Author Zhang Lijia of “Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China taught herself English while working at a rocket factory in Nanjing. For World English she recalls how she managed that job and discovered the advantages of being a non-native English speaker. (More in Word English)
Twenty years ago, I was commissioned by a Chinese publishing company in Ningxia to write a book about the Western image of Chairman Mao. I spent many hours in the Bodleian library at Oxford, researching books on Mao written by Western academics and I interviewed many British people from all walks of life. But the book failed to pass the censor as it was deemed too negative about the ‘great helmsman’. Ever since then, I have made a point to write in English so that my works would be free from censorship.
Interestingly, writing in English frees me literally. It frees me from any inhibition I might have if I write in Chinese. Without the constraints I can experiment with the language: I can be bold and I can take risks. Because it’s not my native language, I consciously and unconsciously use different words and I structure my sentences differently. Let me give you an example. One early spring day, I took my children to a park. It had been bleak winter only a week ago. Then almost overnight, it became warm and flowers were blossoming everywhere. The word ‘bewitch’ came to my mind. In my diary, I wanted to use that word to convey a sense of dramatic and sudden change as if being touched by a magic wand. I wrote at first: ‘Bewitched by spring, the park came to life and the glorious peonies blossomed everywhere’. Then I decided to use a more active verb: ‘Spring had bewitched the park where glorious peonies blossomed everywhere’. Native speakers, please tell me if these sentences work, or which sentence works better.
Using my English as a tool also allows me to play up my advantage in some ways. Writing for an international market is very different ball game from writing for a domestic market. There’s always a great deal of presumed knowledge if your target is domestic readers. Having written for international media for years, I feel I know when and how to explain certain terminology. For example, I’d explain tamade as a national swearword, which is good for expressing joy or anger in equal measure. I belong to a small yet, growing number of people who have insight into a culture that remains largely unknown internationally, yet who are able to communicate with those on the other side of the world.
I have to admit that I am not gifted with language. After all these years, I still make some basic mistakes. I am never too sure when to use or not use ‘the’, and I am sometimes confused by little things such as ‘in the bed’ or ‘on the bed’.
On the other hand, I sometimes fear that my English has become too fluent that it has lost its quaintness.
More in Word English. Republished with the kind permission of the author.
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