The side of a mountain (Lion Rock) at night against a lit-up cityscape. Text: Tongues on Rock: Home-Making in Parallel Languages. Tim Tim Cheng.

Tongues on Rock: Home-Making in Parallel Languages

My ex-colleague, a rock-climber, is getting married. He sends me a wedding invitation card the shape of a coaster, all the way from Hong Kong to Edinburgh. The card has two layers. The top disk is a pastel blue sky where yellow and white clouds loom, its bottom cut along the outline of Lion Rock, one of the most iconic mountains in Hong Kong. The second disk is a black surface with faint silver patches that allude to the moon and maps. When you take the two parts of the invitation card apart, you see hidden vows that are not unlike poems. When you fit the pieces together into the one circle that they are meant to form, Lion Rock takes shape. In classical Chinese, we use four-character idioms, chengyu, to convey meanings through images condensed from allegories. I wonder if the design of the wedding card originates from 山盟海誓, mountain pledge sea oath, which lends nature’s steadfastness to human relationships.

I take the invitation with me as I head to my poetry writing workshop down Nicolson Street, blessed by the love between two people, and two places. It is wonderful to be remembered even for a party that you cannot physically attend. It is as if a part of me is still  there, despite the physical-temporal fact that I am here. Who said that a new place always reminds you of the ones you have been to, before it reveals itself to you? In the book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry suggests that ‘beauty heaps upon beauty’. I find myself seeking a street view to complement my invitation card so as to send my ex-colleague a snap—Arthur’s Seat stands slightly away, covered in the turmeric of sunset. Rugged and sparsely-vegetated, Arthur’s Seat and Lion Rock both used to be hunting grounds by elites and aristocrats. I am no exception—I am filled with the self-congratulatory wish that I could live in all the cities I love all at once, so that I could make them mine.

*

Before I came to Edinburgh in the hope of honing my poetry, I worked as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in Kowloon City for three years. I could be strolling from any direction at any hour—planning lessons at daybreak or reflecting on them late at night—Lion Rock would watch over, above and among dense residential highrises. The 140-million-year-old, 1,624-foot granite resembles a crouching lion. It used to be a symbol of Hong Kong’s ‘can-do’ spirit in the 70s, a time when many fled from China and led a life in Kowloon City’s squats. It is reductive though tempting to imagine that a mountain could encapsulate zeitgeist. I was born 20 years later to an Indonesian-Chinese family who newly migrated to Hong Kong. As much as my family fought poverty, we did not do it out of ‘Lion Rock spirit’. It was the urge to survive. 

I am the first and only university graduate in my family. If I were not obsessed with band sounds from South London and Birmingham, I would not be loving English, let alone writing Anglophone poetry. I have never stopped teaching teenagers English since my third year in university. Helping them try learning this language made compulsory by colonisation makes me doubt if I am complicit in making them un-free. But serendipity happens: a photo that captured a couple of my former students in black face masks was on the front page of an international press. It was taken during Anti-Extradition protests in 2019 but was used to illustrate the discussion of whether one should wear masks for covid in 2020. I share it on my social media. My intrigued students read the whole article in English, a language that they have never liked.

2019 is also the year when Lion Rock starts to matter to me. One Mid-Autumn Festival night, from my workplace’s rooftop, I see laser lights crowning its animal head of a peak. It is part of our ongoing protests. Amidst work, a bunch of us run around our school building to take photos of the torchlights, and the full moon between residential buildings and a cemetery. I remember talking to my ex-colleague, the bridegroom who sent me his wedding invitation, after our lunch break. He says that lions are not native to China. He wonders if Lion Rock is named after the national animal of England, our previous coloniser.

*

A student ambassador tells us that we need to climb Arthur’s Seat within the first week of our arrival, otherwise we will not pass our degree. He also says that breaking his legs sledging down the crag was the most exciting thing he did last Christmas, when Covid measures were in full swing. He takes us to the summit through a slow and steady path. I take big leaps ahead of our group with a girl I just met. She is from Michigan. We are both panting, aware that we are using our muscles beyond our usual capacity. She, however, would rather finish the path once and for all, and I just don’t want to look weak. I am sweating with two layers of thermo shirts, pants, and socks on to brace the autumn air here, which is 20 degrees Celsius less than where I came from a week ago. I am also wearing a windbreaker for the first time because I am at the age when I will forgo fashion for warmth. At the summit, the wind and drizzle greet me. The soil is soggy. I stand as far as my legs won’t shiver to take in the panorama. Spires, domes, bridges, chimneys, sandstone buildings, glass structures and streets I can’t name seem to whisper something about my future. 

As we descend the extinct volcano, I walk slowly, sizing up my every step lest I slip. I never like not being fully grounded. I need to know loose pebbles or sandy slopes will not betray my feet. I have done similar things on Lion Rock. As other hillwalkers hop past at ease, I grasp tree branches or use my hips to slide down for a sense of security. I secretly enjoy touching mud, boulders and plants with my hands. By Radical Road, the Michigan girl mentions the wild expanse in her hometown, and her brothers. We say we should visit Glasgow together. We never meet again. The funny thing is, I keep running into a Chinese boy from our fresher hillwalking group. He has a distinct jaw line and an American accent. During our hike, he paces around in search of the nooks and crannies or skyline facts etched on metal plates. We speak for a bit in English instead of Mandarin. Are we thinking of how others might want to join our conversation? Are we trying not to be audibly foreign? I wonder if he remembers me, and if he finds it strange that this pedestrian is looking at him slightly too much.

The second time I go to Arthur’s Seat, gorse is in full bloom. The bright yellow flowers smell of coconut. Through Holyrood Park to St. Margaret Loch, I rejoice at the fat folds of green-topped rocks and how in their rising action over centuries, some look deceivingly unchanging against the rare blue sky. My partner tells me that some of the cliffs look like a thousand faces pressed together. I marvel at the raw composition of horizontal and vertical slabs. The summit is busy with tourists and families. I look out to Pentland Hills, whose meandering ranges I always return to. I think of the saying 山外有山,人外有人 (mounts beyond mounts, people beyond people), which suggests the world’s limitlessness as opposed to an individual’s.

*

Sometimes I forget I am in the street. Walking becomes automatic until something tickles your fancy. I am always thinking of home food: a bowl of noodle soups or jasmine rice with three sides. Things worth two to four pounds in Hong Kong cost you at least a tenner in Edinburgh. A restaurant staff in Nicolson Street asks where I am from, after taking my order in Mandarin. He says I do not sound like I am from Mainland China. I tell him that Cantonese is my first language. My parents speak Mandarin with a Hokkien accent. He smiles and asks how things are at home, and if I want to go back. Across my table, a Cantonese family sits, nonchalantly discussing news articles by a press that is now shut down. I am still salivating at the smell of thin potato strips in black vinegar and chilli oil but I am on edge and uncertain at the same time. I know I can’t say much. This is just a small talk: I love my life in Edinburgh. It’s…nice. 

Edinburgh makes me feel more Chinese than ever. My YouTube shows Mandarin tutorial class ads. I often receive spam mails from proofreading services written in simplified Chinese (I am particularly struck by the abbreviation 爱大, Edin U, which translates as love big to my Cantonese eyes). Over the Christmas holiday, Mandarin or Cantonese speakers take up half the emptier-than-usual streets. At literary events, I am often one of the few East Asians in the audience, which does not reflect the demography of the university’s student body. As an aspiring ESL-poet with an accent that is all over the place, I often encounter well-meaning questions such as do you write in Chinese or Cantonese as well? Every time I hear this, I am immediately transported to my secondary school and university years: I cried about not understanding homework in English. A teacher lectured me during recess that I needed good English to succeed. When I became ‘that girl who only read English books’, with the level of fluency that allowed me to fall in love with literature and start writing English blogs, a lecturer commented that Anglophone syntax had made my Chinese sentence structures sick (病句).

When your writing does not flow, Chinese describe it as 行文有沙石, containing sand and grit. This almost hints that one could view language as landscapes. I have been afraid of tripping when I climb. I have felt discouraged from expressing myself unless I could do it perfectly, as if there is a space where language is infallible. People from less dominant cultures have to learn more to feel less alienated. We could be multilingual and still be apologetic that we do not speak as accurately as monolingual English speakers. It came to me recently that I only have my brain, and I could only do what I could. Writing Anglophone poetry gives me a sense of privacy and escape because no one in my family speaks it. I often think that I do not have enough words but this could be a good thing: every word I know matters, and I can always be surprised by expressions unknown to me. This, to me, is one of the affinities between poetry and second-language learning. Perhaps, it is not about the totality of knowledge but its partial, elusive joy.

*

At Interpret Magazine Issue 6‘s launch, it is magical to hear ‘Hydrogen’, a collaborative poem by Julia König and Shuyi Mao. It is my first time hearing Mandarin fragments in a literary event in Edinburgh: [n]ame the things around you first, utter the sound with assigned meaning […] 我是一個古老一半新鮮的人。這樣的古老和新鮮似乎並不衝突 [I am half old, half young. There’s no conflict]’. I am aware that as I quote it, I am already translating the original simplified Chinese characters to traditional ones that I grew up with, and I am itching to swap ‘old’ with ‘ancient’. Julia reads a German poem before ‘Hydrogen’. To my surprise, four years since I have stopped taking German classes, I still recognize der Mond, die Mutter, and der Tod. (My keyboard is asking me to change ‘and’ to ‘und’ at the moment.) I might formally return to my (more than) half-forgotten languages again. But for now, I would love to imagine that I pick up vocabulary like pebbles. Instead of organising them on a shelf, I let them rest or rattle in my tote bag.

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Photo of a Chinese woman with long hair and a knit hat, standing in front of an Edinburgh cityscape, smiling at the camera.
Tim Tim Cheng is a poet from Hong Kong, currently studying in Edinburgh. Her works have found home in POETRY, Rialto, Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. 

She is working on chapbooks which explore Hong Kong’s vistas, as well as desire and rituals through the lens of tattooing. 
 
Social media handles:
 
Twitter: @timtimtmi
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