Creativity and bilingualism: a spiel

This is completely unlike the previous posts on this blog, because while the other pieces also constituted of my rambling about various topics and/or critiquing recent things that I have seen, or which have happened, this is [full disclaimer] simply going to be word diarrhoea based on some thoughts that have been ruminating in the depths of my mind for a while: it’s nothing profound, but it’s been bugging me.

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I wrote when I was young: creative writing spanning from a one-page “short story” (if you could call it that) about a hammerhead shark (don’t ask – I had this “Where’s Wally?”-style book with intricate illustrations of animals in various habitats, and under each instruction to “Find 4 [insert animals]” there would be a sentence or two describing the species, and that was how I learnt about hammerhead sharks), and handwritten “plays” dramaticizing the Prince and the Pauper…in rhyming couplets. I “published” a novella when I was thirteen, with a cover I made by photographing my sims in the Sims 2 getting married: it was a (cringeworthy) attempt to emulate Jodi Picoult (which was my favorite author then) and cobble together sappy romances and “real-world” drama.

Then of course as I grew older, it was not just more difficult to find time to sit down to “be creative”; it was simply impossible to extract any originality when all your writing faculties were employed in matter-of-fact outlets. I sat my DSEs (the high school graduation certificate equivalent), where the English writing portion of the exam required a 500-word piece where a disgruntled customer complained via writing to her newspaper’s editor. Other prompts I could have written for included “valedictorian speech” (which I had in fact written, but which I felt was too precious to me to spoil by submitting to the harsh, unfeeling rigour of a Hong Kong marking scheme), and “persuasive essays” probably about something stupid like whether students in secondary schools should have physical education classes. That was the writing expected; that was the writing we were supposed to be doing.

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On the bright side, I did Literature in English, and I had a great teacher for it – so I was plunged into a world of critical analysis and poetry, trawling through Frost and Bishop and Plath, and comparing protagonists from Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” and Kitty Fane from The Painted Veil. That was amazing. I loved – love – literature, and I did well in it. It was very satisfying to be able to pair characters or themes or settings from wildly different authors writing in different genres and time periods, and pull out similarities. I learnt to appreciate that the Human Experience was universal; that to sink into the pure joy of using words to express something otherwise unintelligible was pure bliss. Studying literature offered a safe haven away from subjects like chemistry and mathematics, which seemed to just never click for me. But I was well aware that I was doing well and enjoying the subject as a critic. I was an analyst, poring over diction and rhythm with a fine-toothed comb; I fell into the characters and empathized with Othello’s outsider status. I rolled my eyes at Paul from Paul’s Case, realizing that I would never understand what went on in his head because were just such different people (putting aside the fact that he was, well, fictional). But I had parked – discarded, perhaps – the creative part of me. The lyrical side of me that used to appear when I was a child and had nothing but blank space and a pen.

Was I ever creative? Perhaps not: I dreamt as a child to write books, to be a published author. I dreamt of having my own series after reading Eragon. I dreamt of doing research so I could put together a legal thriller like John Grisham. I dreamt of going to the castles that the Tudors inhabited so I could write like Philippa Gregory. But I’m well aware that I have always been – well – derivative. No fully-fleshed-out character ever walked into my mind with a story they needed me to tell, like Harry Potter with J. K. Rowling. I never woke up with a plot in my head I needed to put flesh onto. But perhaps creativity isn’t always about stories or plot or a complete arc with exposition and climax. I like to think of myself (perhaps a little too grandly) as being good with seeing snippets in real life: to read some history on Wikipedia and be able to write a few pages on that specific episode from the point of view of the historical figure, to extrapolate from a social issue affecting real people to bind together threads so as to tell their story. It’s not a talent or a gift or anything: it’s just something I liked doing. So I’d do it: when I showered, before I slept, as I walked to and from places – I’d sometimes talk aloud, trying to write in my head that snippet of words. Sometimes I would make up dialogue for the people living in my head. They never had life stories. I wasn’t really creative enough for that. I grew to realize I would never write a novel, or even a short story: I don’t have a plot. But I had so many words inside me and I realized that writing legal essays – even pages and pages of argument – was not enough to satisfy that urge.

2.

When I was in my first year of university I helped direct / write a play for the annual variety show a bunch of students put on. In hindsight, it was probably a lot of hoo-ha over nothing: we rallied together everyone who could sing and/or play an instrument, or dance, and tried to fit all these acts into a coherent drama.

I loved it. The plot grew out of someone else’s mind but we worked on it together, and the scenes that I got to write I will probably remember till the end of time. It was cheesy, and a little too important for its own good, but it was a part of me that got expressed on stage. I wrote monologues for the prologue and epilogue, which purported to sum up the themes of the play from the eyes of each main character; I put pieces of myself into each speech, and when they spoke I almost felt my heart clutch at how my words were given life.

After that little exercise, I thought to myself that it would be simply grand if I could do it again – I had burgeoning ideas (I always had; they just always sort of went up in a whiff of smoke when I tried putting them to paper, which only shows that they were never that great to begin with), and I thought that the first (and only) success ought to be enough encouragement. I only later realized that it was a futile endeavor because without the opportunity to involve other people eager (or forced) to stage a play, it was strange to write a script. Granted, there was Ibsen and Shakespeare and a million famous playwrights whose stories came in the form of plays – but then I realized there was a hurdle.

A language hurdle.

3.

I wrote in English. I started learning English probably the same time I learnt to talk – so at one, or two years old. My family spoke Cantonese (which is my mothertongue), but I had a Filipino domestic helper who spoke (mainly) English to me and kindergarten formalized my English education. I went to an English-speaking primary school, and for as long as I remember English has been a second primary language to me. I wouldn’t call it a second language, or a foreign language (whatever the differences between those two are) – I am fluent in the language despite having learnt the specifics of grammar and pronunciation the way a native English speaker would not have. I write primarily in English, especially given my current status as a law student in the UK. More importantly, the words in my head fighting to be articulated – the snippets of life that live inside my head – they are almost always in English.

So I often wondered whether I thought in English. I switch between my primary languages easily; in most conversations with people who are fluent in both, my Cantonese is peppered with English (or vice versa). When I think of serious matters, I can hear my own voice speaking English (note: that voice is in use right now) – because I was educated in English primarily, and I learnt to debate and argue in English, when I seek to convince, to express myself formally, it is always English. When I am at ease at home, surrounded by family who operates almost exclusively in Cantonese, my brain is Cantonese.

But Cantonese is a spoken language. It is not a formal, written language the way “Chinese” is. I learnt Chinese in school in Mandarin, and then in Cantonese – while we discussed concepts in Cantonese, we wrote another language altogether. That latter language was never part of my “brain language”, because I think the way I speak, and nobody talks with written Chinese. It is as though a Shakespearean scholar is asked whether he thinks in old English: he may be able to write the way people did in the 16th century, but that will probably involve a split-second translation process in his head where thoughts in everyday English are transformed into a specific sentence structure and particular words

And so I realized that I could not write in Chinese the way I was fluent in English. I often wonder whether it was a self-imposed deficiency: whether, if I had read more Chinese books as a child, if I had worked harder at Chinese, if I had tried to cultivate a passion in the language, I would be able to skip over that translation step and just write Chinese, the way I can write English without pausing to change my Cantonese thoughts into English. But it is perhaps also the nature of the written Chinese language which is not conducive to this exercise.

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Where does this leave me? With respect to the play-writing saga mentioned above, I should put in a caveat: the play we put on was in Cantonese, with slang and “Chinglish” peppered throughout the script to mirror the way we actually talked. That was what gave our characters authenticity – when I wrote their lines I would often test them out by saying them out to myself, assessing whether they sounded like things actual people would say to one another in life. So that was all good: but it seemed to me that it only worked fine when those lines were immediately passed on to real people, actors and actresses who would deliver them on stage and give them life. Unlike dialogue in Hedda Gabler which can be analyzed and read on the page, a script written in Cantonese simply lacks that impact. Chinese plays are of course a thing: but most are written in formalized, written Chinese that I am unable to master – that type of Chinese is the kind that is critiqued, studied, analyzed, in literature classes around the world. I cannot write that.

I can only put to paper my understanding and interpretation of human experience, of pain and suffering and yearning and desire; I can shape those emotions into words that come out of people like myself. People who speak Cantonese, who come from Hong Kong, who are trapped in very particular circumstances abundant with stories that I want to be able to give voice to. But with what means?

4.

Looking at the problems afflicting the dysfunctional society that I grew up in and love, I realized how much potential there is lying in the struggles of the everyday Hong Kong person. Once you’ve grown past the idealistic notions of being able to cobble together stories of other people’s experiences – of being able to write your own historical fiction novel by googling the War of the Roses, or speculating what it was like to be a lawyer in the UK dealing with the criminal underworld rife with daring exploits and juicy tales – the only remaining avenue is to tell stories rooted in your experience and your life. I have no competitive advantage anywhere else. I only have a specific world view about what it means to be growing up in Hong Kong right now, in 2017, on the cusp of something monumental as world orders seem to shift and collide any moment.

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There are so many stories there. Things I want to articulate, to write about – probably not very well, but that was never the point. I sat and put fingers on a keyboard, waiting for that inspiration to strike. But there it was, the rock and the hard place. It wasn’t authentic to me to write a story about people living in a Cantonese-speaking world, when my dialogue would be in English; it was one step removed when I had to resort to world-building with foreign adjectives, when references seemed to be arbitrarily inserted. There used to be an aisle in my favorite (now defunct) bookshop showcasing “Chinese authors’ English books”. I always felt odd skimming the pages to find italicized pingyin words describing Chinese concepts. There was something very white about the experience of experiencing your society and your world through another language – even though I read that language fluently (and probably more fluently than I read Chinese).

The hard place: I was well-aware I wasn’t adept enough to write in Chinese though. I was good enough – but there is a steep slope between “being fluent in Chinese” and “creating in Chinese”, not to mention the aforementioned inherent problem with Cantonese-written Chinese that the latter seemed almost foreign, at least regarding my perceptions of the world and the things I wanted to say.

Perhaps this is a curse of bilingualism. To be fluent in both languages but to be fluent in neither. I wonder how many people around me suffer from the same: to have so much to say, but no words to say it.

To quote the politician of the hour: “Sad!”

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