I traded my last coffee for a coffee. How ironic. My finger jabbed at the ordering machine. The Langbase implanted in my brain popped up in front of my eyes, and I watched as the word disappeared. A heavy breath escaped my lips. I would have to trade my teas next.
The Langbase total changed from 987 to 986 words. I blinked twice to close it. There was one fewer word I could use to communicate with others—or to pay for necessities and rent. The word c----- was like a familiar stranger. My Langbase blurred it from my mind now that I had used the last one as payment. I could trade for it again with my duplicate haves and yous but having c----- wasn’t a necessity. No longer could I use it when speaking, writing, or processing when others said or wrote it. Though there were a finite number of words I could use to trade, I was allowed to use the words indefinitely as long as I still had them in my Langbase. Would I become a Silent, too, when my Langbase emptied?
*Incoming message from Jorry.*
I muttered under my breath and blinked twice to open the message.
Remember that the L---- show is tonight! I’ll be picking you up in 30 minutes.
Of course I remembered. He had sent reminders every few hours for the past two days. Although I had been thankful for Jorry in the past, his narcissism was difficult to handle at times.
My reply floated in the air across my eyes while I waited for my c-----.
Yes, yes. I remember. I’ll be at the usual drink shop.
Oh, you mean L------’s C-----? The selections there are m--------. I cannot f---- purchasing c----- elsewhere.
He was gloating. I held my breath, irritated. It had been a while since the last time I attempted deciphering his words. I knew it would only make me more frustrated.
Yes. That one. It’s great.
My answer sounded dry. I didn’t want to speak to Jorry. He always used words that he knew I no longer had. Women, he believed, as per Chinese traditional mind-sets, were better silent, docile, obedient. Of course, I disagreed. The only reason I put up with him was because our families were friends. I suspected it was similar for him.
Jorry had picked me up from the airport when I first arrived and showed me around New York. I called him by his Chinese name, but it turned out he had sold it along with most of his Chinese words a few years after he came to New York. Though I noticed he had been using them again lately. It seems that he bought quite a few characters before Chinese climbed the Language World Rankings this year. He always had great intuition when it came to Language Trading, though his main income was from Language Gambling. There was no doubt he would’ve had to give up some of his L---- words to afford it. Since he had more than enough English in his inventory now, he wanted to invest in more of what he called “foreign” languages—though Chinese had been his mother tongue.
I blinked to close the chat.
“What was your order?” the barista asked.
I scanned the digital menu above his head. “Number seven.”
The barista looked at me with a knowing smile. “I usually order number ten.”
“Tea.” I nodded and grinned.
He didn’t say the word back, and I regretted saying it, realizing that he didn’t have the word himself. My head bowed as I turned away from the barista, his smile no longer as joyous as before.
I took a seat at the back of the shop with my body angled toward the corner to avoid potential unwanted conversations.
I opened my Langbase again and selected Chinese. I only had a handful of characters left in my native tongue. To afford the rent in New York, I had traded most of them away at the Language Currency Exchange Centers. Sometimes multilingual individuals approached me in hopes of buying more foreign words for their collection. The Currency Centers often restricted the number of foreign words you could buy within a year.
“What would you like in exchange?” they had asked.
I had always answered with, “Give me English.”
At a nearby table, a woman sat across from her friend, adjusting the bright yellow stroller beside her. A child, only a few months old, lay inside. Their blond hair gave them an angel-like appearance.
“I’m so glad they implemented that new childcare policy for native citizens. My sweet baby can start her life with a dictionary’s worth of English.” The woman leaned over the stroller and cooed at her baby. “I don’t know how I survived without it. We wouldn’t be able to now, that’s for sure!”
I didn’t remember China having such a policy, or if we did, my parents never told me. The rich only became richer, and the poor continued to struggle. My family was never as well off as Jorry and his family. I was often surprised that they had the chance to meet, and I was even more surprised that they remained friends. Perhaps Jorry’s family had a hand in funding my trip to the States. My parents had offered me half their savings, but it didn’t seem possible they had so much stored away in their Langbases.
The woman’s friend shook her head. “I recently traded the words I thought my three-year-old would never use for sufficient French to hold a conversation. It’s not enough just to be born here anymore. My boss is insisting that all of us need to know at least two languages.”
“Even the at-home telemarketers now, eh?” said her friend.
The woman looked down at her child. “By the time this little one grows up, she’ll have to know five languages just to keep up with the rest of the world!”
As the women continued to chatter, I scrolled through my Langbase mindlessly, but it didn’t take long to reach the end of the list. With the laws always changing, even Sign Language had to be purchased. The American government left no missed opportunities to capitalize and monetize language. That baby had a much better chance of surviving here than I did.
The friend took a sip of her drink—what looked to be the most expensive one on the menu. “And with how fast the housing market is growing, soon we’ll need L---- just to afford it.”
Did these women live in mansions? Apartments and condos with many rooms? To have enough to buy a stroller like that. . . The room I rented sat in the basement next to the laundry. It was a poorly renovated storage space without a window. At night, the pounding from the washers and dryers rattled my walls and ceilings, but I was used to that now. Even with the vibrations from the subway nearby, it was good enough for me. This was the cheapest place I could find in New York, and my previous job as a dishwasher only covered my rent and basic grocery trips.
I used to be a waitress when I still had most of my Chinese. It paid to be multilingual. Now I worked in a disposal factory. Not much talking happened there.
Jorry arrived at the c----- shop early. That was the one, perhaps the only, good thing about him—he was always punctual. He waved to me from outside the wall-to-wall window near the entrance. I tossed the soggy c----- cup into the trash, my fingertips still damp, and walked toward the exit. The unnatural smile on my face tightened as I neared him.
Jorry had never called me by my Chinese name before, always the English one, Gillian. Did he sell Gillian, or did he buy the characters 玉 and 河?
I looked at him, really looked at him, like how grocers back in Fuzhou looked at me whenever I said “Thank you”—bewildered.
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
He shrugged at my clipped response.
“Well, then let’s go! Here are the tickets. They really are i-----------, aren’t they? I quite like their a-------- this year.”
I grimaced every time he emphasized words that were too expensive for me to afford, ones that I heard only as garble. The designs on the tickets were nothing unique with their shimmering gold logo and calligraphy-printed letters, but Jorry would use any excuse to show off the words in his Langbase.
“Yes, exquisite,” I said. This was one of the few “sophisticated” words I still owned. I sold most of the others since I didn’t use them except with Jorry. Most of my Langbase was made up of words like and or the; most people received these as change. I only had one I at all times, but I suspected Jorry had thousands, and not because of their value. Self-love is important, but he had far too much of it. I tried to keep my disgust from surfacing as he ran his hand through his overly waxed hair; remnants of the product remained in between his fingers when he dropped his arm back down. I pretended not to notice as he discreetly wiped his hand on his dress pants.
On our way to the show, a Silent jumped in our path. With her hands cupped in front of her, she offered a small smile. From the corner of my eye, I could see the frown on Jorry’s face.
“Leave us alone.” Jorry pushed past the Silent, brushing his hands off as if he’d touched something dirty. My feet stayed planted.
The Silent looked at me with pleading eyes, ringed with purple—a prominent bruise over the right eye—begging for words. Her gaunt face stretched as she opened her mouth, but no voice came out. I clenched my teeth when my eyes wandered to the oversized shirt she wore, plastered with various words—some part of the design, some looking as though they had been forcefully written on by those who encountered her on the streets. Beggar. Home. Less. America. Silent. Dream. Silent. Reality. Silent. Silent. Silent. It was unlikely she could read any of the words on her shirt.
The Silent were a common sight on the streets. I often bumped into them outside convenience stores where they shielded themselves from the cold with their knees huddled together. Others walked past without taking notice, some relieved their rage on these already vulnerable individuals; some showed kindness, offering their words. Not everyone had the privilege to speak.
I blinked open the transfer option in my Langbase and sent the Silent a few ands.
She bowed her head. “And.”
“玉河, we’re going to be late!” Jorry’s irritable voice traveled from half a block away.
玉河, don’t let them take your native tongue from you. My mother’s voice drifted into my mind. These were words she had said to me over a call when I first arrived in New York.Too late, Mother, most of my characters were already gone. What if I, too, became a Silent by staying here?
When I left the Silent, I couldn’t help but imagine my face in the place of hers.
I had only been to one other show with Jorry. That one was in English. I forgot what it was called, but it had something to do with romance, wealth, and the people of my culture. We went when I first arrived in New York. Maybe he thought it would remind me—us—of home, but really, it only showed me what Jorry’s dream was and why he left Fuzhou. The same goal my parents had for me when they heard of Jorry’s success here. They didn’t seem to understand that what Jorry did was Language Gambling. His parents made it sound like he worked at a Currency Center, but really, he was a frequent visitor of Language Casinos around New York. It was a secret Jorry made me promise to keep. I had a feeling that was the only reason he sometimes offered to treat me to a meal or invited me to Language Shows.
The movie we watched before was entertaining, though. I understood some parts that were in English and all the Chinese dialog. Since then, Jorry always purposely chose things that were difficult for me to understand.
Before leaving Fuzhou, my mother said if I ever needed help, I could ask Jorry. I hadn’t, and I didn’t plan to.
“For two.” Jorry handed over our tickets, and the usher led us inside with several others behind us.
“Front row seats,” said Jorry, even though I could see where we were heading.
The tickets must have cost an entire month’s worth of rent, at least for me.
“Thanks for the invitation.” My parents told me to always be grateful for gifts of kindness. Was this kindness or something else?
“Always a p------.” Jorry smiled but the smile was so brief and sudden that I wasn’t sure if it was directed at me or because of his excitement for the show.
When the lights dimmed, I sat back in my seat, ready to replay the memories of my hometown using the Langbase’s memory function rather than listen to garbles that I no longer understood. Unfortunately, the Langbase’s memory function followed a subscription model, where we had to pay a few words monthly to continue to use it. Once the subscription expired, nearly all of your memories were blurred, leaving only the most basic information about yourself—name, age, address, family names, occupation, and the past week’s events—until you renewed the Langbase’s memory function again.
The curtains opened to reveal a man and a woman seated at a table. I sighed when the man opened his mouth. The garbles weren’t terrible; they sounded like musical murmurs.
Jorry laughed with the rest of the audience, though he was always a second late. I suspected he barely understood what was happening. That was how I knew he was only faking it. It wasn’t just a slow reaction, because Jorry was always quick to pounce on me whenever I couldn’t find the right words to say. L---- was expensive, even the name of it. Jorry was well-off, but there was little chance he could afford the large vocabulary in it.
I didn’t pretend to laugh. There was no point since Jorry didn’t care anyway. He was far more worried about how he appeared to others but had little interest in how others presented themselves. To him, what mattered most was that he stood out and looked as wealthy as his manner implied.
“You enjoying the show?” he asked in a low whisper halfway through. It was an empty question. He leaned toward me but never took his eyes off the stage, as if he might miss something if he did.
“Hey, do you mind if we stop by the LangGamble House?” he asked, a smirk lifting one side of his lips.
Yes, I do mind. “Sure, why not?” Though I had promised not to reveal the details of his “work,”—not that I knew much about it to begin with or had any great interest in it—I was surprised Jorry would willingly show me more. Did he not worry I would expose him? Or did he predict I would soon become a Silent myself?
The LangGamble House was a large dome the size of ten houses in length, width, and height. Its lights were never off. On my way home from work, the dome’s glare always lit my path. The red-carpeted lobby was dominated by a large staircase leading to private gambling rooms littered with velvet-covered tables and slot machines. There were both single- and multi-language options available.
“I like to be adventurous,” Jorry said. I wanted to scoff but didn’t.
He waved me over to a table. The man standing behind it was wearing a smart tuxedo. Jorry said this person was called an Asker, and the table would display holographic projections of the conversations they were about to have. Askers had entire dictionaries installed in their Langbases, but the knowledge was only lent to them by the House and would disappear after work. How would it feel to have such a large vocabulary at your disposal, if only temporarily? I imagined it would feel quite powerful. To have any voice, really, is powerful.
“Language of choice?” the Asker said.
“L----, English, and Chinese,” Jorry said.
I was surprised Jorry would choose L---- since he didn’t seem to have a large vocabulary in it judging from his responses at the show.
“Perfect. Are you familiar with the rules?”
Jorry smiled at me before turning back to the Asker. “Yes, but please do explain again for the lady.”
The Asker turned in my direction, completely unaware of Jorry’s condescending tone. “First, the player will make a bet—a number of words in each currency. I will then ask three questions in each language to which the gentleman here will provide answers. Yes or no answers are not allowed. Each answer must be a minimum of three sentences. I will review the answers within a five-minute time frame and select one word in each language that I believe the player does not own. If I am correct, the player loses their bet, the opposite if I am incorrect.”
It was strange how robotic the Asker’s voice was, although he was obviously human.
“Shall we begin?” the Asker said.
I hoped Jorry would lose, but of course, he didn’t.
I only called my parents once in a while because the language barrier was becoming an obstacle. It saddened my mother that most of my Chinese was gone, and that I couldn’t find the success she hoped for. They believed there were more opportunities to grow in America. It was too fiercely competitive in China, and I was never at the top of my classes. A new start, they said—optimistic. They told me to build a new life for myself—one they couldn’t offer me in China as factory workers. But what they didn’t realize was that the high-end jobs here required applicants to be multilingual; trilingual was the bare minimum for entry-level jobs, but the employers always preferred quadrilingual or more.
I bought ten minutes with a few thes at the Public World Screen. Phones were too expensive, and I had sold mine a few months ago.
My mother’s face appeared first, then my father’s behind hers. She told me about how things were back in Fuzhou, and I listened with a blank grin. After a minute, my mother left the screen. I looked down at the gravel beneath my feet.
My father, quiet by nature, only stared without saying a word during our calls. But somehow, I understood my father’s expressions far more than my mother’s stream of now-foreign words. It was strange to hear my mother’s voice as garble when it used to be so clear. I concentrated on my mother’s lips, but it was like trying to look through frosted glass or listening underwater.
When my father thought my mother wasn’t looking, he mimed sentences to me, willing the meaning with his eyes. Sometimes I understood. The language of the eyes and body spoke much louder than words. I tried to mime back, but it wasn’t the same. Playing this game of charades was a loophole to the Langbase. Body language in general wasn’t considered an official language. I should be grateful for that.
Wasn’t the L---- show just s---------?
I deciphered the sentence using the context of Jorry’s message.
Yes. Really great.
He was still typing, but I turned off my screen. I pulled up my Langbase. After paying rent, I had only 486 words left.
My mother spoke of a new language for royalty. The show Jorry and I watched yesterday was based on that language. She said to invest in it, but I’d never had the chance. One word of L---- cost over a hundred thousand English words. I told her it was difficult to make a living here. It was hard enough keeping what few words I had left to communicate with her.
In the building where I lived, there was one very stubborn man. He wouldn’t trade any of his native language for English, and no one would hire him. He disappeared after losing everything by gambling. Street gambling was different from the sort that Jorry partook in. The man often met up with a group of street gamblers on the weekends. They challenged each other to games of description played in pairs. One team chose the words for the opponents and the partners would then take turns guessing. The team with the most correct guesses won. Those living in the building would often watch the exchange. More times than not, someone left the scene looking murderous.
The other gamblers swindled him, the onlookers said, but he didn’t understand what was happening until it was too late, or perhaps he just stopped caring. His fellow players knew which words he was missing and chose those specifically so he couldn’t describe them. He was kicked out of the building and roamed the streets as a Silent. Some say he was deported and sent back to his motherland because he was no longer “a useful citizen.”
Another man came to visit the apartment last week: a wealthy man who knew over twenty-four languages—the one from the show included, of course. He wanted to demolish the building for a new commercial project: a new stocks center for Language Trading. Those of us who lived here didn’t have a say, not that we had many words to argue with anyway.
Once, a charity asked the wealthy man for a donation. I remember him saying, “You know how it is. If I give handouts to everyone, I won’t have any left for myself. How do you think the rich stay rich?” I’d disliked him ever since. Not all the wealthy were like this, but this man and Jorry were the same type of people. I didn’t have a good enough word left in my Langbase to describe them.
I stopped contact with Jorry a month after the show.
They scheduled the apartment demolition for the following month. We all had to clear out by the end of next week.
The woman who lived beside me asked for compensation. She got a call, but all the building manager said was, “Don’t you remember agreeing to the section stating—” How could she when she didn’t have the words to read it or to hire a lawyer who could? How could she when these agreements were always worded in ways they knew most of their tenants couldn’t process with their limited Langbases?
*Incoming message from Jorry.*
I heard about the apartment.
My eyes hovered over the reply button, but no words came to me.
You could live with me for now?
Jorry always wanted something. He offered nothing for free. The l------ penthouse he lived in came to my mind.
I can’t afford the rent.
Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.
I couldn’t help but notice that he was only using words I understood. But I knew he just wanted to appear as a savior so I would feel further indebted to him. These words were not for me, really; they were only for himself.
I wasn’t sure why I never thought to use my only Jorry. When my Langbase connected with the train’s fare system, I selected Jorry as my payment. The system inserted a few verbs into my Langbase in return. Nouns were always worth more.
A woman sat down beside me. I fiddled with my luggage handle without looking up.
My head lifted at the word. It was the Silent from the streets.
She smiled. “Thank you.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
“I was able to get my name back. I’m K----.” I held out my hand, feeling disappointed that I couldn’t hear her name.
“玉河,” I said.
Like the barista, K---- and I shared a knowing smile, one that J---- and I were never able to share.
When I arrived at the Language Currency Exchange Center, I headed for the first available exchange machine. My Langbase popped up and I scrolled down to the last word of my shrinking list of Chinese with my eyes: 家 Home. My mind wandered to K----. I’ll try again, Mother.
Give me English.
I confirmed the exchange and watched the English words flood into my Langbase.
*Incoming message from J----*
I muted my messages. I should’ve severed our friendship a long time ago but didn’t because of our families’ connection. Perhaps I would tell them the truth. Jorry was not someone who deserved such a glorious illusion.
My eyes scrolled through my Langbase and landed on home and then on 玉 and 河, the only two Chinese characters left. I closed my eyes and vowed to buy them all back soon. But first, I had to find Kiana. The name of the woman who was no longer a Silent felt glorious as it left my lips in a whisper.
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Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer, a Nebula-, Locus-, Ignyte Award finalist, and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA and SFWA. Her work can be found in F&SF, The Dark, Uncanny, among others. She is the recipient of Odyssey Workshop’s 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship and the author of Linghun and I AM AI.
Copyright ©2022 by Ai Jiang.
“Give Me English” was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Reprint rights acquired.
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