Panax Ginseng: Barbarize the Rules (pt. 1 of 2)

Panax Ginseng is a monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring the transgressions of linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those which result in hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the congenital borrowings of the English language, deriving from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” and the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” The troubling image of one’s roots as a panacea will inform the column’s readings of new texts.



First, let’s give pause to these lines from Richard Hamasaki’s “Guerrilla Writers,” from which I take the title of this post:

golden rules of english?
conspiracies of languages?

memories unwanted
works are left unknown

if what’s to be spoken
needs to be written

sabotage the language
ignore the golden rules

guerrilla writer
barbarize the rules

Keep in mind that the capitalization of lines and proper nouns is endemic to the English language’s hierarchical structure, and keep in mind Hamasaki’s argument as I discuss the politics, the rhetoric, and the aesthetic of Hawaiian Pidgin as a metonym for “Asian American” literature and letters.

Here’s a passage from the New Testament, translated in 2000 by Wycliffe Bible Translators. This translation is from Da Jesus Book and the passage is from Matthew Tell Bout Jesus 14:29-31:

Peter climb outa da boat, an walk on top da water fo go by Jesus. But when he see how da wind was, he come scared, an start fo go down inside da water. Den he yell, “Eh, Boss! Get me outa dis!”

Right den an dea Jesus put out his hand an grab him, an say, “How come you trus me ony litto bit? How come you tink you no can do um?”

That’s a heavily accented Hawaiian Pidgin, or Hawaiian Creole English (HCE). New translations or modernizations of the Christian Bible are not infrequent, but there is something unsettling about having the cultural disguise of language so blatantly unveiled. We are not used to so vernacular a Jesus Christ. reviews of this translation are adamant in their reassurance that this use of Pidgin is not a joke or mockery. The University of Hawai’i’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelf’ Night o’ Whateva some years ago comes to mind: I wondered then about the politics of responses to such a performance: were there worries of Pidgin being used as kitsch or as a dumbing-down? Is “translation” inherently an imperial process, the imposition of one culture’s narratives upon the linguistic framework of another? It can sound like the dramatic donning of a persona. The Wycliffe translators seem at least to recognize Hawaiian Pidgin as a language system on a level with Standard English: in their introduction, they note that their translation works from the Greek (though whether Masoretic or Septuagint they don’t say) rather than from other derivative English translations.

My sister and I grew up in Honolulu surrounded by varieties and degrees of Pidgin. When we moved to California, I was ten and she was fourteen. We both quickly learned to “clean up” our speech, but because she was older at the time, she still has more traces of the accent than I do. For instance, she pronounces “pull” as “poo.” But to “clean up” implies that Pidgin is messy, or dirty, English. This is untrue, and the notion of a “standard” English or English pronunciation is a social construct.

In that passage above, for instance, compare the first and last sentences of verse 31: “Right den an dea . . . How come you tink . . .” Here they are again, in slightly more standard English: “Right then and there . . . How come you think . . .” There are three th words in the latter version—then, there, and think—but in Pidgin they sometimes become d and sometimes t. This is a subtle but consistent distinction: then and there use a soft th with the tip of the tongue floating quickly across the teeth, hence the d, while think is aspirated and more forcefully consonantal, hence the t.

Moreover, notice that there are no tense or singular-plural distinctions: the verbs in this passage are closer to the infinitive than the present (“Peter climb,” not “Peter climbs”). There is one state change, “come scared,” in which the “scared” is adjectival. Note also the lack of prepositions such as “of” or “to,” and the use of “no” as a preemptive negation (also valid would be “you not can do,” but Standard English demands “you can not do”). All this indicates an East Asian grammar, of which Chinese is one example as I mentioned in this column’s introductory post. Hawaiian Pidgin is therefore a uniquely fluid Asian American dialect. It comes from a range of immigrant grammars—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese—and host vocabularies—Hawaiian, English.

But Hawaiian Pidgin is not acknowledged in Hawaiian schools, and grammatical propriety prevails. In Eric Chock’s introduction to the 1986 Best of Bamboo Ridge, he notes: “It’s no secret that our own government, through its various organs, has attempted to suppress varying forms of languages in favor of one common language. And that ain’t Pidgin they talking about.” This is troubling because it is assimilation all over again; Wing Tek Lum writes in his poem “Taking Her to the Open Market:”

I mutter, “has killed off
more than germs.”

Standard English is Mainland English or “proper English.” The tense irony of growing up in Honolulu—for myself when I was there, and for my friends who are still there—lies between wanting to stay in a uniquely polyglot home where immigration communities constitute the majority, and wanting to move to the mainland where money and power reside in a dominant discourse and a “proper English.” Yet the last few decades have seen a transformation in Pidgin through literary representations. Any spoken language is a social and ephemeral one, subject to the proprieties of a formal written language, but to set such a language to paper is necessarily to preserve and disseminate it.

In fact, as Anne Kennedy writes, “Poetry and fiction are arguably the only written territories to be gained by Pidgin,” which is to say that literature is the only space in which unofficial diglossia can thrive with a legitimate voice. In fiction, characters are allowed to speak in their own rhythms, though the dialogue is often delegated to the space within quotation marks. Darrell H. Y. Lum’s play, Oranges are Lucky, has all the characters speaking in Pidgin except when the lights dim on the grandmother, who soliloquizes in Standard—suggesting that the eloquence of her consciousness requires translation beyond a localized speech. Wayne Kaumualii Westlake, the Ferlinghetti of Hawai’i, does the opposite in his translation of a Chinese classic, titled in his version “A Joke—To Tu Fu,” by Li Po. He begins narrating: “On top Puff-Rice Mountain I meet Tu Fu!” Then he provides speech in indirect discourse: “I ask, since parting, how come so thin?” Here, the localization of the speaker’s consciousness gives an intimate eloquence.

Poetry has been a game-changer for Pidgin on paper. It is voice-driven and lyrical without the boundaries of quotation marks. Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who writes novels in Standard but poetry exclusively in Pidgin, gives her characters a speech which seems loud but not foreign. Eric Chock’s prose poem “The Mango Tree” has a light Pidgin inflection, and because the gerunds and Latinates common to English are excised, his sentences have an end-stopped vitality, often ending with strong single syllables:

My feet get the tingles cause sometimes the thing slip when I try for grip the bark with my toes. How long I never go up the tree! I stay scared the branch going broke cause too small for hold me, and when the wind blow, just like being on one see-saw.

Juliana Spahr’s poetry collection Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You riffs on the keystone word of Pidgin, “da kine,” a catch-all that can refer to anything and is therefore potent in a poetry trying to get at the “thing itself.” Here are samplings from the first few pages:

There are these things and they
are da kine to me. They are the tear.
The torn circle.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
Da kine for me is the moment when
things extend beyond you and me
and into the rest of the world. It is
the thing.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
There are these things and they are
da kine, they are the world seen from
space as whole yet complex.

The title of her collection is quoted from the mosh pit of a concert, and that aloha, which also has a plethora of meanings, is situated as a pivot for the range of complexity in a spoken language. Let’s remember three of the basic tenets of linguistic theory: every language is flexible and changes, language change is not language decay, and, according to Rosina Lippi-Green in English with an Accent, language “is the most salient way we have of establishing and advertising our social identities.”

Written Pidgin is always new because it has no standardized spelling system. Every writer of Pidgin transcribes neologisms onto the page. Why did the Wycliffe translators choose to write “an start fo go down” when that second word is probably pronounced “staht”? Why does Eric Chock write “the thing” instead of “da ting” and “going” instead of “goin”? Richard Hamasaki’s poem, “Da Mento Hospito,” begins:

Eh, somebudi lik make one
big freeway tru my vallee
dey lik bill ‘em reel beeg

It is rendered on the next page of his collection, From the Spider Bone Diaries, into “Hawai’i Pidgin [Odo] orthography by Charlene Sato, circa 1983,” thus:

E, sambadi laik meik wan
big friew chru mai vaeli
de laik bil om ril big

These are instances of printed text as artifacts of handwriting. Every voice in its material engagement with the English alphabet is idiosyncratic. It is a record of affirmation, an inscription of self into written history. Anne Kennedy writes:

The connection of landscape, myth and destruction also occupies the thematic territory of younger Hawai’ian poets. . . . The destruction is still going on. . . . The reason, perhaps, that the lyric is not, as Ferlinghetti states about the mainland, dead, is that the battle against destruction is not over.

Since at least as far back as King Lear, we’ve been reminded in English: “The weight of this sad time we must obey; / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” There is so much more to say, on Pidgin as well as on the larger context of polyglossic nature of Asian American writing, but I’m saving that for part two of this post. It will come after AWP in Chicago, where I encourage you to attend the panel “Speaking in Tongues” about writing within multiple linguistic and cultural traditions on Saturday, March 3rd at 9am.

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