Lost in Translation

August 2, 2010

in through the looking glass

The comment by Justin from Here where I Have Landed on my earlier post Things I Missed echoed my experience and feeling:

… when I tell people that I wasn’t born here, and that I came here to go to college, they’re consistently surprised, “What? But your English is so good!” like it’s completely unnatural that I can string my words together cohesively and not say “Engrish”.

I won’t lie. I have always prided myself on my “good English”. It is a skill that I have mastered on my own and therefore I believe I have earned the right to be proud of it. You know, the same way you’d be proud of your ability to speak, say, French just like the natives. Many many years ago, while I was working on my dissertation which focused on Asian Americans (both American-born and immigrants of Asian descent), I noticed and was troubled by the gap created by the (in)ability to command “good English”. Those who cannot communicate well in English are perceived as foreign, bizarre, lacking in humanity. People tend to write them off as “There is little, if not nothing, in common between us”. Stupid even. (Talking louder and slower. You know what I mean…)

<<Digression: Of course, interestingly, the above does not seem to apply to someone who speaks only French, or German. Or Spanish, depending on what the person looks like.>>

Against my advisor’s strong protest, I insisted on ending my dissertation with a rather personal essay because I believe in presenting a story from as many valid perspectives as possible, especially by people who somehow cannot “speak for themselves”, even if doing so might have negated some of the theorization I was trying to accomplish through my thesis. Since it’s been eating me alive how only 5 people have read my dissertation which represented 5 years of my life, I am going to share an abridged version of the last chapter of my dissertation here on this soapbox (aka my blog). After all, recycling is good for the earth.



The field for one’s ethnographic study is full of ‘surprises’ and ‘exceptions.’ Every time I theorized a statement or a performative moment, something else would come up that threw my analysis off balance. My theories and analyses cannot account for all individual occurrences. There is always the ‘unexpected’ that makes me think more, that makes me care more. Such is the story of Zhang, a Chinese musician who works frequently with the local theatres.

Zhang came from Mainland China. He had been studying and working in Beijing for almost forty years before he came to the United States in 1993. Zhang has to work at five jobs just to make ends meet. Other than the occasional gigs for performance and composing, he also works at a Chinese restaurant for six hours every day, and he works as a masseur/accupressurist. When Zhang was hired to perform at dinner parties and in Chinese restaurants, by the Chinese standard, it was a fall from grace. He was the master musician in China, and now in the United States he has to peddle his music in front of dinner guests who pay no attention to his existence, let alone his art.

Zhang has tremendous difficulty adjusting to life here because he knows little English, and he has neither the time nor energy to learn a foreign language. He told me that when he gets a job offer, he asks people to send him information in writing. He then looks up new words in the dictionary and only in this way does he know when and where he is supposed to show up and what, to perform. The day before the performance, he has to drive to the place, like a drill, to make sure he knows the directions. When he works with the local theatres, he needs an interpreter to help him understand what their needs are and what the performance is about. People have neither the time nor the funds to translate the whole script for him. A lot of times he has to go home and look up most of the words in the script one by one. He told me he has never had an actual conversation with people in those theatres he works with because he can’t.

“Then why don’t you go back?” I could imagine people asking him.  So I did, and he explained,

“The material life is not as good for me in this country because I was provided with an apartment and a nice salary when I was in China, as ‘First Class Composer.’  In contrast, I have to work several jobs here just to pay my rent. I can’t function normally here because I don’t have an adequate command of English. I can’t even answer the phone myself… But what makes me stay is the liberation I feel here. The freedom to create music in my own way. Nobody can tell me what to do or what not to do.”

Zhang, like many artists, would like to believe in the universality of art. He needs to believe his artistic creation can be shared by all people, and his art can bridge the differences and bring out the commonalities between people.  However, this kind of theorization does not help Zhang’s situation. The discrepancy between his belief and his reality in the United States is painfully obvious.

The language barrier looms large.

Learning English somehow has become the primary goal of Zhang’s life in the United States, a goal he does not expect to achieve because he has to work most of the time in order to survive. With his limited English, he can find work that pays only the minimum wage. A vicious cycle was started as soon as he landed here.

Zhang surmises his own predicament, “I am crippled because I don’t understand English. There is no way I can get out of this bind with my limited command of English.”

It is curious how little has been theorized about the English language as an important factor in building “Asian American”  communities/identities and, at the same time, marginalizing the non-English speaking population. There are practical and urgent issues of immigrant subjectivity regarding language skills and economic class. Just because they do not speak English does not mean their subjectivities do not exist. Nevertheless, the boundaries set up by language barriers are real and difficult to cross despite all the talks of figurative boundary-crossing. It was luck that I happen to be a native Chinese speaker, that I could talk to Zhang and, as much as I dislike this term, ‘speak for’ him.

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Zhang the question I ask every one of my interviewees: “Where is home? Is it here in the United States or is it China?” Zhang was greatly affected by this question. The tears welled up in his eyes. I was stunned. I was not prepared to deal with this situation. A great sense of guilt overwhelmed me. Here I was, in a noisy and crowded Chinese restaurant, facing a 60-year-old Chinese man in tears. I made him cry. I felt as though I had made my father cry in public.

“I am sorry.” I did not know what else to say. “I am sorry.” My voice sounded helpless. Impotent. There is nothing I could do. And there I was, with a perfect “ethnographic” subject — one with a heart-wrenching story. One who is obviously a victim of national boundaries and political upheaval and cultural alienation and economic inequality. One who cannot speak for himself in the United States. I did not know what to do but say over and over again, “I am sorry.”

Wiping his eyes, Zhang said, “It’s not your fault. It’s just that nobody has ever asked me this question all these years when I am here. Home? Exactly. Where is home for me? I think I was brought here by Fate. Fate made me come here and stay… I don’t have friends here. I don’t have anybody that I can talk ‘heart to heart.’ In China, I have buddies. Here, nobody.”

When scholars analyze and document hardships that immigrants have to go through, they forget to mention loneliness. Right after I turned off my tape recorder, Zhang sighed and said, “You know, I have been here for so long and nobody has ever bothered to ask me that question. THAT is America.” He fell into a silence.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Corey August 6, 2010 at 10:00 am

How do I say this?

I can’t believe how great this blog is! I’m shocked at what a deliciously thoughtful, wickedly intelligent, grotesquely great writer you are! Even when reading about your ridiculous camping experience, I’d occasionally pause, exhilarated in this frisson of humor, truth, silliness, yada, yada, yada. Even your readers are impressive with their comments. 😉

I am so glad you returned to your “Things I Missed” post. I missed it.

Still haunted by your Zhuangzi quote and your disorientation and “Things I hadn’t realized until”ness, it seems there is a word here I am in need of that I do not know. I used to spend much of my days naturally disoriented — probably some medical condition or my hair. One never knows. But now I’ve moved (from South Dakota to Chicago), I have just cause. I got lost getting off the el last week. Stubborn, I didn’t call anyone for help. With luck and probably more luck, I found my way…home. That’ll teach me to get lost reading while I should be paying attention to stops. Argh.

This “Lost in Translation” post, as it pulls out of what used to be a simple concept to me — home — something altogether more complicated and simpler after reading your essay. “nobody has ever bothered to ask me that question. THAT is America.” Heartbreaking. I just want to hug him and tell him I’ll ask him that question every day. But then, this would be creepy and socially inappropriate. And so, here I am. But this makes me chew on the idea of returning home, to Chicago, and being relieved that you can blend in here, qualities of “home” you talked about in your “Things I Missed” post. It seems Zhang needed the opposite, that too often we don’t pay enough attention to each other, the casualty of a city-survival mode. I still have problems NOT making eye contact with people on the sidewalks. I’m a crazy mess after just ten minutes, pep talking myself feet-at-a-time: “Look down. Look away. Don’t look at the eyes.” It’s getting better, and I truly am full functioning. Just from a small town and used to making eye contact…which in itself is exhausting. Anyhoo…

I hope you keep returning to juicy nuggets of your dissertation and weaving them into your posts. They light my mind on fire and break my heart. Just enough to be effective and yet able to maintain composure.

Thank you.
Corey´s last blog post…Win tickets to “Taste of the Nation” Aug 12th part 5


Absence Alternatives August 10, 2010 at 8:11 pm

No. Thank YOU. Thank you for taking time out to not only read my post but to compose such an extensive comment that is poignant itself. (Not to mention your referring to my other post…) Any blogger will tell you this is the highest form of flattery and confirmation. Thank you so much. I am honored. Really.


pattypunker August 4, 2010 at 11:43 am

you are my hero. i am always amazed by your talent, strength, and boldness. i can’t wait to motherfucking meet you this weekend!
pattypunker´s last blog post…calypso fairy tale


Absence Alternatives August 6, 2010 at 12:55 am

Zoing! Ditto! Seriously, I should be packing so I can get to my 7 am flight and see you all IN PERSON. Yet I am online talking to you. I am a loser… xxoo


Nance August 3, 2010 at 7:32 pm

I’m curious: when the time came to defend your dissertation before the committee came, how was the personal story about Zhang received?

He had so much more courage than I would ever have. Often, these days, when I worry about what my last years will be like in this country, all downtrodden and split apart as it seems to me now, I imagine going somewhere else to live. It would have to be an English-speaking country, I fear, for I’m convinced that I’m hopeless with languages. Our education system does such a great job of convincing us of that in America; we refer to those who are “good with languages” and expect them to be few.

I would have been tempted to hug Zhang. We impulsive Americans!
Nance´s last blog post…The Politics of Food Pass The Artillery


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

I must be turning American since I want to bear hug you too!

None of my committee members asked about the conclusion chapter. However, a professor from the major university in the city where I did the ethnographic study wrote me to say how much she was affected by it. She’s Asian American… 🙂


Erica@PinesLakeRedhead August 3, 2010 at 10:47 am

Thank you for sharing this. As a native Englingh-speaking, born in the States, generic American, it really opened my eyes. I don’t stop to think about what drives people to immigrate to the US and what sacrifices they may have to make in order to enjoy the freedoms that I’ve known since birth.

Your digression also caught my attention. It’s so true that if a person of European descent speaks English with an accent then he/she is considered exotic. But if that person is Asian and the l’s and r’s are reversed then he/she is perceived as not-so-smart.

And to think that I find it humorous when people find out I’m from New Jersey and they exclaim, “But you don’t SOUND like you’re from New Jersey!”
Erica@PinesLakeRedhead´s last blog post…Dunce


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Thank you for appreciating the perspectives I tried to bring about. And WHAT exactly is a New Jersey accent? All I can think of is Jersey Shore now. Omg. Do you all hate that show now?!


Elly Lou August 3, 2010 at 8:51 am

Oh my heart. Lovely.

…and because I always have to be a bit of an ass: look at you with the grammar and EVERYTHING!
Elly Lou´s last blog post…I Quit and Joe Scares Me


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 9:32 pm

I love your ass. I’d like to have a piece of it.


Technobabe August 3, 2010 at 7:44 am

This is more than just good writing; this is putting a spotlight on a deeply humane interview that leaves the reader with a relationship with a 60 year old Chinese man living in America.
Technobabe´s last blog post…Why I Cant Do Sundays In My City Yet


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Many many thanks. *blushing*


Justine August 3, 2010 at 7:38 am

I would love to read your dissertation. Really, I would – and I will hound you until I see a copy in my hands (or on my computer). I have so much to say on this, I don’t even know where to begin, although I have a feeling you already know what they are since our experience is rather similar.

I love that you titled your post “Lost in Translation”, which is so appropriate considering the movie by the same name that portrays the loneliness and melancholy you speak of in your dissertation. The interview with Zhang had me in tears. While my loneliness does not compare to his, I completely understand where he’s coming from, and have experienced it myself to a degree. Coupled with homesickness, it’s sometimes more than a soul can bear.

Fantastic post. And it’s not just because I was quoted in the beginning – although I must say it does add to the je ne sais quois of this piece. Ha ha ha. Hey, it’s my birthday month – I get to be narcissistic! (As I’m sure you would understand, Ms. July) 🙂
Justine´s last blog post…Hi- my name is Justine and I am a…


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Dear Miss August, aka Center Fold, your wonderful and heartfelt comment is a great post in its own. Xxoo


TheKitchenWitch August 3, 2010 at 5:35 am

Whoever advised you to leave that part out was stone-cold nuts. It’s beautiful, powerful, and brings your point home like no measure of “Eduspeak” could. It’s a brilliant addition.
TheKitchenWitch´s last blog post…Raspberry Smash


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I guess “personal was considered to be “not serious” enough. Thank you for the kind words!


virginia August 2, 2010 at 11:26 pm

That was incredible. I felt his loneliness and isolation through what you described. I was not born here either and often I get that “but you speak English so well!” which to me is a statement borne out of ignorance and stereotypes. I would love to read more of your dissertation.


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 4:42 am

Thank you so much! I wonder how pursuing a PhD would be different now from when I was at school.


alejna August 2, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Oh, that was so powerful. I’m really glad you shared this. Among other things, it makes me want to read more of your dissertation.

I feel like I should say more, but I need to go to bed.
alejna´s last blog post…a day at the zoo


Absence Alternatives August 3, 2010 at 4:44 am

Thank you! This is more encouragement and validation than I could have imagined!


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