Mother Tongue


The remnants of your homeland still remain on my lips:

viennoiseries[1], salty-sweet, a lingering aftertaste, half-forgotten.

Yet, the aroma that permeates the crevices of my life are yours,

Maman. I still remember four years of French phonetics,

Alliance-Francais[2], learning to speak your syllables, learning to be;

un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit,

counting on my chubby fingers till it was muscle memory,

an identity eventually drowned out by a different set of characters,

a mother tongue that wasn’t yours, Maman, pre-decided for me

by faceless admin from a country not even my own,



French, driftwood in a vast grammatical ocean, ghosting through my fingers

like sand, miniscule grains sticking to my fingers, inconsequential,

insufficient for neither a sandcastle nor sentence, bonjour, merci,

Maman, maison. Arcachon, your seaside hometown,

briny ocean air, oysters on ice at the farmer’s market,

slow-waved, simple, nothing like this city of steel-plated structure:

home to you for 25 years, yet not home at all, frigid glass against

the warm palms of memory, the familiarity of tongues and fresh lobster.

You tried your best; mahjong club, chinese class clumsiness, sticky syllables,

vexing vowels, still, betraying a continent of difference, oriental secrets:



I should have held every single ingredient, every little crumb

of your culture closer to my chest, all of it now buried in a locked fridge

in the pantry of a long-gone childhood, bittersweet brie festering before me,

time the ultimate spore, blooming grey-green between the milky layers of my life.

I’ll recite Jean-Paul Sartre by heart, sing Edith Piaf if the words mean something

to you; existentialisme, la vie en rose, do you understand me, Maman?




I love you.


[1] baked goods, puff pastries

[2] a French centre in Singapore

[3] In the government’s eyes, my mother tongue is Chinese,

[4] but how can strangers decide my mother tongue for me?

[5] When I was young, and took on Chinese lessons

[6] and gave up French, did you ever resent me?

[7] Whenever you talk to me in English,

[8] do your words hold the same weight as in French?

[9] do you understand?

Isabelle Lim (Class of 2023) has dreams of becoming an editor-lecturer one day in the future. Until then, she’ll stare at her work until she decides she hates it, or watch sad movies for the emotional catharsis.