the trilingualist: Creative Nonfiction by devon chang


Finalist, College Category – 2024 Betty L. Yu and Jin C. Yu Creative Writing Prizes




A baby gurgles apple sauce. 

A mother splits her tongue in three. 

  1. The learned language 

I was around the age of four when I first experienced a paralyzing sensation in my mouth. From the moment my teeth broke through the thick skin of a granny smith, I began to feel red swelter: first around my lips, and soon after, sprawling recklessly through the fleshy insides—gums, cheeks, tongue, throat—in that very order. From these moments I would learn that I am allergic to apples. Quickly, it became difficult to speak, but at best, I could make out this noise: 

“Mamaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!! 不舒服!!” 

寶貝, 媽媽 來了!” Darling hold on, Mommy is coming! 

I listened to the sound of a petite woman scurry back and forth, from the bedroom to the kitchen to the living room where I sat, a cup of water and a bottle of Benadryl in each hand. Our apartment has no twists and turns. It is a rectangle, with a single enclosure that splits the public space from the “private”. Four sides, four corners. Never enough space for three bodies. 

Soon, a glass of water pressed against my lips. 

幫媽媽. 頭抬起.” Lift your head. For Mommy. 

She held the cup up to my mouth, wiping away all the water that managed to drip down the sides of my chin. It traveled down the same way, from lips to mouth to throat, washing away the last sweet syrupy remnants of cherry Benadryl. I waited for the itch to fade into a tingle until the feeling left my system altogether. This moment wouldn’t be the last time I faced the feeling of a paralyzed mouth, silent and confused, unable to decipher the difference between learned languages. 

|| ~ || 

Four was the first moment I stood between languages. But perhaps the last moment I stood between only two. By then, Mandarin was the only language I was truly verbally fluent in. English only broke out in clumsy run-on sentences at night when my father would come home from work. Much of what I said at home came out one language at a time. Regardless, it was always more challenging for me to make noise than it would be to consume its sound. After all, words come up in the opposite direction, against gravity: throat, tongue, then lips. I would cycle through various third “languages” for the rest of my life, desperately seeking a sound that felt most true to myself. 

When my mother taught me how to speak, she repeated every word three times, each in a different language—a representation of our language lineage. Mandarin, Japanese, English: “蘋果”, “りんご”, “Apple.” The Japanese invaded her motherland and her lineage decades ago. Her father was the last in our family to carry that red-and-white blood. She keeps a simple set of phrases with her, to remember the voices of those who came before. English emerged later in her early 20s when she began to dream of America. She pulled her roots out of the ground and planted them here, in my father’s homeland. For her, it would end with just the two of us—herself, and her American-born child. 

Mandarin was the language that bore citizenship in her native tongue. Naturally, that was the language that stuck with me first. 

“You have to be careful with Mandarin. 音必須是正確的.” The sound has to be perfect, or else there will be miscommunication.

There are four tones in Mandarin: neutral, rising, rising then falling, falling. The sound “ma” for “mom” can easily mean: “numb”, “horse”, and “scold” all at the same time. Years later, I would unintentionally attempt to use all versions in the same sentence during a heated argument. (I would be unsuccessful). 

I practiced drawing out the “tones” with my mom, tracing the lines she etched into paper with pencil. I found that if you pieced the four segments together in one continuous line, you can create the shape of a pointy mountain. Or better yet, a triangle. Things tend to make the most sense to me in threes. “看媽媽的嘴.” Watch Mommy’s mouth carefully. “Le, le, le, le, le.” 

I watched the tip of her tongue flick the roof of her mouth and her two front teeth. 

“Different from, Lai, lai, lai.” 

I nodded my head. 

那你就得跟我一起做Then you have to do it with me. 

We sat on the floor together, face to face, as I mimicked the movements of her mouth, watching if the shape resembled something of a circle or oval, if the sound ended with pursed or flattened lips. We repeated words, back and forth, back and forth, trying on various intonations until the sound became perfect. I would spend my life searching for that force within me, strong enough to push sound up against gravity. Throat, tongue, lips. 

|| ~ || 

When I left the haven of my mother’s care for preschool, it would be time for me to become comfortable with English. Luckily I was young, my native tongue had yet to be developed. Like a mouth enduring an allergic reaction, too stimulated to know what from what. Moldable enough to forget true origins.

My teachers at preschool quickly became morbidly concerned about my English. They feared that I was going to be “behind”. When I spoke in class, the sound came out in a strange combination of English and Chinese, Chinglish as we call it. 

“I am Devon, I am four, I like color green…green like apple…像蘋果一樣。我喜歡吃綠色糖果…” The sentences began confidently in English until I ran out of words to say. Then I would turn to Mandarin, filling in the empty gaps with the language in which my thoughts existed first. 

One afternoon when my mother came to pick me up, my teachers told her I would need to be placed in an ESL class. From the faces they recognized at pickup, they only knew my mother and her fractured English—a reflection of my own language lineage. They assumed I would turn out the same way. No one at home to correct my sound. No one there to teach me right from wrong. My mother was outraged. 

“My daughter does not need help.” 

When it’s just the two of us against the world, she is never afraid to protest. 

|| ~ || 

During the next parent-teacher conference, my father would enter the room, ready to prove them otherwise. He couldn’t feel the direness of the situation my mother likely endured. He never quite could. Bent over tiny plastic chairs and wooden classroom tables, his English would come out with grace. Gentle and round, but never rigid. Without actually saying anything, his sound would say all it needed to. We are just American enough. We don’t need help. My mother knew to stay silent in moments like these, aware that my father’s English would counter anything anyone ever thought about us. She guarded her anger and anxiety with poise and a gentle smile, holding back all the words that were scrambling in her mind, only to ever say— Sorry, I have a language barrier.

It worked. It always did. I never had to join an ESL class. I wouldn’t know any of this until I grew much older, that Mandarin was my real first language. Not until English was rooted so deep in my neural networks, that now, I can only hear my thoughts in one language. How could I know? Origins were severed. Forgotten. My Mandarin is still relatively intact, though, my mother would never dare to let it slip away. I have her to thank for that. I may not be able to write or read, but at least I can speak. 

I wonder all the time if that is enough. If ⅓ of a language is enough comprehension to claim lineage. My life would be a continuous balancing act, triangulated between languages, lands, and love. Mandarin, English— 

Taiwan, America— 

Mother, father, daughter. 

|| ~ || 

  1. The mimicked language 

When I was eight, I became a master of imitation. The ballet studio was the second rectangular room in which I tried to find solace. The first one was my home. There, I spent most of my time looking outwards, through the window, counting all the people and families I could see in the tall buildings across from us. I always imagined infinity from the seat of my desk. 

The ballet studios, except Studio 9, had no windows. No transparency. It resembled something like an infinity room, where mirrors enveloped the walls, creating four sides of reflection gazing back at each other—side to side, back and forth, for the rest of time. 

Infinity lived within the space, not outside of it. 

But this is a ballet studio, and creation tends to be contained. 

Here, we learned to love the mirror. Respect the mirror. After all, reflections were the closest thing we had to the truth.

If you claimed a good barre spot in class that day, it would be the one in the corner of the studio, where you could see everything all at once. Where the mirror in front of you could catch the reflection of the mirror behind you, granting access to two angles within one rectangular frame. With a tilt of the head, you could see the mirror to the right, confirming the posture of your vertical stance. 

In these mirrors, we mimicked the lines and shapes of our instructor until everyone looked the same. “This is the American Ballet Theater. Wear it with pride. Let it beam off of your shoulders. Let it extend across the length of the studio. Imagine the sun hitting your collarbones right now, all its light reflecting into the world. The studio is so bright! Shoulders wide, wide, wide…there you go…Beautiful!” 

Ballet teacher vocabulary was always full of metaphors. I wonder sometimes if they were poets in their past lives—putting moments into a language they were never able to express fully with their bodies. From the reflection of the mirror, you can see everyone in the room while still facing the front. Slowly you’d begin to adjust for flaws. Watch the girl who gets complimented the most. Tell yourself that that is what correct technique looks like. How can I make my body look like theirs? What are they doing that I am not? All of this was only ever recognized in silence, in secret glimpses exchanged across corners of the studio between 8-count phrases. 

So you lower the left shoulder. Lift the right elbow, but just a smidge, too much and your whole arm goes out of place. When you pass through passe to arabesque, remember to maintain that 90 degrees from your hip bone to your knee. Remember that one day you won’t need the mirror anymore. One day it will all become muscle memory…natural as it is to read and write. To speak and breathe. 

“Ladies, look at your torso. It is a rectangle. Right shoulder. Left shoulder. Right hip. Left hip. Make sure they always stay one on top of the other…” 

People who weren’t born with the right bone structure dropped out by the time they were ten.

For the next two hours, we held together our “rectangular” frames, letting the sound of music dictate the tone of our movements—staccato sometimes, then adagio. Choreography was always just memorized phrases of repeated movements. Over time, you became programmed to search for patterns before exploring artistry. 

“Tendu devant, al la seconde, derrière. Front side back. Three times. Reverse. Detourne, repeat on the other side. Aaaaaaaand a five, six, seven, eight…” 

Eight counts, four walls, two legs, one body. Moving in three directions. 

Always from the outside in, never the inside out. Capitalized creation. 

|| ~ || 

“Today me, India, and Livia traded lunches!” 

“How many times Devon…” 

“Right. Sorry. India, Livia, and I. Traded lunches.” 

“Thank you.” 

A child learns to correct her language. 

A father shows her how. 

I could always hear the difference between my mother’s and my father’s English. One carried an accent, remarking the sound as a learned language. The other already had roots in the motherland. In America. Slight nuances in tone made it clear that this was a curated sound, one that evolved from imitating the voices of many others. 

I was older when I began to listen to the variations of sound across people who already had “correct” English. Ms. Katherine’s English had dramatic rises and falls. When she said words like “still” and “really”, the double L’s made her tongue curl, and the sound emerged from the back of her throat. Words always came out of her mouth fast, one after the other, desperately hoping for a pause in the sentence to catch a bit of breath.

Naturally, I compared all tones of English to my father’s as a reference point. Some sort of reflection of truth. I remembered all the moments in my youth when he caught the pieces of my mother’s broken English with lines of perfect sound. I learned the kind of effect that correct sound can elicit, especially in a world like this. When I got older, he made sure I knew this kind of thing. 

“Devon, you know, someone recently told me that there is a certain weight to what I say and how I deliver it. It was thoughtful. Considerate of the other people in the room. Keep this in mind as you think about how you want to present yourself to others. Figure out your demeanor, you know. Learn to take up space, strategically. 

I look back to who I was when I was your age. So shy. So quiet. And I think it set me back a lot. So I’m glad you’re not like your old man in that way. But eventually, I found my voice, and people listened. I really do think public speaking is the most important skill you can finetune right now in your early age. Believe me when I say, it makes a difference in how people will receive you and want to support you in the future.” 

On Mondays, he teaches a group of graduate students this thing called “Brand Strategy”. In the simplest terms, he defines it as: “A set of planned actions that creates favorable knowledge of a product or service for gain.” I wonder if he tells his students these same things. 

It didn’t take a spiel like this for me to understand these tactics already. I look at all the grammar books he gifted me over the years, now sitting on the shelves in my college dorm room. I look back to how he taught me to present myself that one time before my middle school interview, and all the ones that came after that. The way I have been quietly curating my sound, imitating his demeanor, for as long as I knew how. Trying to sound like him, before I ever had the chance to sound like myself. From the moment I stood before those infinite mirrors in the ballet studio, I told myself that any movement, any style, and any sound, could be mimicked if I just observed closely enough. 

|| ~ ||

III. The created language 

At seventeen you began to search for authenticity. You would learn that nothing can be born into existence without recognizing its connection to all you’ve known and loved. 

|| ~ || 

It’s hard being back here in New York sometimes—after living in a dorm-sized shoebox for too many months. That once tiny rectangle of a home suddenly feels a little bit bigger, a little more empty than it once was—four walls, four corners, never divisible by three bodies. Perhaps the “remainder” was a good problem to have. Now this space houses just one body, except for instances like these, at most two. But it was already like this, hollow before I left. 

I stare out that same south-facing window where I once spent hours daydreaming, thinking about the infinite number of lives and stories that exist all around us. Most of which I will never get to know. I stare out the window, craving the life that once flourished within these four walls. Full of beaming brightness and laughter, anger and agony. The space where I first learned to speak, and scream, and cry. I sit here now, writing out stories I’ve tried to create, thinking that this is the language I will be naturally fluent in. The one that has secretly sat at the bottom of my diaphragm this whole time, belting out songs that I could never hear. 

I can’t help but grow nostalgic for the sweetness of the dream, so I tell myself I will hold this taste in my mouth forever, for as long as it will let me. 

|| ~ || 

I think about the boy I loved when I was seventeen. The first time I experienced love for someone with no ties to my blood. Love that was born out of my own heart, love that was just selfishly mine. I remember that foggy day in November when summer really began to fade, and the tick of time beat in my heart louder than could ignore. 

“I don’t want to leave you.” 

“Me neither.”

I was referencing the moment itself, knowing I had to go home soon, though I knew, and I think he did too, I meant something else. I watched his eyes water. But a tear could never drop. No, not from him. For a moment, I felt my mouth go numb again. Paralyzed, as if my system was rejecting the moment itself. Then came an embrace always strong enough to feel real. Real enough to counter the feelings that were always seemingly lost in translation. For many years, I spent time searching for that force within me that helped me to project. To push sound up against gravity—to see it sound mirrored in the eyes of others. Perhaps it all begins in the life of the heart—red, fleshy, beating, heart. 

“Can I tell you something?” I searched for myself in the reflection of his eyes. “I think I might love you.” I knew I loved him. 

“I’ll get there.” He hugged me. I couldn’t see his face anymore. “I promise.” 

I knew this was a buffer. 

Forgive me, for I always assigned your skin to a significance unasked for. For loving you in the only way I knew how—the same love, spit out, from the mother who spoon-fed it to my mouth. Spoon-fed until I felt suffocated. Forgive me for I never let you be just blood, just skin. 

|| ~ || 

Mommy, last night, I heard you crying in the living room. 

I know you thought I was asleep—I wasn’t. And our walls are far too thin to buffer any noise. I have a growing suspicion that they have become weaker and weaker over time. 

It feels strange to be back home, though this place hasn’t really felt like a home for a long time now. Not since Dad moved out and took the fish tank and his record player and stereo system. The one that would play New Order every Sunday morning before either of us woke up. 

I want to tell you that my heart breaks over and over again for you all the time. That last night, I wished to come out and console you, but my body freezes in a weird way every time I step into the role of you. The feeling I can only best describe as a beating heart confined within the frame of a paralyzed figure.

Perhaps it’s because I miss just being the child in our relationship—even in moments of sorrow, you’ve managed to create a romantic sort of comfort for me. I don’t know how to tell you any of this without selfishly breaking my own heart, but I’m older now, and sometimes I wish for you to stop loving so hard. But I remain silent in my room. 

I remember instead, your love in the youngest form. 

Shhh. it’s okay. I’m here. Mommy is here. 

I wonder when I grew too old to be just a recipient of your love. 

I wonder if it was easier then, 

Before I emerged into your world. When I still found shelter within the space you carved for me. Belly to breath— 

Blood to belonging. 

I cried back for you tonight. I hope you didn’t hear me. 

|| ~ || 

I ask myself, what is language without lineage? What does it mean to love without knowing the warmth of a mother who showed us love before we could understand the phrase “I love you.” “我愛你.” You must learn sound before you can mimic others before you can begin and try to create your own. I spend all my time drawing lines from corner to corner, side to side, within this rectangular frame I call my body. Until everything triangulated between sound, sight, and feeling translates back into the same language. The language that still beats in the flesh of my heart. The language in which I learned first from my mother. 

A mother says I love you 

A daughter splits her heart in three. 


devon chang reflects upon her Asian-American identity from the perspective of a “2 1/2 generation” Taiwanese American, triangulated between her immigrant mother and American-born father. She has found solace in writing, a space where she has been able to explore and embrace the complexities that come with this identity as something remarkably beautiful. She hopes that her writing can inspire readers to recognize the ambiguities of their own identities as a real tool for intergroup solidarity.

She is currently pursuing a degree in Sociology, with extending interests in Philosophy, Political Science, and English. To bridge a gap between the sociological and creative is something she hopes to achieve through various mediums of expression, and primarily through creative writing.

Born and raised, devon calls NYC her home. Along with writing, dance has always played a prominent role in her life. Right now, she is eager to not only dance but also think and write about dance as an expressive medium.

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