Who Am I? – From Fan Wu
Fan Wu was born on a farm in Jiangxi Province, where her parents were exiled during the Cultural Revolution. Despite poverty and isolation, the farm provided her with boundless freedom and joy.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature from Sun Yat-Sen University, she went to work in Shenzhen, the first Special Economy Zone in China, transformed from a fishing village to a bustling metropolis in a decade. During her three years there, she held varied jobs and traveled extensively. A scholarship from Stanford University brought her to America, and after earning an MA in Mass Media Studies, she joined Yahoo!, a Silicon Valley-based Internet company.
She started to write in 2002, five years after she came to America. Her debut novel, February Flowers (2006), has been translated into eight languages, and her second novel, Beautiful as Yesterday (2009), was also published in multiple countries. Her short fiction, besides being anthologized and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared in Granta, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She writes in both English and Chinese, and often translates her own writing between the two languages. She lives in northern California with her Swedish husband and their two kids.
It is two am. I take my 4-year-old daughter’s temperature and give her medicine. She’s had a fever for four days. As I pray that her fever will be gone the next day and curse my husband’s untimely business trip, I hear my one-year-old son coughing and crying in his room. He’s also sick. I put my daughter back to bed and rush to my son, who by now is crying more vigorously. By the time I return to my own bed it’s almost three am. This wonderful motherhood experience, I say to myself, managing a smile. I’m tired, but I cannot help thinking about the novel I’ve started writing recently, a historical novel set in the early twentieth century. Outside, it’s raining heavily—a rare storm in California, now my home. Then my mind drifts to my childhood, my family and friends in China, my school days at Stanford…….
I was born and raised on a state-run farm in Jiangxi Province. The farm was built in 1961, reportedly used to accommodate prison inmates from Fujian Province, on the coast next to Taiwan, in case war broke out between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. The war didn’t happen but the farm stayed, along with the prisoners and the jailers relocated from Fujian. There were also other residents: exiled intellectuals such as my parents, along with their families, zhi qing (educated youth) and previous Red Guards. Throughout most of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the farm was as populous as a burgeoning town.
By the time my father had taught me (at barely age three) calligraphy, the Cultural Revolution had ended and Chairman Mao had died, though my parents had to stay on the farm for another seven years, making their total residence on the farm twenty-two years. Despite my parents’ misery, I enjoyed farm life tremendously. As the youngest of five children in the family and the only girl, I was a tomboy. I played war games, climbed trees, caught fish and eels from the river and stole fruit from the community orchards. Because the schoolwork was easy and our parents worked long hours, my friends and I were not well supervised and wandered about a lot. After school, we often raced on foot along a potholed dirt road used mainly by tractors and cows, trotted through a dried-up swamp and climbed the riverbank to see the Bo Yang Lake, a fresh-water lake that merged into the Yangzi River at a city called Nine Rivers. While hanging out together, we sang a children’s song popular at that time.
Our country is a garden,
Where the flowers are blossoming,
When the warm sun shines on us,
We smile radiantly.
In 1983, my four brothers and I left the farm with my parents to live in Nanchang, a city nicknamed City of Heroes because of its revolutionary history. Seven years later I moved again, this time to Guangzhou, a dazzling metropolis in southern China, where I studied Chinese Literature and Language at Sun Yat-sen University. February Flowers, my first novel, is based on my college days. It’s about friendship and coming of age, also about innocence or its loss. The book is not autobiographical but the protagonist—a girl who tries to find the meaning of life in complex philosophical books—shares characteristics with my young self.
After graduation I worked in Shenzhen, the first Economic Special Zone in China, where a special entrance visa was required for non-residents. I remember how my first paycheck, almost ten times what my mother, a college librarian, earned in Nanchang, stunned my family and friends. Yet, the job was not for me, a self-labeled idealist. Neither was the city, with its skyscrapers and tacky neon. I was restless, switching from job to job, until I decided one day that I had to see the world.
On a summer day in 1997, I sat in a classroom looking out on an oval garden flanked with elegant palm trees. I was now a graduate student at Stanford University. Though I tried to give my full attention to the bearded professor, who spoke English with a heavy French accent, I kept glancing at the several students sitting lazily on the floor, chewing gum as if they were on a beach. In front of me, a white girl was wearing so little that only a fragile string covered her back. Next to me, a tall black boy was taking notes diligently, his hair braided into long, thick ropes and held by colorful bands. I don’t know why, but the sight of my fellow classmates relieved me. I didn’t know them, just as they didn’t know me; finally, I was starting afresh.
Several months into my new life, I dreamed one night of my 91-year-old grandma, an illiterate country woman who had worked hard all her life. In my dream she asked how I was doing and said she missed me. When I woke up I realized with a feeling of absurdity that she was speaking English to me, not her kejia dialect. I cried that day. Yes, I had gained a new country, new friends, unprecedented freedom in thinking and expressing my opinions, and drastically improved English. But how much had I lost in the process?
Time flew by. I graduated and got my practical-training permission from INS. I found a job at an Internet company in Silicon Valley, where 95% of the people I knew were either hardware or software engineers. I became an H-1B visa holder. I started my green card application through my company. I grew jaded at my work. I began to write. It was 2002, five years after I had arrived in America.
Many nights and weekends I locked myself in my tiny room and wrote. It was my passion, also my escape. Living in the U.S. had forced me to reexamine my past, my cultural heritage, my own people. I was particularly intrigued by the impact of history and politics on the lives of normal people in China, where wars and tumults dominated in the past century. Everyone in China, it seemed to me, was carrying a burden of five thousand years of history.
I wrote in English because I wanted to master my adopted language. But the more I wrote the more clearly I saw my limitations: language isn’t merely a means of expression, it’s a mindset, part of the inner dialog, and it makes one the person one is. So much is lost in translation between languages. It’s never the same to read Lao She’s graceful old Beijing, Zhang Ailing’s war-stricken Shanghai, and Xiao Hong’s snow-clad northeastern provinces in English vs. in Chinese. Worrying that I’d lose my ability to write in my native tongue, I translated February Flowers into Chinese after its English version was published in the West.
Three years after my first book was published, I finished my second novel, Beautiful as Yesterday, a story of a Chinese mother and her two daughters, and also translated it into Chinese. Based on the Chinese version, I edited the original manuscript. Nabokov did something similar: “The re-English of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place.” A task he called “diabolical”.
I am still torn between writing in Chinese and writing in English. Yet I know I have to live in two languages, just as I have to live in two cultures. It’s not just because of my desire to become proficient in my new language and my hope of finding a new way to express myself, but also because of the publishing world’s disinterest in foreign-language books and the challenge of finding a good translator.
My son’s crying interrupts my thought. The storm has passed but it’s still raining, raindrops spattering the windows, less intensely than earlier. As I drag myself out of bed to check on my son, my writing and my rumination on my past fade from my mind. I have returned to what’s most important at this moment.
Being a mother: a universal language.