Lost in Translation
By Emmy Cai
As a Chinese American, growing up in a predominately white environment was challenging towards my identity—especially at school. As I get older, I am able to appreciate the beauty of my culture.
I sit in my seat facing the dusty chalkboard. Behind me I hear pencils furiously scribbling on paper, taking notes before they’re erased. The summer heat makes me anxious and sweaty, dreaming about anything other than Chinese school. I am eight years old and I’ve grown up with Chinese as my first language, so speaking comes easily to me. Writing and reading, however… that’s a different story. Learning to read and write is so time-consuming and boring that the thought of not being able to read or write in my native language did not bother me. Besides, speaking gets me by well enough to converse with my grandma.
It’s the first day of sixth grade in my new middle school. I am the only one from my elementary school to have been accepted into East Side Middle School. Not that many applied. Most of my friends live back in Hell’s Kitchen and don’t not want to trek all the way up to the Upper East Side at 9 a.m. With sweaty palms, I step into the yard where all the students and teachers are. In my head, I make a list of things I observe:
- Everyone is wearing Adidas Superstar sneakers. I look down at my plain Nikes. I must have missed the memo.
- This is a predominately white school. It’s not a bad thing; I just didn’t realize it until now.
In seventh grade, my mom started making my lunch to bring to school. She had done it before when I was very young, filling the thermos with udon or fried rice. Last year, she switched jobs and was too busy during the mornings to pack me lunch but now she has started again. On the first day of school, she gave me rice with radish and peas. It is leftovers from last night, the rest of what I hadn’t devoured. The radish was a traditional Chinese dish that my mom had learned from her mom. Every time my mom made it at home, it brought me back to my grandma’s house. But that day at school, when I opened my thermos, the smell of the radish was so strong, I immediately closed the lid, keeping the smell from traveling any further into the lunchroom. I hoped no one smelled it. That night, I tried explaining to my mom that she could only pack me foods that could sit for a long time in a thermos and wouldn’t smell bad. The next day, I happily ate my turkey sandwich with everyone else.
It’s the middle of ninth grade in 2020 and lockdown for COVID has just been announced. Every Friday I sit with my mom on the phone and ask my aunts and uncles, who live in Brooklyn, questions about what they’re doing to pass time. Then, we spent another hour on the phone with my grandma, begging her to stay inside, away from the threats of an unknown virus and increasing racism against Asian Americans.
I spent the summer after freshman year in bliss in Brooklyn at my grandma’s house. In the daytime from 10 am to 2 pm, I sign into my virtual internship where I phone banks on behalf of a local politician. It’s not a job I particularly enjoy but it was a compromise between an internship of my choosing and a Chinese school. Afterwards I helped my grandma with the shopping. She tells me that when I come along with her, she can buy things she wouldn’t have bought before because she either wasn’t able to carry them herself or she couldn’t read the English labels on the packages.
At home, she teaches me traditional recipes, ones I have been eating my whole life. She shows me how to make the dough, how to cut the radish, and all the different spices needed for the soup. As the soup boils, she brings me over to the front door, where a picture of the whole family sits. Next to it is a large pile of mail. She tells me she doesn’t understand what some of them say and asks for me to translate them. I make piles, telling her which ones are junk mail, which ones are important, and which ones are in Chinese, the ones I cannot translate.
Later, as my grandma sits across from me, savoring the soup we made, I sit there, regretful that I was unable to help her with her letters. I feel guilty that though so many opportunities were presented to me, I turned them away without realizing how much I would have benefitted from them. Using this as fuel for motivation, I vow to myself to learn more about the culture my grandma admires so much. Though I cannot translate the piles of letters for her, I am still able to help her with groceries, and talk to her about our culture, providing her with a friendly voice, and gaining wisdom and a new perspective.
I was first inspired to write this piece while reading the short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. It made me reflect on how my my identity has shifted as I’ve grown older and who or what influenced this change. As I drafted my piece, I had it peer edited several times and I changed my story arc along the way, from a regretful ending to a hopeful resolution.
Emmy Cai is a 16-year-old junior in high school. She enjoys learning about the laws of physics and U.S. history. Over the year, during the pandemic, Emmy learned to paint using acrylics and watercolor. Her first painting was of ski mountains. She also started baking and she’s still searching for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe. Some seasonal hobbies she enjoys are skiing and swimming. Over the course of this year, Emmy hopes to learn about writing opportunities and contests as well as improve her writing style.