(Below is the speech I presented on the evening of August 7th at Richmond Public Library, BC, Canada.)
Good evening, everyone. I am very happy to be here. Thank you, Richmond Public Library, for letting me be here. Thank you, Wendy, for giving me this chance. And thank you, Karin, who trusts and supports me. I’m here to tell you some of the personal stories behind this book, Beijing Women. This book is a collection of four stories I wrote in the 1990s, when I was living in China. They were originally written in Chinese. More than ten years after they were first published, Professor Shuyu Kong decided to translate them into English.
From their first appearance in Chinese to this English version, my personal life has taken several turns. The English version of the book came out last year, and it is used in a number of universities for students studying topics such as Chinese literature in translation, Chinese women writers, et cetera. This is a prospect that I never foresaw in 1990s when I wrote them. It is the translator’s recreation that made this book go so far. Sometimes, I feel that this book, the English translation of my stories, has very little to do with me. On the other hand, it is precisely this feeling that gave me a whole new perspective of my work, as if seeing it across time and space. Many things happened in my life between the publishing of the Chinese and English versions. Among them, the biggest one is my immigration to Canada in 2006.
Before immigrating to Canada in 2006, I had published six books in Chinese, including four novels, one short story collection, and one collection of essays. I was a sign-on writer for the Beijing Writers’ Association for five years. I immigrated to Canada as a self-employed professional writer. So, I was expected to make a living by writing, and I truly believed that I was going to do that, since that was what I was good at. I chose to settle down in Richmond, British Columbia, because I knew there were already a good number of ethnic Chinese people living here, so the transition would be easier. And I was right. I don’t remember feeling that cultural shock during the process of settling down. After about a month’s time, I settled down into an apartment. And then I turned on my computer, ready to write.
Virginia Woolf once said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction, and I had a room of my own. Not only did I have one, but I also had one in the country of my choice. A country I thought would better my life and my career. I sat at my desk every morning. But half a year went by and I achieved nothing. I created dozens of new Word documents on my computer, but with every piece I could only go as far as about a thousand words. Most of them were bits and pieces, random recordings of fleeting moments. I had lost the ability to tell a story from beginning to end. So, what happened? Wasn’t I still sitting inside the walls of my own room? I figured that maybe it did matter where the room was located. Maybe I needed to care about what was going on outside my window after all.
Anyway, since my writing wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to find myself a job. I was very lucky to find a job with Ming Pao, a Chinese newspaper headquartered in Hong Kong. I worked as a copywriter there. There were five people in our office, which is to say that the office was a world larger than my own room. I was pretty happy with my working life, but it was still limited and somewhat isolated. From my point of view, the most exciting position in a news agency is covering breaking news, but I couldn’t take that position because I had a family to take care of. I couldn’t be on standby for twenty-four hours. I still remember the Friday afternoon in 2007 when a small plane crashed into a high-rise in downtown Richmond. In the heat of the moment, my colleagues rushed out with their cameras and lenses, while I went home like I always did. Although I sat two desks away from them, I read about the accident the same way other readers did—when the newspaper came out the next morning.
So I thought this was no fun. By 2009, I had saved up a small fortune, so I decided to go back to school. Since I had always wanted to write film scripts, I went to Vancouver Film School to study just that. Life at VFS was insanely busy and challenging. My graduation film was a seven-minute short film that was selected by the New Asia Film Festival in 2010. The young actress won an award the following year. The other piece of my graduation work was a feature length script based on my real experiences as an immigrant. My instructors at VFS said it had a lot of potential. Later, I realized that when you’re told your work has potential, it means it isn’t good enough. But, at the time, I felt encouraged. After graduation, I went on to polish my script.
I resumed my routine of sitting in my room and turning on my computer every morning. It was then 2010, almost four years after I first landed in British Columbia. I thought that I had so much real experience. I thought that since I had learned better storytelling mechanics at VFS, there was no reason why I couldn’t write a great script.
But still, my writing didn’t go anywhere.
In 2012, I moved back to China. There were several reasons behind this decision. First off, my husband needed to take care of his business. Secondly, I wanted my children to learn some Chinese. Surprisingly, during the process of moving back, I experienced reverse culture shock. I suddenly had a different perspective when I looked back at my experience as an immigrant. Then, a magical thing happened. I dug out from my computer the old, abandoned beginnings written when I first moved to Canada. From fragmented notes and dead-end plots, I suddenly saw characters and stories. All of the old, blurry memories suddenly made sense.
So, I guess you can’t write about an experience while you’re still experiencing it. I couldn’t write about immigration because I was still in the process of immigrating. Only after going back to my home country did I realize what immigration meant to me. Thus, after returning to Beijing, I was finally able to join the fragments of my memory together and construct complete stories.
From 2012 until now, I have been living in Beijing. I have published five stories about immigrants’ lives in Canada. As a Canadian, I was selected to translate Alice Munro’s short stories into Chinese. After completing the translation, I am going to Ontario next week to visit Alice Munro’s birthplace. I am also currently writing a column for a Chinese weekly magazine named Caixin Weekly. In short, I’m really enjoying my life living in China as an overseas Canadian.
Last year, my husband’s permanent resident card was due to renewal. I filled out the application form on his behalf. In the past five years, he had not been physically present in Canada for the required 730 days, but according to Section 28.2, as long as he is living with me, a Canadian, the days he spent outside Canada are counted to toward residency obligation.
We flew from Beijing to Vancouver, and while he did receive his maple card, we also received a warning.
“You are abusing our system,” the immigration officer said.
“Why would you say that?” I asked. I was very surprised.
He explained, “The system was designed to benefit Canadians who have to work overseas. In the case of your family, your husband should be doing housework to support you.
So I asked him, “Is that what the law says?”
He replied, “Yes, that is my interpretation. I believe that the government is going to change. I don’t know why they haven’t done that yet. The message I’m trying to convey here is that I’d like to see your commitment to Canada. Do not tell me that you have been trying to sell your business but you just couldn’t find a buyer. You should try harder. You have chosen this country and you should have committed yourself five years ago.”
Now I understand that what he said was only his personal opinion, but he raised a question that I have asked myself many times since then. Had I been ready to dive head first into a commitment when I immigrated to Canada? I have to say I hadn’t been. In all the years past, I constantly calculated and weighed my options between Canada and China, wondering what advantages I could take from either side.
And this reflection led to a memory from when I was studying at VFS. One day, the class was workshopping my script. And since the main character in my script was a new immigrant, it sparked casual conversation about stories of immigration that they knew. One of my classmates told us a story of how his mother immigrated to Canada in the 1960s from Russia. The first time his mother went to a department store looking for lipstick, the sales woman asked what color she was looking for. His mother was shocked because back in Russia there was only one color of lipstick, and she had no idea that lipsticks could come in different colors. My classmate said, “Feel free to use this detail in your script.” And I thought, “No, that couldn’t be my character’s reaction to a department store. My character is from twenty-first century China. We have all sorts of colors of lipsticks back in China. We have market economy in China.” While I didn’t say that aloud, I asked myself the inevitable question: why did I choose to leave China in the first place?
This book, Beijing Women, reminded me of the answer to that question. The four stories were written in 1990s, when the market economy in China was just emerging and the conflicts between different social classes and between genders were brewing. When I read my stories in English, my feelings, my frustration, and most of all, my powerlessness came back. And I think the key word here is powerlessness. Although China’s economy was booming, as an individual, I had felt that I was not able to change any of the injustice I saw. So I ran away.
Now, I’m not bringing this up to defend my running away, nor does it need to be defended. I am bringing this up because I think that it caused some side effects that I need to recognize. On the surface, I was content with my immigration to new country, to be able to afford a new life, but in the back of my mind, I felt guilty for abandoning my birth country. I like to call it the original sin of all immigrants. The reason I couldn’t carry on with my writing, the reason I encountered writer’s block in 2006, is because I didn’t come to terms with my guilt.
I’ve realized that the immigration officer’s accusation didn’t just apply to my husband’s immigration status. Lack of commitment and loophole-finding was always a part of my behavior, and it affected some of the plots in my stories. I am still so deeply entangled in the mindset of my old world because I survived it by navigating through its moral ambiguity. The culture of using and abusing rules and regulations left its mark on me.
And those are the stories behind this English version that I wanted to share with you. I wanted to tell you about what translation and immigration can do to a writer’s life and career. Before moving on to reading my story, I want to tell you how Karin fit in the picture of my personal realization. Karin made a documentary, Made in China, about the story of several Chinese children adopted by Canadian family. It is a tearjerker. I watched the faces and expressions of the adopted girls and I couldn’t help but thinking about my children. My children moved to Canada with me when they were both young. They have Chinese faces, of course, but they talk and act the way Canadian children do—the same way the children in the film do. So I wonder, even though my kids have always lived under my roof, what kind of person are they going to become? Will I recognize them after they’ve grown up? I’m sure that’s always going to be a challenge for the first generation of immigrants.
A Chinese writer named Ge Fei once told a story. When he was little and lived in his hometown, there was an old man in his neighborhood. The old man was considered a lunatic because he liked to stop random people on the street and mumble to them, but no one could make out any meaningful words. As a young boy, Ge Fei was terrified by the crazy old guy and tried to avoid him. At age of eighteen, Ge Fei went off to a big city for his education. After many years, when he went back to visit his parents, he met the crazy old man on the street again. This time, he didn’t run away. Instead, he tried to listen what he had to say. To his surprise, the mystery was very simple. The old man was merely speaking in English. The idea is that sometimes in order to understand something, you need to gain experience from elsewhere first.
V. S. Naipaul’s Nobel lecture is titled “Two Worlds.” For Naipaul, the whole purpose of his life and writing is to understand who he is. But in order to do that, he needed to go outside of his grandmother’s house and travel somewhere else. And I guess I am lucky because I, too, have two worlds. And with the two worlds come a twofold responsibility. And that is the lesson I need to learn for the rest of my life.