Bruce Li stages an intimate diptych about communication, translation, temporality, and connection.
Part of the And We Begin Again series—writing from a year-long reading group on community, translation, and getting unstuck.
Long before you have even an inkling to move, I already know that things are about to happen. I pick up patterns in ways that you cannot. And I am superior to you in that sense.
You will put down your chopsticks and then you will do one of two things: lie down on the ground and fall asleep, in which case I will have to continue holding it in. Or you will decide that today was not so exhausting after all, and you will be a good person. You will head over to grab the gear, which you will apply onto me.
Unwillingly, I will take it.
Stop pretending, my baby. You know more than you appear to know.
In any case, I know what you would expect of me. You expect me to pace around happily when you utter some words. You will test my threshold of comprehension.
How many syllables before I am uncontrollably excited?
How many phonemes before my body wiggles and turns?
You know that I don’t actually know, right?
Now aren’t you excited?
You will stretch.
I sit as your hands are on the doorknob. If I stand, I will have to sit.
I am an elegant boy with a streak down the middle of my face.
When I sit, you fawn. I am like a doe, but I am also your boy.
I’m thinking hard about the last time I really, really, tried to write something. These days, I am incapable of an original thought, I think to myself.
I don’t write for myself and certainly never to people I barely know. I prefer to translate so I can rely on a writer and on someone else. I could never commit to myself.
What about me do you want to understand?
I write concisely but objectively but fun but professionally but never too seriously. I must understand my audience. This is my work.
I think it was about two-and-a-half years ago when you came into my home. You were a wide-eyed boy.
I mean, literally, wide-eyed. Whale eyes. There was so much white around your amber eyes. I hope I never have to see that face again.
I wrote about you with pen and paper that night. And we slept staring at each other. I thought my gaze might ease your trembling, upright body.
Do you remember that time we saw a monkey together?
I was perched on a small hill and tripped over a rock trying to chase that child covered in fur.
My polka dot tongue came out. You panted together with me. Your mother yelled at you.
And I fell onto the ground from at least five meters high. Or—did I fall because I was tugged from behind? Maybe your mother saw that and that’s the real reason she cried.
You picked me up, whispering things to me loudly. Clutching me so tightly I wanted to scream.
And there was another time, also involving a sighting of a monkey, where I was about to throw another fit (this time on flat land). That time you found a particular way to tether me to you, something sinister you took out from your backpack. Something different, something that constricts behind my ears.
I yelped; I flinched but I could not make a sound.
A vibration. A meme. From my sister in the United States.
She’s crying every day because she has no friends, just a husband and big house. Blue skies every day can be a dreary sight.
For now, I will clutch and keep you close to me and to keep you safe as that little child runs by.
A bee has flown into my ear. I am now lopsided. My foot is in my ear. Another car goes by.
Please, not in the middle of the road.
Lying on Her Back to Receive Baby Powder
Tongdaeng is clever and quick at learning. When His Majesty wants Tongdaeng to lie on her back, he says, ‘Tongdaeng, belly-up.’ Tongdaeng would lie down on her back, as ordered. One day. His Majesty noticed that Tongdaeng was scratching, so he took a can of baby powder and showed it to Tongdaeng, saying, ‘Tongdaeng, belly-up, I’ll powder you.’ Tongdaeng lay down on her back as she was ordered and let the King sprinkle her with a soothing dose of baby powder, which she really appreciated. After a short while, she got up, walked a couple of steps and scratched once again; His Majesty said, ‘Tongdaeng, I already gave you baby powder; it should not itch any more.’ Tongdaeng understood and stopped scratching.
Here's the spot. I will twirl. Twirly twirl. Make a little dance. Sometimes a dance too long would send your eyes rolling.
Stinky you. I hate you. And I love you. Why do you smell so good? Give me some more of you, will you? Right behind your ear is where I think you smell best.
I will think about you often. My talent is that of waiting patiently without limit. Tell me, will you? Help me, will you? Where are you?
What is a healthy distance away from something that you love?
One meter, two meters, or six meters to give enough personal space and freedom of movement? I imagine you as a kite that I grant a semblance of freedom to.
Or, how about 9,183 kilometres away?
That distance away, alone on my own, I still encountered you in various forms. As a floor mosaic design, covered in Vesuvian ash some 2,000 years ago, recently uncovered, cleaned, and now on display vertically on a wall.
Or, as the hundreds of good boys and girls I saw dragged onto those streets of smooth cobbled stones. Smooth and without grain in the searing July sun.
What is respect?
You smell of someone’s piss. Why don’t you let me keep my distance tonight?
I visited a friend and saw some babies tonight; I thought I would bring one home for you.
Babies are full of energy, but they are also quite characterless. If you love a baby that is not yours, you can only love how they look, I think.
Whereas you and I, I think, we met each other at just the right age.
You’re stupid and dumb. But to acknowledge that is to allow a chance for my clutch to emerge as a grasp.
I will admit, sometimes, that I do not open this draft until time is up and a deadline is well over. And via email, Paul would ask me what’s up (thank you, Paul, for being gentle). I mean I could take months with anything if one gave me the time. I don’t delay out of ill will, but only as an attempt to reinstate a sense of practice, evaluation, and editing.
That in working within the fields of exhibitions and translations, we constantly arrive towards the end of any creative process, that of reconciliation, comprehension, brevity, presentation, and re-presentation. And occasionally because of time compressed, information is regurgitated before it is considered or given time to breathe.
This writing could not have existed without the time and space carved out purposefully (and without purpose) by and with Paul C. Fermin, Ozge Ersoy, Christina Vicera, Sam Chan, and Ysabelle Cheung. Like all things incoherent, untimely but intuitive, this work and the group will be returned to endlessly and randomly, but with a fond sense of urgency every time life feels like it is just too much.
Bruce Li is Associate Curator at CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile). With knowledge and practical experience as a weaver, knitter, and writer, one of Li’s main research strands includes what mode of reading is engendered through textile-making. Having graduated from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, Li holds degrees in Comparative Literature and Textiles.
- Fri, 13 Oct 2023