On Home and Memory

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The bridge my father used to swim under as a child

After my internship ended, I took ten days to visit my family’s hometown of Xinzhou in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei. I took an overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Wuhan, where my uncle picked me up, and lectured me about how Donald Trump is dangerous for the world, to which I said, “Tell me something I don’t already know.” Upon arriving in Xinzhou, I went straight to my wai gong’s (maternal grandfather) house to eat lunch, where they stuffed food into my bowl, as they have done for the last twenty years of my life. I lived with my nai nai (paternal grandmother) in her three story house that my grandfather built, and we played xiangqi as we did every summer night when I was a child. I thought about letting her win, but she taught me to be more competitive than that.

 

"Beautiful Xinzhou"

“Beautiful Xinzhou”

Later, I went to the bridge that my father used to swim under as a boy. The water was muddy and tinged with green, but the sunset falling on the surface was lovely. There were people swimming, and my aunt told me that someone drowns every week. That night was a Taoist holiday, so the town’s elders came out to the riverside, including my wai po, who I ran into there. We lit paper lanterns and pushed them along the river, where they joined the fleet of multi-colored lanterns floating downstream. Then, we burned paper money to scare away the bad spirits. On the way home, I watched the ashes float into the air from everywhere in the town, still ablaze, like phoenixes in migration.

Summer has never been my favorite season, but this summer was one of growth and learning, thanks to the Freeman Foundation grant. Not only was I able to work at a fulfilling internship, experience Beijing, and meet with various Davidson alumni, but I was also able to visit my family and further connect with my own identity.

On Translation and Creativity

Yiheyuan

Yiheyuan

My internship for a music magazine in Beijing has been a way for me to anchor myself to a routine, as well as gain insight into the development of modern Chinese culture. China Music Business News, a well-read magazine that gets a lot of traffic to its Chinese website, took me on as an intern to shape up their English website, translate articles, correct the poor existing translations, manage their social media, conduct English interviews, and film for any articles that needed media. It was work that I took to quickly, and I took heart in the fact that my lackluster writing and reading was not quite as lackluster as I thought, and was finally coming in handy.

Although I had to check my propensity for more creative translations, I discovered that translation is much like creating your own language, in the way that you create semantic relationships between words and reconstruct images with different linguistic units. Even though there are no invented words or sounds, one does create their own “rules” of translation since the options for translation are so vast, especially for a language like Mandarin Chinese. Especially where colloquial sayings or proverbs (chengyu) come into play, you often have to rely on your gut instinct as far as translation goes. Of course, I also had the benefit of my boss and co-workers being unable to read any of my work, so even if I botched the translations (which I didn’t), there wasn’t really a review process.

The rabbit head (and brains!) my co-workers made me eat

The rabbit head (and brains!) my co-workers made me eat

The work culture is also far more laid-back than I expected. I anticipated a work culture not unlike Japan or Korea, where people work insane hours and at all times. Instead, I found that it more resembled San Francisco startups, from the shared, open office space accommodating a couple hundred people, to synchronized naps and ping pong tables. Nonetheless, I realized that my comparatively light work load was a result of my boss being unfamiliar with what to expect from translation work, as well as my status as an intern. In the end, I took a lot out of my experience working for the magazine (in fact, they want me to continue working for them when I return to the US), and am incredibly grateful to the Freeman Foundation for generously allowing me to live and work in China this summer, as well as visit my family.

On Being an ABC in Beijing

Sanlitun

Sanlitun

Upon arriving in Beijing, I was entirely unsure of what the summer would bring. Despite having come to China many times before, this was really my first time in China on my own terms, untethered to family (even though I was living with my uncle). My relationship to China as a second-generation Chinese-American is a complicated one. Having grown up in the South, I always felt like an outsider because of the way that others viewed me as foreign, as exclusively Chinese; in China, it was always the opposite. My extended family and friends used to tease me by calling me mei guo lao, which on its own was a fairly harmless term (simply meaning American), but in context, further alienated me from a country that I often felt I had no claim to. This was all in spite of my relative fluency in Mandarin and my parents’ dialect, and the multiple summers I spent in China. It’s not an uncommon story among Chinese-Americans, especially those who grow up in spaces where they see almost nobody else who looks like them.

This time, I returned to China with a more thorough, academic understanding of Asian-Americans and my own experience, so I knew this summer would be particularly important in both my studies and my own identity formation. Beijing was, in many ways, a perfect city for my endeavor to understand the relationships between place, belonging, cultural memory, and migration; as the cultural, political, and artistic capital of the country, Beijing offered an insight into Chinese life and society that contrasted what I already knew from my childhood in my parents’ hometown of Xinzhou (a city of only a few hundred thousand).

On a surface level, Beijing offered an easy adjustment for me because of its world class public transit system, Mandarin focus, Davidson alumni network, and friendly people (that is, compared to the notoriously grumpy people from my mother province of Hubei). On the other hand, the heat, air quality, and, surprisingly, my own Chinese, were hindrances in settling in completely at the beginning. Specifically, my lack of an American accent, decent conversational skills, and of course, my Chinese face (though people often said I looked Japanese because of my long hair), meant that I passed as a native, at least until the awkward and comical situation arose where my pre-K level literacy revealed itself. Nonetheless, I quickly became accustomed to the sights and smells of Beijing, like the sweating salarymen on the subway, and raucous elders in the park – the grandmothers, bumping heads over lost poker bets, the grandfathers, silently gathered around nail-biting games of xiangqi, waiting for a watershed moment –, every gray head a world unto itself, without doubt of the raptures and sorrows of the next day, when they would still be there in all their flesh, all their jubilee.

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