Tuesday, March 1, 2016

An Overlooked Message of the Peter Liang Demonstrations

On Saturday, Feb. 20, I walked in Boston Common about 11 am, in time to see a large group of Chinese Americans gathering by the Brewer Fountain in front of the gold-domed Massachusetts State House.  Behind the crowd, a man in a black ski jacket and a woman in blue jeans quietly placed a small, home-made memorial under a tree.  They carefully laid down pine twigs and flower bouquets on the lawn, and set up a cardboard sign with hand-written words:
"TRIBUTE TO AKAI GURLEY"


People came from as far away as Rhode Island to demonstrate in Boston, responding to former New York policeman Peter Liang's conviction.  The majority of the participants were middle-aged, and quite a few brought children with them. Led by a Boston University Professor named Wang Hua, the first thing the demonstrators did together was observe one minute of silence in mourning of Akai Gurley and as an expression of condolences to his family.
I watched them from a distance. I had decided from the very beginning to stay out of the mass rally, and advised my friends to do the same. In addition to personal reasons, I was also concerned about possible adverse consequences of racial tension. But I would be surprised this time.
My first surprise was that a friend, Hong Jiang, a former IT professional who had been skeptical about the rally early on, brought with her two hand-made placards. One read, "Condolences to Mr. Gurley's family," and the other "Fair Trial for Peter Liang."  She said she decided to get involved because she really didn't want the rally sending the wrong message to the public.
As it turns out, these were the two main messages of the rallies across the country that day.  Sadly, however, the mainstream media, and many in their readership as well, seem to have seen only the second message or, worse still, to characterize the demonstrations as a  "square-off" between the Asian and black communities. Few recognized that the Chinese American community as a whole has emerged from its customary quietness to make a collective bow to the victim's family, to express regrets and sorrow, to issue a profound apology, and to acknowledge the failure of Liang's defense team for not delivering an apology until after the verdict was read. Such a collective apology is something unheard of in the 190-year history of Chinese Americans.


The consensus on apologizing was not manifest at the outset. On WeChat, I early on saw an ambivalent question: Are we begging for leniency? In the week between the verdict and the demonstrations, I watched on my cellphone people debating passionately, sometimes fiercely, on whether mass rallies should be held and how.  There were no authorities anywhere; anyone could propose any idea, and people took or rejected ideas at their own discretion.  Despite endless arguments, some sort of convergence—though in no way unanimity—did seem to appear at the end. One example: inappropriate slogans such as "Support Peter Liang" stayed around for a while but were ultimately rejected by the majority.  "Support him for what? For shooting?" the question from a random person had made others think twice.
  

As a rookie cop, Peter Liang made a grave mistake on the evening of November 20, 2014, on the 8th floor of a dark stairwell in a Brooklyn public housing complex, when a bullet discharged from his gun, ricocheted off the wall, and fatally struck Akai Gurley one floor below. Though all evidence points to the fact that neither man was aware of the presence of the other at the time, and that even the victim did not immediately realize he himself was hit until he ran down two more floors and collapsed on the 5th floor landing, Liang, as well as his partner, made a further mistake by not performing CPR for the dying man after they saw what happened minutes later. While Liang's defense team had argued that a devastated and not well trained Liang was incapable of handling such a crisis, an unarguable fact is that a young man's life was lost because of him, and for that Liang must bear the responsibility.
Yet it is also a fact that the tragedy was a horrible accident, made even more tragic by the extremely low probability that a ricocheting bullet would strike someone in the heart. As Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn DA who prosecuted Liang, said in a video interview on Feb. 19, the day before the demonstrations, "I do not believe that Peter Liang intentionally killed Akai Gurley. We have never said that." 
An accident is not the best example of evilness. An individual who caused an accident without intent should not be symbolized for political causes or be given the harshest punishment. As far as I can tell, this is what pushed Chinese Americans to the streets on Feb. 20. But as they sought fairness for a member of their own, it also became clear to them that "fairness" might not mean the same thing to those on the side of the victim. Thus, as a grassroots movement, the Peter Liang demonstrations ran into a dilemma. That dilemma, embodied in the two slogans carried by my friend, also became part of the rallies.    
On the grass of Boston Common, I asked a demonstrator, who identified herself as a housewife, why she brought her children here.  She replied in Chinese, "I want them to know we are a minority. They have to know that unfair things happen to us because we are a minority." She paused, and then added somewhat ambivalently, "But we don't want our black friends to think we are against them. They are a minority too.  We are both disadvantaged groups."

            A park ranger on horse attracted children who came with their parents. The kids wanted to pat the horse.  They wanted to take pictures with the handsome policeman.



I couldn't help but wonder: when Peter Liang, at age five, witnessed her mother being robbed on the street, and vowed to protect her when he grew up, was it the mighty image of a policeman like this that inspired his dream career?  How could he have known there's so much behind a beautiful image!

By the Brewer Fountain, a woman speaker stood on a bench and called on Chinese Americans to actively participate in public affairs. The crowd responded with foot stamping while shouting in unison: "Vote! Vote! Vote!"  Hong Jiang, who became one of the provisional organizers with the BU professor, spoke next.  She told people to care not only about our own community, but also all other minority groups. 
After seven or eight men and women made impromptu speeches, people began to sing "God Bless America."  A man with a singer's voice held a megaphone and led the chorus. I was surprised that many remembered the lyrics; those who didn't hummed along.
As the demonstrators paraded along the outmost ring inside the large park, the procession stretched for more than half a mile. I asked the park ranger on horse how many people he thought there were.  
"More than 2000," he said, impressed. "I thought there'd be 50.  That's the estimate on the permit."
"Is it okay there are so many?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, " he said, "perfectly fine. It's a good thing."



The parade marched past my camera, shouting slogans. Suddenly, a white man standing next to me in the audience ran to the parade and stopped a woman holding a sign, on it were the words "Free Peter Liang." 
"Where is he being held?" the man, who later told me his name was Ed, asked her. The woman looked puzzled. Several others came around and tried to explain, but Ed cut them short. "You can't ask to free someone who's not being imprisoned," he said.
This slogan, in fact, had been one of those deemed inappropriate by most—albeit for different reasons than Ed's—during the WeChat discussions before the demonstration. Many seemed to want leniency for Peter Liang, not exactly "free," but unsure what term would be fair.  
  I spotted another friend, also an IT professional, at the tail of the parade. I asked her why she came to demonstrate. "If we didn't," she said in a Sichuan accent, "Peter Liang would be locked up for 15 years!"

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tomorrow They Will Come Out Like Ants

"They came out like ants!"  Some years ago, William T. Vollmann wrote this headline in Harper's, adding the subtitle "Searching for the Chinese tunnels of Mexicali."  Tomorrow (Saturday, February 20), "they"—the Chinese Americans—might again come out "like ants" in more than 40 cities, this time not from the mysterious tunnels of Mexicali,  but from a cellphone-based social media network called WeChat.
(Before anyone attempts to protest the use of "ants" as a metaphor for people, let me say up front that it reminds me of a childhood song "Little ants, love to work" or "小蚂蚁,爱劳动".  It was a song adored by my grandmother, a poor peasant who worked nonstop her every waking hour. The metaphor also has an ironic connotation in the sense that ants work but don't speak.  Have you ever heard ants make a sound? But who knows, that might change.)
Ever since former NYPD policeman Peter Liang's guilty verdict last Thursday, plans for rallies all over the nation have been developed through grassroots campaigns on WeChat. Watching the efforts in full swing on a cellphone is no less breath-taking than an action movie. All kinds of voices, rational and irrational, calm and angry, fair-minded and extreme, can be "heard" on the palm-size screen. What a mass movement!
As someone who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, I am always wary of mass movements. Even with well-meaning participants, they have the intrinsic tendency to let people get carried away.  I prefer to stay out, and I don't plan to participate in Boston's rally tomorrow.
What made me write this piece, however, is that my fellow Chinese Americans surprised me with their earnest efforts in educating each other on public affairs, on how American democracy works.  Exactly because this movement is a grassroots action, many of the participants are lay people who have been busy feeding a family and not paying attention to the English media.  As all sorts of slogans were suggested for the rallies, many, including “All Lives Matter” were introduced at face value into the mix.  Quickly—and on WeChat everything happens quickly—others with the knowledge of the line's racist connotation spoke out, and it was dropped.  In a sense, this movement has become a "teachable moment." But because so many people are involved, it is still possible that the slogan will show up somewhere tomorrow. Let's hope it doesn't, but in case it unfortunately does, let’s hope the onlookers don’t compound the mistake by attributing racist intent.
Speaking of presumptions, I've heard that some thought Peter Liang showed no remorse after accidentally taking Akai Gurley's life.  I have been following media reports closely about the trial, and I had a rather different impression. If anyone interpreted Peter Liang's sobs during his testimony as acting rather than true regrets and remorse, then let me share with you some further information.  Peter Liang's mother, Fenny, said that Peter Liang was repeatedly banging his head against the wall at home, and he was so grief stricken about the tragedy that he kept saying he'd rather be the one who was shot.  Fenny did not sleep for 24 hours because she felt the need to watch her son so he wouldn't do something stupid to himself.
From all I can tell by reading Chinese information on the internet and WeChat, Peter Liang has a working class family, and his parents did not receive much education. Neither Peter nor his father are good with words.  Here's a small but telling detail: after the verdict, when a tearful Fenny Liang phoned her husband about the bad news, the old man said no words; all she could hear was his heavy breathing.
Cultural misunderstanding might have caused some to believe that Peter Liang did not have remorse.  I know way too many Chinese who don't express emotion through words, and that does not mean they don't have the emotion.
In fact, another thing that touched my heart as I watched the movement on WeChat this week is how much sympathy and compassion my fellow Chinese Americans showed toward Akai Gurley and his family.  Just two days ago, a fund was announced on WeChat for the purpose of helping both Akai Gurley's and Peter Liang's families, and another similar fund is in the process of being set up.  Rally organizers and participants are planning to have a one-minute silence to mourn Akai Gurley and express condolences to his family.  Slogans with the message of condolences are also being made.
One of the proposed slogans is "One Tragedy, Two Victims." I feel this is so true. I feel for Akai Gurley's family.  I feel for Peter Liang's family.  Peter Liang should take responsibility for Akai Gurley's death, and he is being punished morally for that.  But as Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson—the prosecutorsaid in an interview today, "This is a tragedy, and there is no winner here." He also stated, "I do not believe that Peter Liang intentionally killed Akai Gurley. We have never said that."
So, what is the point of seeking the maximum sentence for a young man who made a grave mistake without intent? 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

What an Honor

My essay, "Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges," is listed as a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2015.  This piece was the winner of American Literary Review's nonfiction contest last year,  and a finalist in Narrative's winter 2013 Story Contest.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Poems After Poets

(Note:  I wrote poems in Chinese when I was young, and have also translated poetry from Chinese to English in recent years, but this is my first attempt to compose a few in English.)


Ambiguity
  After Gregory Corso

Her death
is as vivid
as memory
can evoke
and as blurred
as my memory
is to me


Layers of Sand
    After C. P. Cavafy

The memories of the current flow down in me
like fine sand sliding into a pit on the beach—
sun-warmed, glittering, and slippery fine sand

The memories of the past sink deeper,
cold layers of sand now hidden beneath;
some grains near the top still occasionally shine through,
shortly before being covered, out of the sun

I want to dig them up; their disappearance upsets me,
and I'm upset, too, for the mix-up from my digging.
I look in, at the topmost grains

I don't want to stop digging for fear the sand at the bottom
will start to turn into mud, and the mud take over the pit,
as quickly as the river water takes over the beach


Three Paradoxes
    After Wistawa Szymborska

When I speed across the intersection
I'm delayed, all cars deadlocked by mine

When I walk toward the horizon
I make it further away

When I look forward to tomorrow's sunlight
I come closer to the ultimate darkness



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On Ezra Pound’s Translation of Ancient Chinese Poetry

Can one translate poetry without knowing the source language?  Certainly that was what Ezra Pound did.  In his volume Cathay (1915), Pound translates a total of 19 pieces of ancient Chinese poetry, spanning a period from the 11th Century B.C. to 4th Century A.D.  But of course he couldn’t have done it without help from someone who had knowledge of the Chinese language, in this case Ernest Fenollosa, an American orientalist. The unusual situation, however, was that Pound was approached by Fenollosa’s wife after the man’s death.  At the time, in the 1910s-20s, English information about Chinese poetry must have been scarce, thus Pound’s only basis for the translation was Fenollosa’s meticulous unpublished notes. In addition to providing a word-by-word mapping between Japanese and English, the notes also include line-by-line draft translation into English.
Given Pound’s lack of knowledge of Chinese at the time, it is probably not a big surprise that Cathay contains quite a few citation errors. For example, the first poem in the collection, “Son of the Bowman of Shu,” is cited by Pound as from Kustugen (the Japanese name for Qu Yuan) in the 4th Century B.C., however it in fact is an anonymous work collected in Shijing (also known as Book of Songs), the earliest known volume of Chinese poetry.   Another example is the third poem, the famous “River Song.” Though correctly cited as from Li Bai (whom the Japanese called “Rihaku”), one of the most acclaimed poets in the Tang Dynasty, Pound had mistaken two poems as one.  The first 22 lines of “The River Song” correspond to a poem titled “江上吟” (“Humming on the River”), while the rest, starting from “The east wind brings the green color…”, correspond to a different poem by Li Bai titled “侍从宜春苑奉诏赋龙池柳色初青听新莺百嗽歌”, meaning literally “Following orders to write about listening to new birds singing in early spring, while serving the Emperor in Yichun Park.” Two completely different occasions in distinct settings.  It is curious that Pound would regard their contents as fitting perfectly in a single poem. There are a few other minor errors that I will skip here.
If the above errors are merely technical, wherever Fenollosa had missed the original Chinese meaning (though such occasions were few), the same problem also transferred into Pound’s “translation.”  Take “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” as an example. In Li Bai's original poem, "长干行," there is this famous line that has since become a timeless allusion known as "bamboo horse and green plums":  
郎骑竹马来,绕床弄青梅。
Which Pound translated as (underlines are mine):
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

Here, the word “” usually means “bed,” but in ancient Chinese it also means the fence of a backyard well. The latter meaning happens to be what Li Bai is referring to in this poem. Such language nuance can present difficulties for even a native speaker, not to mention a foreigner. Curiously, In Fenollosa’s notes the word is translated as “seat” instead of the usual meaning “bed.” He might not have known the other, less-common meaning of the word, and felt that “bed” wouldn’t have made sense: the first part of the line obviously refers to an outdoor setting.  Either “you walked about my seat” or “you walked about my bed” wouldn’t read right, but apparently Fenollosa went for the less nonsensical.  Pound might or might not have noticed this inconsistency, but there was not much he could do about it, being unable to read the original text. In any case, a glitch like this could probably be explained away by “poetic license.” So the error is kept.  In the same line, “blue plums” should actually be “green plums,” indicating the fruits are unripe, a metaphor for the young girl and boy.  This metaphor is completely lost in the translation.  
Another interesting thing to note is that the original poem alludes to an allegory known as “Holding-pillar faith,” which originates from a book by ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. The allegory goes like this:  a man is waiting for his female date under a bridge. Before the woman arrives, however, the river water unexpectedly rises. To be faithful to his promise, the man doesn’t leave; he holds onto a pillar of the bridge until he drowns.  The moral of this allegory is one can place love above his own life. Li Bai's lines that allude to this

十五始展眉,愿同尘与灰。
常存抱柱信,岂上望夫台。

were translated by Pound as

At fifteen I stopped scowling, 
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours 
Forever and forever and forever. 
Why should I climb the look out? 

In Fenollosa's notes, he had written a draft translation “I always had in me the faith of holding to pillars / And why should I think of climbing the husband looking out terrace.”  This is quite accurate literally; however it is unclear whether he was aware of the allusion. In any case he did not explain it. At this point Pound, who had faithfully followed Fenollosa’s translation so far, took the liberty to exclude that line completely, probably because he couldn’t make sense of it.  In its place he put “Forever and forever and forever.” The meaning of “forever” was indeed implied by Li Bai in his poem, but the great Chinese poet would never have said it so tritely; that would not be his poetic style. 
This example is one of a few places where Pound's translation departs from Fenollosa’s notes.  Reading the two men’s translations side by side for this poem, one can see that Pound  copied Fenollosa’s complete lines more often than not. T.S. Eliot said in a 1928 essay that “There is as much as to say that Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound.”  It seems to me in that statement Ernest Fenollosa’s name should have at least been in line with, if not replacing, Ezra Pound’s.
Interestingly, Pound’s translation of the Chinese poetry – or should I say Fenollosa’s translation instead? – especially of the longer poems, often reads more fluid than what I’ve seen from ethnic Chinese translators.  Let’s compare two different translations of the first poem included in Cathay
---------------------------------------
The Chinese original:
采薇

采薇采薇 薇亦作止
曰归曰归 岁亦莫止
靡室靡家 玁狁之故
不遑启居 玁狁之故

采薇采薇 薇亦柔止
曰归曰归 心亦忧止
忧心烈烈 载饥载渴
我戍未定 靡使归聘

采薇采薇 薇亦刚止
曰归曰归 岁亦阳止
王事靡盬 不遑启处
忧心孔疚 我行不来

彼尔维何 维常之华
彼路斯何 君子之车
戎车既驾 四牡业业
岂敢定居 一月三捷

驾彼四牡 四牡骙骙
君子所依 小人所腓
四牡翼翼 象弭鱼服
岂不日戒 玁狁孔棘

昔我往矣 杨柳依依
今我来思 雨雪霏霏
行道迟迟 载渴载饥
我心伤悲 莫知我哀
---------------------------------
Ezra Pound's translation:
SONG OF THE BOWMAN OF SHU

Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots 
And saying: When shall we get back to our country? 
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen, 
We have no comfort because of these Mongols. 

We grub the soft fern-shoots, 
When anyone says "Return," the others are full of sorrow. 
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is strong, we are hungry and thirsty. 
Our defense is not yet made sure, no one can let his friend return. 

We grub the old fern-stalks. 
We say: Will we be let to go back in October? 
There is no ease in royal affairs, we have no comfort. 
Our sorrow is bitter, but we would not return to our country. 

What flower has come into blossom? 
Whose chariot? The General's. 
Horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong. 
We have no rest, three battles a month.

By heaven, his horses are tired. 
The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them. 
The horses are well trained, the generals have ivory arrows and quivers ornamented with   fish-skin. 
The enemy is swift, we must be careful. 

When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring, 
We come back in the snow, 
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?
--------------------------------

A translation by Yang Yixian and Dai Naidie, from A Choice Selection of Ancient PoemsChinese—English, published by Foreign Language Press in China:

We Gather Vetch

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
While the young shoots are springing;
Oh, to go back, go back;
But the year is ending.
We have no house, no home,
Because of the Huns.
We cannot sit or take rest,
Because of the Huns.

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
While the shoots are tender;
Oh, to go back, go back;
Our hearts are sad.
Our sad hearts burn,
And we hunger and thirst;
But our garrison duty drags on,
And no messenger goes to take news home.

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
But the shoots are tough;
Oh, to go back, go back;
The tenth month is here again,
But the king’s business is unending;
We cannot sit or take rest;
Our sad hearts are racked with pain,
And no one comes to comfort us on our march.

What splendid blossom is that?
It is the blossom of the cherry tree.
What great chariot is that?
It is the chariot of a nobleman.
His war-chariot stands ready yoked
With four proud stallions;
How can we settle in one place?
We march to three different posts in a month.
           
The four stallions are yoked
To make a sturdy team;
The nobleman rides in the chariot,
We take cover behind;
Four stately stallions,
Ivory bow-ends and a fish-skin quiver;
Every day we must be on our guard,
We are hard-pressed by the Huns.

When we left home
The willows were softly swaying;
Now as we turn back
Snowflakes fly.
Our road is a long one
And we thirst and hunger,
Our hearts are filled with sorrow;
But who knows our misery?
--------------------
The translators were/are all literary experts in their own native language.  However, when it comes to translation, neither party appears to have sufficient knowledge of the nuance of the other language.  Though both translations are fairly accurate in meaning, they read quite differently as poetry.
This Chinese poem, "采薇," from the 11th Century B.C., laments soldiers’ homesickness as they guard their kingdom’s border against nomad invaders from spring to winter. Its meaning is straightforward and there are no allusions, but like other poems in Shijing, this one maintains a singing/chanting rhythm throughout, in which a refrain occurs often, not only between stanzas but also within a line.    
The Chinese translators certainly understood the form and meaning of this poem better than Pound, and their translation attempts to render the folk song quality with the refrain pattern.  However their English is not nuanced enough to match their Chinese level of artistic quality.  For example, admittedly nitpicking: using “to go back” without context is a common Chinglish way of expressing “returning home.” It is rather unclear here and could lead to basic misunderstanding of the literal meaning. In comparison, Pound’s translation has lost the original poem’s style and folk-song quality, but reads much more fluid and natural (and "get back to our country" quite clear).  This is to say, each translation has its own strengths and weaknesses. This also implies that, it is possible to keep the strength of each and avoiding many of the weaknesses by combining the two.
Consider a modified version that blends the above two translations and fixes their errors. For the sake of the sounds, I'm adopting the word "vetch" for , since there are so many interpretations for what this wild vegetable actually is/was – spinach, wild peas, fern shoots, vetch, etc., you name it – and I have no way to tell which is most accurate. For similar reasons, I'm keeping "Xianyun" from the original poem for the name of the "foemen" tribe.

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the first shoots are springing
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” the year is already ending
No family, no home, because of Xianyun the foemen
No rest, no comfort, because of Xianyun the foemen

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the shoots are soft and fresh
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” our hearts are full of sorrow
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is burning us, so is hunger, so is thirst
Our defense is not yet certain, no one can be sent home

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the shoots are getting tough
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” it is October already the tenth moon
No ease in the king’s affairs, no break for us
Our hearts pain with sorrow, we still can’t go home 

What fabulous blossom is that?  It is the cherry tree’s
Whose great chariot is that? It is the general’s
The war-chariot is yoked, the four horses are tall
No one dares rest, three battles a month

Four horses are driving the chariot, four strong horses
The higher men are on them, the lower men are by them 
The horses are well trained, bows of ivory, quivers ornamented with fish-skin 
No one dares relax, the enemy is swift 

When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring 
When we come back, snowflakes fly everywhere
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know our misery?

If my modified version above is indeed an improvement in the translation, then a case can be made that better literary translation would be a cooperative project between two translators, one a native speaker and expert of the source language, and the other the target language.  Only in this way, can the nuances in both languages could be captured and presented in the translation.  This, of course, is mainly for the benefit of readers and the quality of the translated literature.  I do understand that not every translator would be willing to share his or her work or cooperate with another translator.
            

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Foreigners Do in China

(Also published on LARB's China Blog)

In the remote mountains of Yunnan Province, China, a middle-aged European ecologist gave up his high-level international program manager job and made his home with a local woman. Together, they set forth to reestablish the rainforests destroyed by rubber tree plantations, cultivated a garden — a seed bank — that “was home to more species than all of Germany,” reintroduced indigenous plant species to China, and homeschooled two bright young children with knowledge, poise and manners belying their age. In 2010, the extraordinary life of the ecologist, along with the draft of an unconventional paper that could “be of enormous value to mankind,” was cut short by a heart attack.

This story about Josef Margraf, written by journalist Jonathan Watts, is not a news report or profile but rather an essay, moving for both Watts’ own introspection and his sketch of Margraf’s life. I read it in the anthology Unsavory Elements —Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, in which editor Tom Carter has assembled 28 short contributions by a variety of expat writers. I had opened the book with the intention of browsing through it quickly. Though I was curious about how expats live in China, and why there are so many of them now, as a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected.

In 1971, when I was a middle school student in the city of Chongqing, recruiters dressed in military uniforms from the faraway Yunnan Production and Construction Corps — a more attractive name, I suppose, than “rubber plantations” to teenagers at the time — arrived at my campus and called on students to join them “guarding the frontier and cultivating the borderland.” Many of us, me included, applied with youthful enthusiasm, and almost everyone I knew who applied got their wish. I was spared because I was under-aged and also because some insightful adults, who viewed higher education as more important than planting rubber trees, stood in my way. In all, about 100,000 middle school students were collected from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming and sent to labor in Yunnan’s rubber plantations. The collective name for those young people was “Zhiqing,” or “Educated Youth.” Seven years of hardship and many tragic stories later, in the winter of 1978-79, those Zhiqing launched a spontaneous mass rally that has since been termed the “big return-to-city storm,” which eventually did bring them home. By then I, as one of the lucky few, had entered my second year in university, but my middle school friends who went to Yunnan missed their chance not only for university, but even for a high school education.

I had thought that the wasted youth of my 100,000 contemporaries qualified as the biggest damage caused by the rubber plantations, and that an end had been put to the practice in early 1979. Not until reading Watts’ chapter did I realize with a shock that the rubber plantations have been expanding during China’s recent economic boom and have gone on to become one of “China’s greatest ecological disasters.” The invasive species eats away at the region’s fertility and diversity, changes weather conditions and rainfall, and threatens to wipe out China’s only tropical rainforest. Many friends from my youth, through their goodwill and hard work, had unknowingly contributed to the disaster while also bringing short-term benefits to China’s industries.

In his essay titled “Invasive Species,” Watts also points out that, ironically, it was Europeans who brought rubber trees and monocultural practices to China more than a century ago. As a European himself, Josef Margraf’s effort thus could be viewed as “looking to the future by making up for the past wrongs.” “I think Josef has achieved more than any foreigner I had met,” says Watts, who also wonders loudly, “weren’t we too part of a kind of invasive species?”

Nowadays, there are over one million foreigners living in China, “many of whom are in effect economic refugees,” says Tom Carter in his introduction. The exponential growth of foreign residents compared to the late 1980s, when I first met my American husband in Chengdu, alone illustrates the now tried and true cliché “look how much China has changed!” Chinese readers of my generation, however, might also find in the book more than a few things that are unchanged, sometimes in unexpected corners. Dominic Stevenson, who fits more into the category of adventurer than economic refugee, left a comfortable life in Bangkok for China, but ended up spending two years in a Shanghai prison for being a hash smuggler along the ancient Silk Road. Stevenson’s essay, titled “Thinking Reports,” provides a rare glance at life as a foreign prisoner. A bizarrely familiar scene described in the chapter is probably unfamiliar to today’s young generation of Chinese: Stevenson and his cellmates are required to write “thought reports,” a maddening practice prevalent in the Cultural Revolution years that had “reformed” more than a few otherwise noble men into despicable informants betraying their friends. The suspense of Stevenson’s story is thus how he, a liberal-minded foreigner, will react to such a request. I can only hope the practice of “thought reporting” preserved in a prison is not going to reappear in Chinese society at large, a dreadful outlook no longer unthinkable under Xi Jinping’s rule.

But I might be too pessimistic. Simon Winchester takes my emotional ride with the expat experiences to a high point in his epilogue, where he is stuck in the void of western China’s desert alone with his dead car, toying with the prospect of perishing. “Except.” Following this emphatic pause is a cellphone signal, and his rescue because of it. “The Chinese build their infrastructure well these days, and one of the first things they have created in making their new nationwide transportation system — long before finishing the roads — is a cell phone network.” I might not agree with the author’s conclusion that China has become so successful today “precisely because it [is] not a casually planned society any more,” but that does not stop me from being in a celebratory mood when reading about a man’s life saved by China’s modern telecommunication infrastructure. This despite my own support for a neighborhood protest against the building of another cellular tower in our Boston suburb.

While my contradictory attitude might be explained away by the Chinese adage This is one time, that was another, Graham Earnshaw’s chapter “Playing in the Gray” tells a story eerily reminiscent of an earlier time. In 1872, a British businessman named Ernest Major launched one of the first and most prominent Chinese newspapers, Shen Pao, in Shanghai, which went on to lay the foundation for modern Chinese newspapers and continued publication for 77 years, until the Communists took over Shanghai in May 1949. Half a century later, in 1998, Earnshaw, again a Briton, again in Shanghai, founded “the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the communist takeover in 1949.” “Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.” This fascinating experience led Earnshaw to believe China is a place where “nothing is allowed but everything is possible.”

Perhaps that is one of the major attractions of the Middle Kingdom. In an interview with Business Insider, Tom Carter was asked, “Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?” and he answered, “All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…” Circling back to the story about Josef Margraf, the influences work both ways, and every person has a different story to tell. I ended up reading through Unsavory Elements page by page, story by story, on the train to work in the morning and, when I was lucky enough to find a seat, on the way home in the evening as well. It is an uneven book, as might be expected of any anthology. There are a few stories that come across as condescending, sentimental, or dull. But the majority of them are captivating and, as a whole, the book is unexpectedly wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Better to Let Half of the People Die," said Mao?

http://www.amazon.com/Tombstone-Great-Chinese-Famine-1958-1962/dp/0374277931
Nearly two years ago, when I translated Yang Jisheng's response to Dikötter's strange comments on Tombstone, I said I was intensely interested to find out whether Mao really said "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill," and if he did, in what context.  I received a couple of clues, but none provided the complete context, and I have been left wondering since. I even sent an email to Yang Jisheng asking if he knew about this Mao quote, but did not hear back – perhaps the email address I got from a journalist friend was no longer valid.

Amazingly, last week the answer came to me by accident, as I was reading a scholarly article written by Anthony Garnaut, a historian at Oxford, published in the journal China Information. 

In his article, "Hard facts and half-truths: The new archival history of China's Great Famine," Garnaut finds out that the Mao quote in question is not from a speech Mao delivered on March 25, 1959 as Dikötter claims, but it represents an impromptu response Mao made to Bo Yibo's report on the implementation of the industrial plan in the days that followed. "The comment is preceded by several remarks by Mao about Party oversight of the industrial sector, none of which touch upon agriculture or rural welfare." Mao was weighing in on how many projects should be undertaken to accomplish the plan set forth in Bo's report. Mao says:

If we want to fulfill the plan, then we need to greatly reduce the number of projects. We need to be resolute in further cutting the 1,078 major projects down to 500. (要完成计划,就要大減项目。1078个项目中还应該堅決地再多削減,削到500个。)

To distribute resources evenly is a way to sabotage the Great Leap Forward. (平均使用力量是破坏大跃进的办法。)

If all are unable to eat their fill, then all will die. It is better for half to die, so that half of the people can eat their fill. (大家吃不飽,大家死,不如死一半,給一半人吃飽。)

"The ‘people’ whom Mao was willing to let die of starvation turn out to be not people at all," Garnaut concludes, "but large-scale industrial projects."

I'm glad this fact is clarified, not because it mitigates Mao's guilt (it doesn't), but it supports the conclusion I reached in my LARB review of the two books by Yang and Dikötter respectively, that "the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information." This distinction is important if there are any lessons to be learned for today's leaders.

Another China scholar once wrote me – after reading my LARB review – that Mao's
monstrous moral failing was not in the motivation of starting the Great Leap Forward which turned out to be disastrous, but in his attitude toward criticism of his policies in the aftermath. I couldn't agree more with this assessment.

A question remains:  did Dikötter know what Mao meant but intentionally misinterpret it for wanting a smoking gun, or was his Chinese not good enough for him to know what he was doing?

By the way, Garnaut's article also analyzes Dikötter's repeated assaults on Yang Jisheng and his unacknowledged use of Yang's research results. I must say that, to date I still don't quite understand Dikötter's motivation in turning around on someone who had helped him generously with his research.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reviews of Unsavory Elements

I have gotten good feedback on compiling reviews for a book (example: "Reviews of Deng Xiaoping in Review").  So here is another one - today for Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China. Some of these reviews (as well as the comments they triggered) are surely interesting to read.

I also plan to write a review myself, and I can tell you beforehand that I honestly enjoyed reading most of the book. But since translation issues will be beyond the scope of my review, here I'd like to briefly discuss the translation of two Chinese phrases, which I happened to encounter in two of my favorite stories in the book. 

"思想汇报" -- in the book it's translated as "thinking reports,"  but "thought reports" might be more accurate, and read better.

"哪里哪里" -- as a modest response to praises, this is humorously translated as "Where? where?" in the book.  If you have read my posts on translation before, you would know I'm often in favor of literal translation, but here I agree with one of the book reviewers below that "Nah, nah" would be a better rendition. Note also that the question marks don't exist in the original Chinese phrase. As a bilingual reader I enjoyed and appreciate the writer's humor, but for English readers who don't know Chinese the confusion caused by  "Where? where?" might trump the humorous effect.

Now, here is my compilation of reviews as well as interviews with Tom Carter the editor, in reverse chronological order of their publication dates --

(Updated 11/5)

TheAtlantic.com, Nov. 5, 2013
http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/unsavory-elements-on-foreign-lives-in-contemporary-china/281144/

LA Review of Books, Sept. 25, 2013
http://tumblr.lareviewofbooks.org/post/62262869667/foreign-elements-a-q-a-with-photographer

The Peking Duck, Sept. 13, 2013
http://www.pekingduck.org/2013/09/unsavory-elements-edited-by-tom-carter-2/

Caixin Online, Aug. 24, 2013
http://english.caixin.com/2013-08-24/100573568.html

Asian Review of Books, Aug. 17, 2013
http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/new/?ID=1545

Business Insider, Aug. 2, 2013
http://www.businessinsider.com/unsavory-elements-by-tom-carter-2013-8

TheNanfang.com, July 22, 2013
http://www.thenanfang.com/blog/unsavory-elements-and-the-changing-nature-of-being-an-expat-in-china/

That's,  June 17, 2013
http://www.thatsmags.com/beijing/articles/15499

Chengdu Living, June 1, 2013
http://www.chengduliving.com/unsavory-elements-in-chengdu/

The Beijing Cream, May 21, 2013
http://beijingcream.com/2013/05/unsavory-elements-the-good-the-bad-and-the-boring-foreigners-of-china/

Beijing Bookworm: "A Q&A with Tom Carter," May 21, 2013
http://beijingbookworm.com/between-the-stacks/unsavory-elements-a-qa-with-tom-carter/

Time Out Shanghai, May 10, 2013
http://www.timeoutshanghai.com/features/Books__Film-Book_reviews/11883/Unsavory-Elements.html

The Beijinger, May 9, 2013
http://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2013/05/09/book-review-unsavory-elements-stories-foreigners-loose-china

Shanghaiist, May 8, 2013
http://shanghaiist.com/2013/05/08/review_unsavory_elements_earnshaw_books_tom_carter.php

 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The New American Mother

(A personal essay about my early days in America)


In pain, you know only your native language.

The fetal monitor beside me showed a running curve, no pause between contractions. I was screaming in Chinese, my American husband told me later, but the language of pain did not need translation: the midwife hurried over to offer a painkiller. I refused; I did not want to risk my baby to any drug, no matter how safe they said it was.

When the baby finally emerged, wet and squalling, the midwife encouraged my husband to cut her umbilical cord. He did it with shaking hands while, with one glance at the new life I had created, I fell into the deep sleep of exhaustion. Hours later I opened my eyes to find myself still on the delivery bed; Bob sat to the side watching me, and our tiny new baby cradled in his big arms. I wanted to see whom the baby looked like, her American father or Chinese mother, but her closed eyes and the little reddened face gave no clue. Only her rhythmic hiccups expounded the commonness among humans.

Early the next morning, a nurse came to my hospital bed asking if I had urinated. "I did a lot," I told her, trying to be complete, but my Southern Chinese tongue, which did not distinguish "l" from "n," twisted the sound of "lot" to "not." "You did, or you did not?" The nurse asked again, her face twisted in confusion. I repeated the answer. She repeated the question. Several repetitions later, the frustrated nurse left without a sure answer. I only hoped that information was not important.

*

Giving birth was not the only hard thing for me in the new land.

Bob and I were married in China, and I had come to America with him for only a few months. Shortly after my arrival, one afternoon a delivery truck brought to our door a new refrigerator Bob had just purchased. The driver, a big muscular man in a white T-shirt, demanded a $30 delivery fee. I wanted to tell him my husband had paid the fee at the store, besides I did not have the cash at hand. However I could not form a proper English sentence. I made repeated "Ah, ah" sounds, like a mute person trying to talk, and they infuriated the man. He shouted, flailing his arms, "You don't wanna pay? Heh? Heh?" I understood his Boston-accented English, but I could not make him understand me. I feared he was not trusting of my Chinese face. Our landlord, an American man at his fifties, ran downstairs and said, "Easy, easy. She's new here, she doesn't speak English. It’s only 30 bucks." He took out money from his own pocket and handed to the driver, who climbed up the truck with our landlord's money, and uttered some incomprehensible apologetic words.

*

Before our baby's birth, Bob persuaded me to attend an exercise class for expectant mothers. The first time the exercise instructor said "hold," I did not know what to do. I looked around to see what others did, but found no apparent movements. The instructor smiled at my puzzlement, "Like you were going to pee, but not," she explained. A slight laughter ensued from my classmates, all American women.

When I returned to the class for postpartum exercise, the secretary asked for my baby's picture and my comments on the experience of giving birth for the first time. The wall facing her desk was full of pictures of cute infants, all looked the same with closed-eyes, and their mothers' exhilarating notes. I told her, "It was painful." The smile disappeared from the middle-aged woman's face. After a moment she said, "Well, I'm not going to write that down."

A fellow mother beside me said, "You'll forget the pain, believe me. Then you'll want another baby!"

*

I went to Boston University's summer English school when my baby was three months old. I couldn't wait. I pumped my own milk (a very difficult and painful affair) each evening, and stored it in the new fridge. I nursed my baby in the morning, pushed her stroller with my pumped milk to the babysitter, and rode an hour on my bicycle from Belmont to BU. The bike ride was an idea of one arrow for two eagles: to save the subway fair and to lose the weight from my pregnancy. I bought the bike from a yard sale, and it cost only $15.

My class contained mostly young Japanese women, a decade younger than me perhaps. On the first day's introduction, I thought it funny that we had two Miki's. The second time I heard the name Miki, I chuckled, "Ah, Miki too!"

"My name is Miki! No Miki one, no Miki two!" the young woman yelled at me in an unexpected anger. "I said 'too,'" I tried to explain, "t-o-o," but it only made her angrier. What created me an unintended enemy the first day, my bad pronunciation, or the universality of lack-of-understanding, I was not sure.

Not a good start.

*

Katherine, the thirty-something teacher, chewed gum and gave us an assignment to make sentences from our new vocabulary. I was stuck at the word "ample." My baby did not take the pumped milk yesterday, the babysitter had told me. Should I quit the English school and stay home with her? Was she sick? I should check the color of her poop more carefully tonight.

I wrote: "A baby has ample poop."

Katherine read my sentence to the class and said it was wrong, but I did not understand why.

After class, the other Miki, the friendly one, asked me what "poop" meant. "The thing you do in bathroom," I told her. Her cheeks flushed, but she was persistent: "Which one? Big one or little one?"

The evening I asked my American husband what was wrong with my sentence. He laughed and laughed. "It's so cute! It's so cute!" He cooed to the baby, "Let's check your ample poop." He made me laugh too, but I suspected his love had handicapped his ability to teach me proper English. He enjoyed my Chinglish too much.

*

My baby cried the whole night and I did not finish my English homework. In the morning, during my hour-long bike ride to BU, it showered. I looked like a drenched chicken when I showed up at the classroom door and I was late. "Don't come in yet," Katherine frowned at me, then she turned to ask the other women students, "Who has extra clothes?"

The friendly Miki took me to her dorm in BU and made me change to her dry clothes. The shirt and the pants were a bit too short for me, but her generosity was not. We returned to the classroom twenty minutes later, and Katherine's expression softened.

Katherine paired off the students to check each other's homework, and she assigned the unfriendly Miki to me. I hesitated before saying, "I'm sorry, I did not get the time to do my homework." Miki wasted no time looking for more explanation. She shouted, in a victorious voice, to the teacher across the classroom, "She did not do the homework! She did not do the homework!" Katherine's face dropped. The entire class went quiet, and 12 pairs of eyes stared at me. I had not known this was such a big crime.

I told Katherine, and the class, about my crying baby, and my words sounded like a bad excuse. The quiet stares continued. None of the young students were married. I wasn't sure about Katherine's marital status, but I knew she was not a mother. The other day, during the lunch break, when I was looking for a store to buy a more effective milk pump, she had directed me to a bicycle shop.

Now she said, "Perhaps you should just stay home and be a good mother." Then she ordered me to leave.

I rode my bike home, crying all the way. I had always been a top student in China, from elementary to graduate school, and now I was kicked out of a class for a stupid piece of English homework.

The afternoon, Bob took off from work and drove to BU's administration office. The administrator responded to his protest by telling him that Katherine was an ambitious teacher, one of their best, and her aggressive approach was quite understandable.

I told Bob I was quitting the English school.

*

That weekend, in a Chinese friend's party, my baby sat on the floor playing with her rosy bear. She was four months old. Suddenly I heard a sound, a sound so clear, so melodious, like a pearl falling into a silver plate. It took me a moment to realize it was laughter, my baby's first laughter. I held her up, laughing too, turning around to meet Bob's equally amused eyes. The room was full of noises from the host and the guests, and no one else had noticed the most amazing, most rewarding sound in the world.

I rode my bike to BU again on Monday, my baby's first laughter following me all the way like sunshine. It made me realize that my English vocabulary would grow with her. One day—I promised myself—I would get revenge on Katherine with my first published story written in English.

(First published in MotherVerse, 2006)