Three random thoughts by a Hong Kong millennial.
I haven’t written Chinese properly since graduating from secondary school. I didn’t think much of it. I was even just a tiny bit proud. “I haven’t written Chinese in SOOO long!” It had the slight implication that you were so good in English that you can get by without Chinese.
Once I started working, all of my coworkers were native English speakers. My English was never the best in class to start with, and so I didn’t really have an edge anymore. But Chinese became my edge. Because I spoke Cantonese, I could interview people my coworkers couldn’t and I had the chance to cover local dining like congee shops and milk tea.
I had to write in English, and so I read a lot more English. Every morning, I started by reading local English news, then the foreign press, and local Chinese media last (which basically consisted of Apple Daily). I even read mainly English fiction, because the people I worked with were so well-read, I really wanted to try and catch up.
The consequence was that I gradually felt a distance from my mother tongue. I clearly remember one time, when I asked an interviewee, “What are some challenges that you’ve faced as a XXX?” The Chinese sentence that came out of my mouth was grammatically awkward. She didn’t understand me. It was then I realized that even though I speak Cantonese and hear Cantonese all day, the language stopped flowing as naturally as before. I didn’t really know how to deal with that kind of loss.
Last week, I wrote a Facebook status in Chinese. Several friends showed surprise that I actually wrote in Chinese. I was surprised too, that my using Chinese conflicted with how they thought of me. I mean, I basically only speak Cantonese with them! It strengthened my resolve to write more in Chinese. I’ve even begun to play with the idea that if I were to write for a living again, I would choose to do so in Chinese.
It had seemed natural that I would report in English after college. I liked English books better and I was relatively good at English. I also found it meaningful to tell Hongkongers’ stories to people who don’t understand Chinese. And, you get paid better.
But at some point, I felt trapped between English and Chinese. I navigate my city and the people I love with Cantonese, but I write and journal my thoughts in English. Everything was a translation.
Writing is a private affair, a process to clear and clarify my thoughts, but it can also be very public, for sometimes I write to share things with people. Regrettably, most people around me didn’t read my English writing. That Chinese Facebook status, remember? My dad shared it, the first time he shared my writing to his friends.
I want to write more directly about my experience in this city, and I want my writing to be easily readable by the people that I care about. I don’t think I’ll ever stop reading English books, and I won’t stop writing in English either, that being an important skill. Truth be told, I haven’t really figured out what English and Chinese mean to me, respectively, but I will write a lot more in Chinese. That I’m sure about.
This interview with the amazing short story writer Raymond Carver: “No. I don’t believe for a minute in that absurd Shelleyan nonsense having to do with poets as the “unacknowledged legislators” of this world. What an idea! Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. I like that.”