Notes On Teaching Creative Writing in Hong Kong

Courtesy of The Feminist Press

I teach at a creative writing program in Hong Kong, where we teach our students in English, which is not their mother tongue.[1] This makes our context for creative writing bilingual, so that the meaning of words become arbitrary. As Doris Sommer wrote in Bilingual Aesthetics, bilingual creativity promotes an overloaded system that unsettles meanings, where “words are not proper and don’t stay put. They wander into adjacent language fields, get lost in translation, pick up tics from foreign interference, and so can’t quite mean what they say.”

The bilingual context in Hong Kong is a marked departure from America, Canada, and the U.K., wherein only one language passes for creative merit, with others relegated to the realm of annoying babel. In many Southeast Asian countries, English represents a colonial tradition alongside native creative languages — Mandarin, Tagalog, Cantonese, Malay. It’s a context that’s known for producing “bilingual fun,” where Chinglish and Taglish re-invigorate the old kingdoms of proper English. Bilingualism is fun because we are expected to make mistakes, even to fail, which too can be an aesthetic — for what is more enjoyable than a book of failures?[2]

But if English language learning is anything in Hong Kong, it’s certainly not fun. It’s hierarchical, class-driven, authoritative, dignified. It’s a certificate through which one can maximize their prospects. Having learned that this is what English is, our students writhe from embarrassment when they fail, while teachers preach with zeal the single-handed mantra of unaccented English. Can we dare our students to take pleasure in failure, to see creative writing as a game that has no perfect way of being played?

“lofty men, chiefly white, to whom we were uninteresting children of the Asian masses”

Like many Americans, I grew up monolingual. My grandparents spoke a foreign tongue, Ilocano, and since Filipinos were speaking Tagalog, my “mother tongue” was an impossible language. It was never creative, never dignified, never worth the time. So in University I took classes in German, and when I lived abroad I learned Korean, and finally Mandarin, which I learned for two years at the University of Washington, and two more living in Nanjing. Despite my ongoing attempts to learn other tongues, I still identify as monolingual (despite this training, despite living in Korea, China, and Hong Kong). Even if I conversed in Mandarin for an hour, I still feel like I am only faking it: the monolingual passing as the real deal.

Jhumpa Lahiri describes learning Italian, a 20-year venture for her, as a deep lake, with a distant shore that “seems too far away, beyond my abilities.” We watch others swim across in a confident, relaxed manner. But we, monolinguals for life, can only swim the circumference, holding safely onto the edges, and as we wade away, we see the dark blue in the lake’s center, where lies the possibility of drowning.

Like my Hong Kong students, Lahiri lives in a “kind of linguistic exile,” where her mother tongue has been marked as non-national to her country (Bengali in America, Cantonese in the People’s Republic of China). Outside of Hong Kong and Guangdong province, my students feel a linguistic detachment. Their use of global dominant languages — English, Mandarin, Spanish — can only be approached from the outside, marked as foreign, as belonging only to the small province in Southern China and to the jam-packed city of Hong Kong. As an American professor, this is a linguistic estrangement I have never had to confront in the same way. But I too have linguistic estrangements, raised unable to speak outside of a gamer-inflected patios of lower-class MTV and the broken translations of anime. I spoke a denigrated tongue that didn’t know Shakespearean romance but knew “hooking up” or “hittin’ that.” An unruly language learner, I was placed into remedial speech classes, grammar classes, writing classes, and even today, after teaching English writing in four different Universities, I still feel like a language poser.

My students and I have that in common — in the eyes of the global English white audience, we will never speak with authority. Our yearning to claim ourselves as creative artists will always seem foolish, out of place. But there is hope and possibility in not belonging to a language. My role is not to intimidate students with language, or to present English as the Kingdom’s locked gate, but as something they can fail with. I have gone through three Mandarin teachers in the past year for the same reason. Those who allow me to fail, who do not expect me to pass as a native speaker, but who correct me as an outsider, these are the teachers who make me think well, and creatively, in Chinese.

Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s memoir, Among the White Moon Faces, charts her creative growth despite the English instructors in Singapore’s University of Malaya (Lim was raised Peranakan in Melaka). Malayan students, she writes, believed English acquisition was “mystically beyond mere study but was achieved as innate talent.” British instructors reinforced this belief. Lim describes them as “lofty men, chiefly white, to whom we were uninteresting children of the Asian masses.” The instructors’ disinterest stemmed from the same belief that original, creative use of English cannot come from a bilingual mindset.[3]

the possibility of drowning

Language learning does not prepare students to write creatively. If they engage with English literature, film, or television, it is as outsiders, admirers, distant lovers whose marriage is never meant to be. Poetry too becomes a means of learning English, not a means of re-creation. It represents a gate marked in the beauty of English architecture, but the gate is always locked. As professors we can give them the key, show them the interior, but as soon as we leave, the tour ends.

Are we, the teachers, not also the colonial mimics? Can we not see ourselves in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s recollection of 1960s Singapore? She writes:

We had grown up in a compulsory language system, but, as if to strip us of all language, we were constantly reminded that this language did not belong to us. Depriving us of Chinese or Malay or Hindi, British teachers reminded us nonetheless that English was only on loan, a borrowed tongue which we could only garble (187).

Lim’s “we” are the local students, but the “we” that concerns me are those like me, the colonial mimic now turned into the “native english speaker” who lives and work in Asia, the “we” who dangles the keys of innate English talent as our birthright. And who can blame us for preaching the myth of innate English creativity — it’s the very currency that gives us access to this space, to a far higher salary than a local, had they our job. So in practice we rely on our students accepting our interpretations. We depend upon their dependence. If they question our reading, we shake the keys at them, remind them that they haven’t been allowed permanent access.

Proper English reigns in the classroom as Hollywood films reign in the theater as business phraseology reigns over mother tongues. But teaching in English need not be an authoritative practice. English writing can offer an aporia of meaning engaged in play, delight, and failure. The English tongue need not be the limit of translation, where English diffuses onto the colonial others as the word of God (of capital, of power, of creativity). The colonial routes of bilingualism are always in the colonial power’s favor, but this hinges on the presumption that translation is done obediently, in respect to a sacred and immovable linguistic hierarchy, a tower of babel. When students effort to climb that tower, they are merely reproducing what we instill as creative standards of English writing, and worse, they are taught that their ways of speaking English are worthless. But the babel of the streets is the sound of the masses having fun with language, as the Filipino Anglophone writer Nick Joaquin wrote, it is the sound of people who speak to “express their lives, to express their times, and just for the fun of it.” [4] It is a language created for the joy of creation, to plunge into the sea of words and dare ourselves to drown.

Notes

[1] Under the Article 9 of the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Official Languages Ordinance, English and Chinese are of equal status, and make up the official languages of the territory, even though only 3.5% speak English as their first language (CIA World Factbook).

[2] As Judith Mendoza has written, for bilinguals “second languages remain estranged from our unconscious and our past, their cultural connotations often out of reach. Second languages remain ‘foreign’ despite a writer’s full command of grammar, sentence structure or idiomatic expressions.”

[3] Lim writes, “I wondered why they were teaching us what they believed we who were not English could never possibly appreciate” (185).

[4] Nick Joaquin writes here of Taglish (Tagalog-English) (in Rafael).

References

Lim, Shirley. (1997) Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands. New York: Feminist Press.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. (2016) In Other Words. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Mendoza, Judith. “MRes in Creative Writing opens new doors for bilingual writers.” Macquarie University. Accessed 1 April 2017. <http://www.mq.edu.au/about_us/faculties_and_departments/faculty_of_arts/department_of_english/news/mres_in_creative_writing_opens_new_doors_for_bilingual_writers/>

Parole Board of Canada. (2008) “The Canadian Multiculturalism Act.” Government of Canada. 4 Nov 2008. Web. Retrieved 26 March 2014.

Rafael, Vicente L. (2016) Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sommer, Doris. (2004) Bilingual aesthetics: A new sentimental education. Durham: Duke University Press.