ASIAN CHA Issue#11 Editorial

Bathing in a Ski-Suit: Writing in a Second Language

Background: On 30th April, 2010, I gave a speech at the official launch of VAANI, a group of Asian women writers and artists based in London. The launch was part of the 8th Annual Redbridge Book and Media Festival, and I was one of three speakers for the evening. Apart from discussing Cha and reciting my poems, I also shared my experience of writing in a second language. The editorial for this issue is based on part of that speech.

I’m originally from Hong Kong, and I grew up at the end of British colonial control in the city. I was in late secondary school when the handover occurred. English had been the city’s official language, in education, in law, in governance and in commerce for more than a century. Unsurprisingly, this all started changing with the handover of Hong Kong back to China in July 1997. Although English was and still is a very visible language in the city—road signs are all bilingual, for example, not all of the citizens speak the language, or at least not comfortably and daily. Most locals speak a Chinese dialect, such as Cantonese (my first language), Mandarin, Hakka and others. My parents, for example, do not speak much English except some very simple words such as Yes, No, Good Morning, Good Night. Thank You. OK, Not OK.

As for myself, I received a largely English-language education in secondary school and eventually I went to The University of Hong Kong, where I studied English Literature and Translation. Before university, I mainly wrote, if I wrote creatively, in Chinese (it is natural that one begins with one’s first language). It was only at HKU that I started to write in English. I suppose it was the intellectual environment, good professors and the daily contact with literature that got me interested in English writing in a more engaged way. The impetus of my own writing was an idle afternoon in the university library. I spent a lot of time back then studying there, and one day, out of boredom, I guess, I picked up a literary journal which was on a nearby shelf. I remember the title of that journal, Ambit, which is based in my current home of London. (Carol Ann Duffy, the British poet laureate, was one of its former editors.) To be honest, I do not remember a word of the works I read. But I do recall I read poetry, and I remember I liked it, and that I thought to myself: maybe I could write some, too. It is not as if I had never read or studied poetry before that moment—I had taken literature classes in secondary school and there was a poetry module in my wonderful first-year course “Introduction to English Studies”—but there was something about seeing poems, not in a book, not in a bound course pack, but in a slim journal, that excited me. That’s how I started. I was lucky to have my first works, both poetry and a short story, published in the university’s literature journal, Yuan Yang, set up by the Malaysian poet Shirley Lim. And I have not stopped writing since then.

When we talk about Asian writers writing in English, I think there are actually two very broad categories. The two that I can think of, and I am sure there are many more subtle ones, would be those who use English as a first language and those who use English as a second or even third language. The first group of writers tend to be born and bred in an English-speaking country and are thus able to use English as a first language or pseudo-first language, even though their parents may not speak it very well. The second group of writers, I would say, tend to be born and bred in a non-English speaking country and English is a language of contact but not of necessity. For them, writing in English is often a matter of choice and a sign of passion.
I know that I am over-generalising here, there are surely very talented bilingual (or multi-lingual) writers who can switch between two (or more) languages without much difficulty. But I think this is an important distinction that ought to be made and remembered, because the writing experiences between these two groups of writers can be very different. A character in the Chinese author Fan Wu’s novel Beautiful as Yesterday says, “Speaking English is like taking a bath with my clothes on,” a feeling that some readers who speak or write in a second language may find familiar. What Wu is describing in essence is a sense that there is a filter between what we intend to say and what we actually say. Of course, everyone speaking and writing in any language, even their first tongue, have moments where there is a gap between what they intend and what they deliver. (Surely, this is one of the greatest challenges of writing.) Indeed we all, to some extent, take baths with our clothes on. It is just that native speakers might be wearing swimsuits, whereas non-native speakers are wearing ski-suits.

Have I ever wanted to shed my ski clothes and be completely, comfortably naked so that fragrant hot water can become my glistening second skin? Have I at least wanted to have the ski-suit replaced by bikini? You bet. But this desire has subsided a great deal in recent years, especially since I have come to realise the foolishness of having an inferiority complex towards my relationship with the language. Some readers may ask: why do I use English instead of Chinese, at all? Why make things difficult, by exiling yourself in a second language? I have been asked about my language choice many times in the past, and for a long time, I felt I was never able to give a satisfactory answer. Now I wonder if it is to a certain extent a question without a satisfactory answer. In many cases, it seems to be more a question in search of a justification on the part of the author than an honest explanation. I remember in a joint-interview which took place five years ago, my friend Ellen Lai (author of the Chinese collection, Except for Spiders and Psychotic Women) commented, “They don’t ask you why you’re playing a Western musical instrument […] But if you’re writing in English, they’ll ask you why you don’t say it in Chinese.” Exactly. Imagine if every Asian family had to defend their decision to enrol Wing and Yoko in violin or piano lessons!
I learnt (as opposed to ‘was taught’) English in my formative years and for better or worse, I now see it as my default instrument for writing. I freely play my own poetic music on it, tuning my instrument to suit different registers and ranges. Just as Asian music often focuses on tones which sound foreign to Western ears, I can use words and grammatical structures differently than a native speaker to bring foreign thoughts and sounds into the language. My deployment of the language is more personal than ideological or political, although of course the personal is inevitably political, especially when it comes to language. (I suspect the central role of language in culture and identity explains why people question my not writing in Chinese, but do not wonder about the motivations of Asians playing Bach. Music may be important to our cultural identity, but it is surely not as crucial as language.) I cannot deny I am, neither proud nor ashamed, a by-product of colonialism and postcolonialism, and that therefore my use of English in some sense has deep political roots. But I have no intention to use my acquired tongue in Caliban’s fashion: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t /Is, I know how to curse.” (I am no Caliban, anyway: I have a powerful first language which I treasure greatly and use regularly.) Instead I hope to use English as a way of expressing one particular Asian identity, as a means of exploring my own personal, Chinese themes.
In this goal, I find the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s comment on writing in a second language very insightful and resonating. His response to the question “Can [an African writer] ever learn to use English as a native speaker?” was:

I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience.

I think this is a perfect piece of advice for creative writers whose first language is not English but have made a choice to use the language anyway: you do not need to use English as a native speaker. You just need to use it honestly and your experience will shine through whatever medium you use. Take it from me, shedding your ski-suit is easier than you think.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
26 May, 2010

12 thoughts on “ASIAN CHA Issue#11 Editorial

  1. Thanks, Tammy, for this lovely, insightful piece.

    I, too, wrestle with questions of language and have often been asked why I don't write in Chinese even though English is my native language and I (shamefully so) speak little to no Chinese. It is important to acknowledge that each of us brings our own inflection to the language(s) that we choose to write in. There is no rule for what kind of poet may or may not employ English, just as there is no strictly defined “proper way” to use English (or not use it) in one's poetry — the language itself is far from static, always changing and shifting in new directions.


  2. Yes, Tammy! Actually, it's not just English Hong Kongers feel alien to, but also Chinese (Mandarin). We speak Cantonese, a vernacular, never a native language. Why should one feel inferior or embarrassed just because one isn't native? Perhaps, we were too used to judging ourselves that way in classes when we were young. Often we feel that our accent and language are not as “pure” and we should try hard to “sound” like pure or we are not “good” or “smart”! We're the hybrid? The others? Have you seen the ridiculous print-ad of the English Town – a language education centre – an Asian girl smiling, showing her tongue painted like the British national flag. I wonder why we should always look up for the “centres” as models and authority? Why are we living on the periphery in both English and Chinese (Mandarin) worlds? Why can't we embrace our own variety and language history? Can we, Hong Kong people, feel great about using English/ Mandarin and be proud of our own culture and language? Maybe Like a fragrant blend of Yuan Yang (“coffee-tea”) as PK puts it in poetry, we could stop struggling with the inferiority complex and appreciate the taste of our culture and language.


  3. The great Nabokov used ESL (English as a Second Language) to his advantage by playing with it in ways that only a non-native speaker could. (Pnin was a classic example.) And the famous Chinese writer Ha Jin is a master of injecting his native expressions into English, injecting fresh, surprising flavors into his foreign tongue. Rather than focusing on the handicap, a writer using ESL can focus on the glass half-full.


  4. Thank you for this very interesting and also well written piece. I do not write poetry in English, but I still use the language as a tool in writing that I could also do in my native language. One reason I do so is to reach a wider (or different) audience. Another reason is that I love the English language for its elegance and wit. So it is about selecting the tool that you think is best for the job, but also the tool that you enjoy to use.


  5. Hello and dear Tammy,

    I have been a follower of your blog and the Cha journal for a while. I must say, I could relate to this post a lot. You've said everything I wanted to say and perhaps even answered some questions for me. I am also born and bred in HK and I moved over to Australia to study writing a few years ago. I also question myself at times why I'd chosen to write in English and not Chinese (although I attended an Intl' school)and often times I do feel a bit handicapped as the way I speak or write is different from locals. But I do see a benefit in it now, thanks to you and Vladimir Nabakov ;). Indeed, English was a Germanic language, very much a mixture of latin, french and German. So language and the use of it is constantly evolving and that's what makes it so interesting!


  6. Dearest Tammy
    Thanks a lot for mentioning VAANI in your online Editorial journal. Your poetry is fantabulous and easy to fall in love with! A very strong voice indeed.


  7. Dear Tammy,

    Thank you for writing this. It's very insightful and I have to say I can really relate to what you said, especially on how Hong Kongers tend to feel inferior than their Western counterparts when they use English. I'm Chinese but I feel more comfortable using English; I simply adore the language. I really like your example of Asians playing Western instruments – it aptly describes the situation at hand. I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way and you have written a wonderful piece.


  8. I recently came across Cha and I am immensely impressed by what I have read and discovered. I am not from HK but my father is Chinese. I was not fully exposed to his language since I was young. I have never mastered any language actually. I am using English most of the time when I write but I do not use it when I talk to people. I need to use local dialects and my native tongue which is Filipino. Sometimes, I find it so difficult to be constantly shifting to English, Filipino and my local dialects. And I think this has been my major struggle as a writer. I have not mastered any of these languages until now.


  9. Hello,

    as one who is native Finnish, but has just published his first novel in Engish (Tulagi Hotel, by Diiarts, April 2010) I can only agree with the original poster, and thank her for the post. It was a long journey from inception to book on store shelves, but one I loved for its dual nature. I could think of things to happen in my own language and then turn them into actual text in another, or, have the entire process run in English.

    i doubt the book would ever have been published had I written it in Finnish, but now that it's out, I am looking forward to interacting with writers in the same situation as I am.


    Heikki Hietala


  10. I loved to read the editorial, partly because it comes close to probably many native authors' dilemmas. For me, there have always been two first languages, strangely: Hindi and English. My parents hardly speak any English, and in my school, though officially an English-medium one, there wasn't much interaction. Yet, somehow, I got hooked onto dictionaries at three maybe, and from there on, books. First geography, then the novels. Since the time I can remember, I think in English, whenever I talk to myself it is in English. I have always written in English.
    But then, when it comes to talking to other people, I do not find English naturally forthcoming: I do not know a lot of idioms that would be forthcoming easily in Hindi, nor even vocabulary for certain things that one never encounters in fiction and yet are so much part of one's everyday life. It is a strange dichotomy, but I also love it: because of this wiredness, I can communicate things in English a bit differently than what the world is used to, I can manipulate language. Now that I am learning French, I love to consciously play with the manipulation; but the most I love is the unconscious manipulation that happens because of my “two” first languages: Hindi and English.


  11. I sometimes describe my experience as speaker of Greek, English and (a little) German, like falling through the cracks between three languages. At other times, I feel happy to harvest ideas and metaphors from all three.
    But what lurks in the gaps between languages, where first and second languages cannot be made to, or simply do not, fit perfectly? And, thinking concretely, what is underneath these languages? Isn’t the space that surrounds language – lapping at its borders, a silence bursting to speak, often kept from forming words – a background to communication, also a sort of ‘language’?
    Without going into the terms that linguists have developed to characterize this ‘language,’ and without considering the postcolonial themes involved in East-West discourse and the ability, or the absence of it, to speak as a subject, I wish to point to a description in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide. “…Words are just air,” a character says, “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.”
    Might it be the case that it is in this underwater stream, and beneath what we usually conceive as language that the first, original ‘language’ exists? If so, isn’t it in this ‘language,’ a sort of amniotic fluid, where we first all meet, ‘swim’ and speak as humans?
    So, after all, falling through the cracks is not so…


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