There are certain topics that haunt me and try to prod me to say something about them, but at the same time loom so big and amorphously in my mind that I end up putting off further exploration. This post is an attempt to make a bit of movement into one of those topics.
Stories have been a lifeline to me so many times throughout my life that I don’t know how to begin expressing what they have meant. The stories that have touched me have become a part of that private-me, occasionally reaching deeper than actual people in my life for how they have connected to me in a certain way, at a crucial time, explained something I needed to understand, articulated what I had not yet been able to put words to, or provided other ways of seeing. They have shown me how to be honest with myself and attentive to who I am at that moment, in the process of convincing me of something that needed to be heard.
These are thoughts I have been returning to recently, as I observe what engages my son when I read him stories and think about the kind of stories he will grow up with and remember. A couple of days ago I was googling around to find what kind of Chinese stories for children were written in English. I’ve already read a few to my son, mainly revolving around Chinese New Year, but I had in my mind a book about 7 Chinese brothers that I recalled from my childhood. There was a wikipedia entry on the book, noting controversy around whether it was racist in its drawings. One quick look at one of the pictures brought back memories of the book at the same time as I thought, “Yeah, those drawings look racist.” It’s the only book with a Chinese story that I can remember reading as a child.
I did grow up with other Chinese stories, as told by my parents and teachers at Chinese school (held every Saturday morning which I resented because it meant missing cartoons). So I learned about such things as the origins of dragon boat dancing, how revolutionary messages could be smuggled in moon cakes, a bit of Chinese history here and there.
My fondest memory, though, was of my uncle telling me the adventures of Monkey King and his companions. He had an illustrated version of it, and the pictures caught my attention, but it was written in Chinese, which I couldn’t read. So he started translating it into words I could understand – mostly simpler Cantonese, with some occasional English if I still didn’t understand. At every possible opportunity, I would ask him to tell me some more.
I didn’t reserve the 7 Chinese Brothers at my local library. But I did reserve a children’s book version of The Monkey King written in English by a Chinese author and illustrator, for my son. I also reserved an English translation of Journey to the West, the classical Chinese novel that features the Monkey King and his companions, for myself.
So then I asked myself, what is the point of telling Chinese stories to my son, who is half-Chinese and when I myself am pretty much Westernized? Does it matter? I’m convinced it does. Stories are remembrances passed forward, even if they are translated. My son will eventually make of his identity what he will, but I want to provide him with some rich source material, through the stories we share that reflect who we are and what we want to say.