STEFANI KUO delves into the translation of home through language, culture and changing bonds.
We should be able to put two poems before a reader, the original and its translation, and say, “Here are two poems. They are the same poem. Which was translated from the other?” A better question would be: “Which was written first?”
– Cynthia Ozick, “Prayer Leader”
For almost eight years, I have not lived at home in Hong Kong for more than three weeks at a time. My bedroom has remained frozen in time since I was ten. The whiteboard still has a checklist of sections to complete for my college applications; no one has erased it in the four years since I graduated from boarding school in Massachusetts. Soon, I will graduate from college in America; America, too, will begin to feel small, and spit me back into the world. But the more the bubble closes in on me, the more I hope it will not take me home, at least not to who I came from.
I left home a gawky Hong Kong schoolgirl with indigo Hello Kitty glasses and a stack of Giordano’s cargo pants from the boys’ section. I decided to go to boarding school when I first saw a brochure filled with pictures of grassy quads and lawns, houses filled with backyards I had only seen on television. But I quickly learned that I didn’t have (nor could I afford) the right clothes, I didn’t grow up with the same cartoons, and I didn’t play the right (or any) team sports. I spoke the wrong language, so I acquired a new one. By the time I left boarding school, I had started using contact lenses, abandoned Chinese for French, reappropriated my Chinese jacket as a hipster accessory, and I started taking French because it was one of two languages offered at my high school that my mother didn’t speak. My mom bet that I would never learn a new language, so I did.
My mom studied abroad in Spain, so even prior to attending college I had decided I would study abroad too. I had just returned from my semester abroad in France when, as a junior at Yale, I decided to take a course on translation with Comparative Literature Professor Peter Cole. French was the language I now considered home, and I desperately wanted to hold onto what I considered new roots.
“I would be careful about choosing a piece you are unfamiliar with,” Professor Cole explained, “with translation, the more you go into it the more likely you are to become frustrated. You don’t want to pick something you realize you don’t like later on.”
I looked for a Chinese-French female writer, someone like myself, but I soon realized I had no connection with any such woman. I had only recently decided to be French.
“There is this writer from Taiwan…where my mother is from,” I reluctantly pointed out to Professor Cole, “Her name is Sanmao. She wrote stories about the Sahara Desert, but in Chinese.”
Professor Cole’s eyes lit up. The idealized French writer melted away in my mind. He sat back and said, “Tell me more.”
I read Sanmao’s autobiographical collection Stories of the Sahara Desert in my sixth grade Chinese class. It was the first time I was introduced to a woman writer who resembled my mother. Sanmao’s stories allowed us to live vicariously through her travels. Born Chen Mao Ping, her pen name Sanmao was derived from caricaturist Zhang Leping’s cartoon character. The name “Sanmao” translates as either “three pennies” or “three hairs.” The cartoon character was created in the 1940s as a homeless boy, malnourished (hence, “three hairs) and poor (hence the three pennies). Sanmao wanted to describe the world through the lens of an ordinary commoner. She was relatable, and implacable. She moved Taiwan to Spain, Germany to the Sahara Desert. Restless, Sanmao never felt at home. She is grounded today in this pen name and these nomadic tales.
I read her stories everywhere: at home, in class under the desk, during lunch, even while walking across streets after school. I read them twice, out loud in Cantonese and then with my mom in Mandarin. My friends and I dreamed of travelling across deserts, of marrying foreign men and speaking intimately in entirely new languages. When the school library’s copy was overdue, I went and bought myself a new copy.
Mid-way through my translation of Sanmao, I got stuck. I came across a Chinese phrase I didn’t know how to translate. With no place else to seek help, I reluctantly returned to my pocket dictionary—my mother.
“Have you forgotten all your Chinese?” Her voice was too loud over the phone. I turned the volume down.
“I’m just making sure,” I muttered. I recognized the Chinese characters, and the pen strokes, but I could no longer pronounce the words. I described the words to her, deconstructing them into easier components I could say aloud. My mother patiently helped me put the pieces back together again. All I could think about was what I would do when my future children asked me to help them pick words apart, and whether I would speak my mother’s language well enough to call it my “mother tongue.”
“This line: ‘You hoped some literary editor would see (like a cat) what we saw in your writing,’ What does this mean?” Professor Cole slowly read.
I became embarrassed. I was having difficulty pinning down Sanmao’s voice. The section of the book I was translating was a letter from Sanmao’s mother and I wasn’t sure whose voice I was listening to. I thought because I was translating a Chinese idiom I didn’t quite understand I could get away with ambiguity.
“Should I get rid of it since it doesn’t make sense?” I asked.
Professor Cole insisted upon clarity instead of omittance, both for the text and the translator. Rather than thinking of textual alterations as betrayals of the original, I learned to identify and keep the salient qualities of Sanmao’s work. I started with the cat. Professor Cole drilled me with questions: What do cats do when we talk about them in English? How do they react when they see something they want? Is this image necessary? If it is, can we move it elsewhere in the sentence for greater clarity? In the hour I spent going through my preliminary paragraph, we came up with a new sentence I actually understood: “You hoped some literary editor would pounce (like a cat) on your work.”
Translation is the act of going from point A to point B. I had been transporting a text I didn’t understand into another language and expected it to come across. But travelling takes time. The trip from Yale back home to Hong Kong takes 28 hours door-to-door. When I left for boarding school, my parents brought me to America. But each time I came back to Hong Kong, I left some of the self I grew up with in the US and brought some of the America I picked up back home with me. I started forgetting how to write certain Chinese characters, and began journaling exclusively in English. When I started college, I said I was from the boarding school I attended in Massachusetts, not from Hong Kong. I was no longer sure which self I liked better, or if either one felt whole.
“Bilingual translators have it hardest,” Professor Cole said one day in class. A language is native to us when it is defined not only by other words but by internalized contexts. I found myself explaining aspects of Chinese culture with, “it’s just the way it is.” When questioned about the history of idioms or turns of phrases, I couldn’t quite explain the nuances I had never thought to dissect. The significance of removing one’s shoes at the door, the taboo health effects of drinking ice-cold water, and conception of love in the household all felt foreign in translation. These cultural nuances all wormed their way into my understanding of Chinese as a spoken language. Hearing Chinese evokes physical reactions for me; the softest family conversation (though Chinese conversations are rarely soft) have my ears perked up on the sidewalk. And I still have difficulty explaining to American friends that my mother calls me fat and lazy and derides my ambitions as useless and impractical out of love.
In parsing out Sanmao’s text I looked for explanations to my own upbringing. I began translating Sanmao from Chinese into English because she felt familiar. But over the course of the few months I spent translating her book, I realized I was looking into the home I missed from sixth grade. I was staring at my twelve-year-old self in the face, wondering who I would have been had I kept her around.
Sanmao once said to her math teacher, who drilled her on her ambitions when she was failing the class, that her only desire was to marry a painter, specifically Pablo Picasso. After being engaged to an older German gentleman who passed away suddenly before their wedding, she travelled to Spain and eventually married a Spaniard of her own, José. José abandoned his job and his ambitions for Sanmao’s wish to be the first Chinese woman to cross the Sahara Desert. Love was the constant motivation behind her travelling and writing.
My mother has taught me to strive only for the things I love. She started working as an investment banker when she was twenty so she could buy my grandmother an apartment in Taipei. In her first few years working, she travelled all over Asia, spending time living in Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and eventually settling down in Hong Kong where she married my father.
But my mother has always known herself. Her childhood was marked by figures who stayed and continued to stay in place. Growing up, she walked to school and passed by the same people each day—the butcher’s son, the family vendors who sold Taiwanese meatballs and soup dumplings, and the teenagers who babysat (and beat) her when my grandparents weren’t around. This year, after eight years of work, she finally finished and published a book she wrote on Taiwan’s China Dilemma. She has returned to Taiwan countless times over the years, and these constants have been there waiting for her. She has described this book, which took her eight years to write, as a trail of footprints leading home.
When I last returned to Hong Kong over the summer, I took the minibus into town and got lost. I couldn’t find my bank. The city has suddenly (or perhaps steadily) been overtaken by Korean sunglass stores and pop-up makeup brands. The store where I used to buy dried mangos and sour plums had gone out of business, and in its place was a café filled with Pokémon Go! players and teenagers posting photos of their cappuccinos on Instagram. One of few remaining constants are my doctor appointments: each one marks the passing of another school year. Each year the doctors’ offices employ new nurses who, knowing I live in America, have begun to speak to me only in English.
Every time I see old family friends and relatives, the same questions pop up: where do you plan on going after graduation? Where do you want to work? What do you want to do? Each time I am left defending my rejection of Hong Kong. “There is no arts industry in Hong Kong,” I say. I tried working in a theatre in Hong Kong one summer, and they put me in its financial department.
When people ask what Hong Kong is like, it’s hard not to mention the pollution, overcrowding, heat, and, of course, the oversaturated financial industry. It is a running joke that when China retakes Hong Kong in 2047, we will all simply leave. It is difficult to watch the city where we grew up trade traditional Chinese characters for simplified, to hear more Mandarin than Cantonese, and edge closer to Chinese political control. When you look at a world map, Hong Kong is barely a dot next to China and Taiwan. It is hard to keep roots in a country that is pinched and pulled by so many, plucked up and changed so often. I find there is little left to love about home.
My mother speaks five languages, grew up in Taiwan, and subsequently lived in six different countries, much like Sanmao. Sanmao spoke five languages and lived in four countries, travelling throughout her life across the globe. This summer I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Women’s Business Alliance at Morgan Stanley, where my mother used to work. I was the only non-investment banker sitting in the audience. The interview was conducted in English. My mother sat on the stage, next to a moderator who asked her questions I had never thought to bring up at the dinner table. I was seated in the front row, tagged with laminated “Reserved” signs, next to an important-looking man wearing cufflinks.
Towards the end of it, the interviewer asked my mother, “as such a well-travelled woman in the industry, where do you consider home?”“It’s funny, I tend to live well wherever I go,” she laughs, “I eat everything. I like meeting new people. I adapt well, which is necessary in this industry. But I think it’s where the people you love are. I grew up in Taiwan but I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 23 years. It’s where I’ve lived with my daughters. I vote in elections. I listen to our district officers. I protest. I consider it home.”
I watched my own mom and saw her for the first time as someone who has done something I envy. I found myself raising my hand to ask a question.
“Oh,” she looked surprised, “Stefani.”
“So…I don’t know how to phrase this, but do you know what a ‘third culture kid’ is?” I squinted my eyes at her dubiously.
The audience laughed. “Yes,” she said, “I once considered myself one.”
In 2047, Hong Kong will officially retire from its status as a special administrative region and be entirely turned over to China. One country, two systems will become one country under the umbrella of one government.
“In my opinion, no one in this generation recognizes Hong Kong anymore,” I spoke up, “the turnover rate of shops, of restaurants, of…culture is so high. I feel more like a Hong Konger when I am away from Hong Kong. Don’t you think everyone will just leave before the turnover in 2047? Will what’s left be reflective of Hong Kong’s actual culture?”
My mom laughed. She called me, and eventually the entire audience, young. She said identity is something we curate, and at some point in our lives we will return to our roots, however we define them. In the 23 years my mom has lived in Hong Kong, she has become fluent in Cantonese. She votes at every single regional and district election, from choosing our legislative council to whether or not we should put a new stop sign on the corner. She used to carry me on her shoulders as a kid at protests and continued even after I left. Just as I never stopped looking for belonging in America, she never stopped to wonder when she started calling Hong Kong home.
I was in France when I received my graded translation from Professor Cole with circles around words I misused and phrases that didn’t make sense. But at the bottom of the 26 pages was a small box of blue text, at its best, the result is quite fine, and I sense that the experience of this revision, the lessons of this class, will inform whatever you do next.
I was sitting at a family birthday dinner party with a boy I had a crush on in the French Alps that night. I sent the translation to my mom, and then to my aunt, then to my grandparents who had just learned how to use their iPads. We had finished six bottles of white wine and were passing around baguettes and cheese from Savoy when I started craving rice.
The first meal I eat at home in Hong Kong after two months in France is my usual: winter melon soup, cabbage, and rice. I sit alone, jetlagged, at the breakfast table at five in the morning. There is a typhoon outside the window, and nobody is awake. I want to be back in France, in the Alps, speaking a language I didn’t always know. I wander to the fridge to look for juice and find a hidden, unopened package of imported cheese from Savoy. The price tag on the wrapping is four times how much it cost in France. I look around the kitchen for bread but can’t find any. I open the package with a knife and cut myself a slice of cheese. I can hear my mom coming down the stairs. I consider throwing the cheese back into the fridge, but turn over the package to read the French on the back. It feels unnatural, eating this food in this country in this body. I go to the cabinet and take out an extra bowl, a soup spoon, and a pair of chopsticks. I set it across the table from me and wait for my mother to come in.
Stefani is a senior at Yale College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration // Sonia Ruiz