Born in China, Writing in English

April 5, 2016 | By | 6 Replies More

weina-randelWhen I told my friends in China that I wrote two novels about Empress Wu, their favorite empress, the first thing they asked was, “Is it in Chinese?”

It’s a legitimate question, I understand, since I was born and grew up in China. I went to school in China, too, and learned the basics of the English language in college, so it’s fair to say I was educated in China as well, although how much I retain the knowledge is questionable.

It’s also true that I didn’t start to speak English on a daily basis until I came to Texas, when I was twenty four years old.

So it was surprising for my friends with whom I grew up that I actually wrote two novels in English, and for my friends in the U.S. they were surprised as well, that I could write in English, which is my second language.

“How did you write in English when it’s your second language?” they often asked me. “Do you think in Chinese and translate it into English when you write?”

25577005Well, I wrote the two novels, The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, in the same old fashion that many fiction writers followed – by writing persistently, and I’m not the first Chinese who wrote novels in English either. I know there are many talented people who wrote in second language, and I’m sure they all have interesting insights to share.

For me, when I write, I don’t think about Chinese. I keep the two languages separate and store them in two different chambers in my head as I dive into the creative world. As I write, I follow the English grammar, immerse myself in the fictional world, thinking about the characters, plot, and the setting, and write in a style that I feel authentic to the characters. When I’m taking a break from writing, I also think, speak, and dream about my characters in English.

English is very different from Chinese, we all know that, and the two languages have their own grammatical rules and their own expressive power and beauty. I love the English grammar, the basic subject, verb, and object structure. To me, it makes a logical sense and simplifies the thinking process. The Chinese language has this structure, too, but it’s not required. For example, in English, a sentence usually goes, “Where would you like to go?” In Chinese, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Go where?” The omission in subject is also accepted in formal Chinese writing, whereas in English academic writing, even a sentence fragment is discouraged.

There are other differences between Chinese and English, too, but this would be the major one between them, I think, that in English, it is important to use a subject; in Chinese you don’t have to.

But the Chinese language is rich, drenched in imagery – it is often called a pictographic language, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and this pictographic feature tends to evoke a vivid sense of imagery in a sentence or even in a single word. I love this feature in Chinese. I love to spend hours reading classical Chinese poetry, just to savor a kaleidescope of images sparkling before my eyes, and when I write, I prefer to have a visual scene before me.

51-lEpA0TwL._AC_UL320_SR218,320_If I try to think in Chinese and translate it into English, this is when everything messes up. The grammatical rules of Chinese and English fight in my head. I have to dig deep into the vocabulary cell to find the equivalent for each language, and sometimes I have trouble finding them, and organizing the sentences correctly takes hours. Consequently, writing in a consistent, compelling flow, creating a mood that’s essential to fiction, employing a voice that the character speaks becomes even more challenging. Also the process of characterization and plot slows down. It gets very frustrating.

I’ve been living in the U.S. for almost fifteen years now, and I’ve been speaking and writing in English for almost that long. Most of the time, the two languages mark their own colonies and reign my head peacefully: when I speak to my husband and kids, I use English, and when I speak to my friends and family in China, I switch to Chinese. When I email them, typing in Chinese, it’s fine too since it’s only for a short moment and as long as I stop thinking about Chinese after I hang up the phone, my brain reverses to English.

The problem arises when I try to interpret sentences using two, or three, languages. When I went to visit my family in China in December, 2015, I communicated as an interpretor for my husband and kids, who only speak English, my friends, who only speak Chinese, and my parents, who only speak the local dialect of my home town – different from Chinese, and also my true mother tongue. I interpreted from Chinese to English to my husband and kids, English to Chinese to my friends, and English to the local dialect to my parents. It was such an interesting experience! I paused many times, and I kept stuttering, jumbling all the languages together, and I even had trouble articulating my thoughts.

I have no doubt that living in the U.S. and speaking and writing in English daily have an immerse effect on my brain, and maybe, if I relocate to China, I would be compelled to write in Chinese as well. Jhumpa Lahiri has done that. Deciding to write in Italian, she relocated to Italy and wrote the memoir called In Other Words.

Weina Dai Randel is the debut author of The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, historical novel series of Empress Wu, known as the Chinese Cleopatra. Weina was born and raised in China. She has worked as a journalist, a magazine editor, and an adjunct professor. She received an M.A. in English from Texas Woman’s University and now lives in Texas.
Read more about her on her website
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  1. Past and upcoming blogs and interviews | Weina Dai Randel | April 9, 2016
  1. What a fantastic achievement. I don’t speak or read Chinese, but I have many friends who do. Many were born in China or Hong Kong. Many grew up here but had to communicate with family members who only spoke Chinese. I have often been present and heard the language, and can tell how different it is than English even in sounds. The difference in writing is obvious.

    My husband is a Serbian immigrant and after over 50 years here he still has trouble using articles and pronouncing certain consonants because of the difference in alphabets. I felt the same way as I studied his language. He still has trouble with English spelling, since his language is completely phonetic. Your mastery of two such different languages is probably very good for your brain.

    I read and review many books for children and young adults, and I’ve much enjoyed those by Laurence Yep. His fiction and autobiography have helped me understand my Chinese friends better, as well as much of what part the Chinese have played in my own California history.

    One of my close friends who used to frequent our home so often when he was in college that we gave him a key is now a prominent member of the Chinese community in Los Angeles. Only now I see how little I really knew about his own family’s leadership in that community and how much of Chinatown they owned. He never mentioned those things, since most of what he talked about was personal. I only found out when he grow up, his parents died, and he carried on with what they had started.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Barbara. Really appreciate this. I’ll check out Laurence Yep’s books since you speak highly of them. So glad to hear you’re friends with a Chinese. He sounds like a decent man. 🙂

  2. I enjoyed this article. As an English author who speaks fairly fluent Chinese, I am in awe that you wrote a book in your second language! I learned Chinese by teaching in my local Take-Away – so am now fluent in Mandarin with a strong FuJian accent! I completely agree with your point about the visual nature of Chinese writing. Because each character represents a ‘thing’ rather than a ‘word’ (unlike English, where letters make words) the reader does tend to see the image rather than simply hearing the word. So the imagery is very strong, especially when reading emotive words.

    • I’m impressed that you learned to speak Mandarin this way. But this is actually very smart — it encourages interaction and interaction encourages you to think and speak the language more effectively. Thank you for sharing your experience, Anne!

  3. An interesting article, which I could relate to. My mother tongue is English, but I also speak German, and live in Germany. I do believe that speaking two languages can feed and multiply an author’s choice of words.

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