Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading in Cantonese

We had a Memoir Project reading this past weekend, one to celebrate the participants in the project's second anthology, My Legacy Is Simply This: Stories from Boston's Most Enduring Neighborhoods. It was a good turn out. The seniors read their stories and signed each other's books, and even signed those of some people who had bought books.
This reading was in Chinatown, which meant that Alexis and I were the only ones in the room whose first language is English. Almost all of the conversation among the participants and their assembled family members was in Cantonese. The seniors brought copies of their books to the front of the room and read entirely in Chinese to the crowd of onlookers. I introduced each of the four readers in English, while Kwan, our translator, turned my words into Cantonese. This is how the entire class was taught two years ago. 
I'd forgotten how exhausting it is to break up my thoughts into bite sized chunks to be translated
into another language, and how disorienting it can be to listen to others speak in a language I can't understand. I found myself staring at the faces of the people reading in vain hope to understand some of what they were saying, to figure out where in their story they were. I also watched the audience, alive to every gesture, every nod and smile, hoping that they were enjoying themselves. Often while teaching the class I felt alone in the room, isolated and
humbled by my ignorance of their language and culture while at the same time grateful that they were willing to share so much with me, so much affection and honesty. I miss them. At the end of the reading, they sang a bit, and opened up for hugs. And one or two of them offered a goodbye in English and a gift of sweets to honor the new year. It was a celebration of story telling and gratitude, just like the class itself.

1 comment:

matt said...

hmmm, its december & I just ran across your blog. Since my second language is cantonese, I'm somewhat intrigued by your article & wonder if there is anywhere where I might be able to find one of the stories mentioned in your piece so thatI could read it. I have to say that my 1st reaction is doubt that the mentioned stories are writen in Cantonese as it is actually spoken, as much as written in standard chinese & pronounced in Cantonese when read aloud, since there is an unfortunite tendency of native spreakers to frown upon writting as the language is actually spoken. But still, having said that, & not sharing the opinion that Cantonese should be a divorced from the ability to be written, if the case is that the stories are in fact written in the vernacular, that would be a great thing indeed