Editor’s Note: This poem was first performed by Malaysian poet, Nuan Ning at the International University of Malaya-Wales Slam Off on October 16, 2019 where the 14-year-old emerged as a runner-up. It was such a delightful piece that we obtained Nuan Ning’s permission to post it here for you to enjoy.
Traditions are the sons of daughters of culture
I am the daughter of two cultures. My father, and
his swirling teo chew, whispering to us at the
crack of dawn, lulling us out of bed to have dim sum
across the street. My mother, with clicking Hokkien
laced into her lips, spinning around our ears at every
birthday party, and dinner celebration. I’m growing up
in a tapestry of conflicting colours.
And in Butterworth, on the street with sandy roads and
too many bicycle accidents, in the house that smells like
burning incense, we stayed up past midnight, rolling
tang yuan into the new year, Slid red packets
under our pillowcases for luck and ate dim sum
as the new year peeks over the horizon. We haggled
at the wet market, and promoted my grandmother’s stall
with its stacks of corn and yams and sweet potatoes
And we left all of this behind. Left it in the wet markets,
buried under layers of pink and orange plastic bags,
with the yelling in teochew, and the smell of raw fish
seeping into my hair. We tried to leave it all behind.
Once when I was still young, we brought the traditions
home with us, strapped it to the top of our old Toyota,
the voices of my grandparents rattling the metal rooftop
as we cruised down open highways.
And in Selangor, on the street with too many cars and
cement tiles cracking under the glare of the sun,
we stayed still. When the full moons rolled their way
across the evening sky and tainted our lunar calendars
with celebrations, we stayed still. When fireworks crackled
and our grandparents burned gold and red paper into sizzling flames
we pulled out the barbecue. Ate mooncakes to rock music
instead of Teresa Teng. Played tag under the watch of the stars,
glittering as the winter solstice pirouettes above them.
When the sun sets and a new animal of the lunar calendar
slides up to take its place we eat ice cream. Marvel in the
taste of chocolate gelato when back in Butterworth
we would be singing prayers and watching vegetables
boil in a pot of hot water; maybe this is how we’ve
grown into. Maybe our traditions are no longer bound
by the smoke slithering off thin joysticks into the air, maybe
we’re writing our own stories. Throwing pop pops at each other,
small bursts of colourful fireworks exploding at our feet.
Maybe we are learning. And in my home, where the roads
are littered with small strips of coloured paper where the
pop pops exploded and my pants are coated with dust
from my neighbours’ street-long fireworks chain,
I press my palms against each other,
and say a prayer for the sancity of my traditions
in my mother tongue.