a song on YouTube
A woman in Cantonese
sang through the speakers
and gave me back
my childhood memories

The smell of stir-fry vegetables
garlic, ginger and hot oil
came wafting through the air
Eating dinner together
with wooden chopsticks
and porcelain bowls of hot rice
at our round table

I used to choreograph
elaborate ballet moves
on the yellow oriental rug
listening to Canto-pop
my unabashed dream
of being a Chinese superstar

the song ended
and so did my memories
Instead I heard my mom’s
impatient voice yelling
me back to reality
“Why are you crying
listening to this song?
You’re not even Chinese.”


As a child
I thought I could
erase away
my mother tongue
Swap it with
languages and adventures
that gave me freedom
to explore the world
to find myself
to feel lost

I thought my mouth
was a muscle
that with enough
practice would forget
about its past

Then at age 46
I read a book
of Chinese Medicine
and learned
The tongue
is the gateway
of the heart

It’s curves and trills
how it touches
the roof of your palate
the tones it makes
as it sits in midair
in your mouth
They all remain
of the heart



Amy Grace Lam (she/they) is a Chinese Canadian-American queer writer-performer-healer creating immersive experiences for transformation and expansion. Amy explores how the spiritual, natural and physical worlds converge to bring renewed awareness and consciousness of life and our humanity. Amy’s writing is featured in AsianWeek, Asian American Literary Review, Feministing.com, Marsh Hawk Review, Moyama Press, Pochino Press and VONA. She is the recipient of the 2021 San Francisco Arts Commission Grant for Out of the Box, an experimental VR performance. Amy develops innovative community mental health programs for immigrant/refugee organizations and is a founder of Vibrational Energy Wellness. Amy currently resides with her family in San Francisco, CA,USA.


Nga 24 April, 2023 - 8:36 am

Absolutely lovely piece, go Amy!

Eric 30 April, 2023 - 3:20 pm

Wow … so heart achingly beautiful!

Bianca 3 May, 2023 - 8:27 pm

Beautiful – gives new meaning to the idea of a mother tongue

Mel Hofmann 6 May, 2023 - 9:24 am

So glad I took this time to read this poem. I learned a lot about you!

Wayne 10 May, 2023 - 8:52 am

Yes, a lovely piece, wonderfully written

SC 9 December, 2023 - 7:10 pm

Thank you for writing this. It’s surprising and interesting when the tendrils of culture are triggered unexpectedly.


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