"character in translation"

creative nonfiction

Recognized by National Council of Teachers of English with Superior Writing Certificate

In response to the NCTE Achievement Awards prompt: Why do you write?

 

Wo.

Me.

Made of seven strokes.

Made of two letters.

 

My Chinese characters

form landscapes of sweeping curves.

My English letters march in

a straight procession along the page.

My Chinese is born into a beige, barren home

that packs 5,000 years of history into its humble walls,

that smells of la mian and black calligraphy ink.

My English is found in a fluorescent school

that extends its smiling hands to welcome the little

foreign girl to the tastes of hamburgers and American sports.

My Chinese language emerges from the throat like rolling hills,

falling first down and then rising back up, and at times coming to rest in a flat

respite. It billows, like a river made of thick blood, sprouting from the fertile grounds

of family and familiarity—warm, intimate, like the steam of the la mian.

My English language staggers cold from the throat, like some

metal machine meticulously made, yet artificial nonetheless—

stuttering, stale with self-consciousness as the tongue tries to wrap

itself around the letter r but slips and slides and snaps into malfunction.

When I speak, they stare at me as if the subtle accent in my voice has grown into some contagious monster on my face. Yet when I write, I find that no one can hear

the color of my skin in the black and white of my paper.

I pick up the pencil.

The practice of copying letters in the handwriting book comes easily, and my

subconscious learns to admire the way the haphazard shapes grow closer and closer to

the standard—watching as e’s lose their triangular tip, as o’s settle into near-perfect circles.

Mimicry, after all, makes the foreign feel like home.

Yet at home, when I carve the tangled strokes of Chinese onto thin tracing paper,

my hand aches under the weight of a language that has become in my eyes

an affliction. The characters never look like they’re supposed to, and the relatives make fun of the sickly creatures that fill my pages, telling me that I am too Americanized, that I have forgotten.                            

But perhaps it is better to forget.

Perhaps it is better to take refuge in my fantasy worlds, to transform myself into the white, blue-eyed teenagers in my books who save the world and find true love. The English stories on my pages have become a surrogate voice. Emerging from the depths of a long-silenced throat, it trickles like delicate river water and tastes of some rare,
sweet fruit,

yet:

Something not so sweet creeps at the corners of my pages, peeks

out between the lines of my words, finds me at odd times in the middle of

deep nights as I am clattering away on my keyboard. My Chinese character, wo,

stares at me from beneath the surface of the page. She is a tangled mess, a malformed, Frankenstein abomination with strokes that shiver like skeletal bones in the cold: barren, weak, meaningless, and composed of 5,000 years of wasted history. Familiarity now forgotten.

 

Perhaps it is better to forget, I write. Why should I bear the weight of thousands of years

of history that is not mine? Why do these beige, barren walls still cling to the suffering of generations long gone, people long dead? Why does my father’s la main reek of ancestral

sweat, why is my own blood dense with the spirit of souls on the other side of the world?

I grow these questions like vines across blank paper, the thoughts pouring through

my fingertips with such intensity that I forget about my aching hands. I am

making stories of tears and sweat and hybrid blood, and suddenly,

it dawns on me:

As much as I wanted to mimic the charming, light-hearted heroes on television,

the characters who emerge uninvited on my page knit their tangles into my tales.

They are Chinese characters made of English—

characters I had once thought to be lost in translation,

now gathering their forgotten strokes and forgotten purpose, clustering into

a reflection of wo, of me.

 

Initially, I started writing as a necessity. My pen did what my mouth couldn’t, what my face precluded—writing made me feel less foreign. Soon, I’d come to realize it was this exact sense of foreignness that drove my passion—the need to create characters whose life stories had never been told before, who straddle two worlds and get lost in the vast oceans in between.

Eventually, I would come to see the most fundamental element of it all:

the desire to create harmony out of contrast.

I am made of two languages, two cultures that contrast in tangible and intangible ways.

I am made simultaneously of tangled strokes                                                and simple letters,

of yellow,                                                           red,                                       white, and blue blood.

I am made of la mian                                                                                            and hamburgers

of empathic Chinese                                                                              and valley-girl English.

This contrast was once chaos in my mind—a great internal distress without definition.

But through words, through story, I could finally see how the incoherent pieces of

reality fit together, how

con                                                                  trast

is not

d i s s o n a n c e. 

I am no malfunctioning machine, and yet

I am also no reconciliation, no average of two extremes.

I am a character in translation,

a superposition existing in two states simultaneously,

undefined until I define myself.

I write because I must make my own definition of me, wo,

when there are none in the languages that already exist.

I put down the pencil.