Living in Translation

Living in Translation

Jenny Fu

I find it hard to introduce myself.

Attempt 1: Hi, my name is Jenny, and I'm from Shanghai.

Factually accurate. I was born in Shanghai, but my family immigrated to Canada when I was eight.

Attempt 2: Hi, my name is Jenny, and I'm from Canada.

Factually accurate. Yet after spending six years in Toronto, my family moved back to Shanghai. I've lived in China too long to exclude it from my answer.

Attempt 3: Hi, my name is Jenny, and I was born in China, but my family immigrated to Canada when I was little, and after many years, we returned to China.

Factually accurate. But it's too long and confusing—a story with too many beginnings and endings, a jeopardy to the crisp cleanness of the brief self-introduction.

Usually, I go with attempt number one. My family has settled in Shanghai, and if I ever have the opportunity to elaborate, I can relate my experiences in detail. But the chance to talk about my background with my peers at Penn rarely appears. I get nods of acknowledgment before the conversation turns to other topics.

But something extraordinary happens when I make a quick footnote about having lived in Toronto for a long time. People take an interest. I get questions about whether I see a difference between the cultures of Toronto and Philly. I hear personal stories about someone having once visited family in Toronto, or spending holidays there. And I am delighted at the intimacy of these exchanges; I savor the connections. Yet, behind these conversations, my Chinese identity looms in oblivion. Perhaps it's the foreignness of the word Shanghai, a signifier of unrelatable and unfamiliar experiences that hinders people from inquiring about my life in China. Something that lacks points of reference may be too distant physically, culturally, and emotionally. Perhaps we feel safe approaching what is somewhat different but conceptually familiar, while remaining fearful of what eludes familiarity altogether.


It was my first October in Toronto, a week after my parents and I flew into this new city. While everyone enjoyed the lovely autumn weather back home, I zipped up my thick hoodie in Toronto. Mom, Dad, and I returned to our apartment after seeing some friends. Excitement and anticipation floated in the air as my parents prepared me for entering third grade in a new curriculum. Approaching the patina-colored gate leading to our apartment, Dad asked whether I had picked an English name. I told him that I liked the name Jenny. Why not Fei? Dad asked. It starts with an F, like your last name. I didn't know what to say. I never considered how the letters were arranged in my name—not to mention that the consonance of words in the English language was beyond my understanding. I simply liked the sound of Jenny Fu. My rationale was purely subjective and arguably meaningless. I felt nervous about my thoughtlessness. In the end, it turned out I didn't have to be so anxious because my parents gladly approved of my choice.

But when my Dad asked me to spell Jenny, I couldn’t answer. I struggled with the alphabet, wondering in silence whether my name was "Jeny," "Jenny," or "Jeeny." Shame burned my face because, all of a sudden, I couldn't even speak.

A month into third grade, I started another typical morning sitting cross-legged in the ESL classroom with kids whose families had immigrated to Canada like mine. As usual, Mrs. R prepared questions on the whiteboard using thick, colorful markers. In green: What is the capital city of Canada? In red: What is the capital city of Ontario? After singing along with a beautiful song that I later recognized as the Canadian national anthem, she took us down the list of questions. I had no clue what these meant, but classmates who had arrived several months earlier understood them. They raised their hands enthusiastically, answers racing off their tongues. Gradually, I memorized their responses–Ottawa, Toronto... But what is Ontario? What is Toronto? Canada? The names were elusive, words and letters jumbled together without meaning. Even so, one morning, I raised my hand after trying out each word in my head. Mrs. R was happy that I knew the correct answers.

In my eighth-grade homeroom, the tables were arranged into clusters of four. I sat at the back with my friend, whose family immigrated from Iran. The fluorescent lights above brightened the gray afternoon typical of early February in Canada. Mr. G asked us to share what we wanted to be in the future. I jotted my dream down on scrap paper: a writer. I loved reading and dreamed of publishing my own books. When I proudly shared my aspirations, a classmate sitting before me turned around. With a puzzled expression, he asked for clarification. Never before had I felt the need to ruminate on this question: Do I want to be a Chinese writer or a Canadian writer? I only thought I would write in English. I used English at school, I read and watched English books and films at home, and I conversed with my friends in English. More importantly, I am Canadian, so wasn’t it obvious that I would become a Canadian author writing in English? Flabbergasted and irritated that he had asked his question altogether, I answered with my brows furrowed. A Canadian writer.

But I sensed my set of assumptions crumbling. His words opened a line of inquiry too hazy and destabilizing to my identity. I am Canadian, but I have always spoken Mandarin with my parents. I am Canadian, and my playlists are filled with English songs, but I love watching Chinese television programs and enjoy the hosts' sense of humor. I am Canadian and grew up with Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and A to Z Mysteries, but I also immersed myself in the thrilling wuxia novels written by 金庸 (Jinyong). Overwhelmed, I felt my voice evaporating like thin strands of smoke. I didn't know how to speak or write. How could I translate the fantastical world of wuxia into English?

Wuxia: “A genre of Chinese fiction or cinema featuring itinerant warriors of ancient China, often depicted as capable of superhuman feats of martial arts.”

– Oxford Languages

“The words Brot and pain ‘intend’ the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same. It is owing to these modes that the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman, that these words are not interchangeable for them, that, in fact, they strive to exclude each other. As to the intended object, however, the two words mean the very same thing...”

– Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator

Itinerant... warriors... martial arts... ancient China… What do these concepts mean? What images do they conjure? A brave soldier in heavy armor (it couldn't be a knight or samurai!) traveling across ancient Chinese landscapes (how? in what way? and what do Chinese landscapes mean anyway)? Through different “modes of intention,” the “intended objects,” the concepts defining wuxia, come to mean distinct things. In my mind, I recreate Jinyong's wuxia. A warrior need not be armored and fierce, but rather a young and sprightly person, making her or his first journey away from home. In fact, they can be elderly women or men who use giant sticks or fruit seeds as weapons. I recall the bamboo forests in which strands of light shone through leaves, brilliantly reflecting on swords that danced in the hands of our heroes or heroines. I think about the rich genealogy behind their zhaoshi, or fighting techniques, irreducible to the conventional understanding of martial arts and kungfu in popular movies. Wooden huts with square-shaped mahogany tables and long wooden benches appear before my eyes. Yes, over food and drink, our heroes forge lifelong connections, promising loyalty until death does them part. If languages, as Benjamin claims, “strive to exclude each other” through these different “modes of intention,” how can meaning reach across linguistic and cultural boundaries?


I sat in the backseat of the car. The smell of old leather made my head pound in synchrony with the rhythm of my heart. Dad and several family friends came to Pudong International Airport to pick up my mom and me. They've prepared a welcome dinner to celebrate our first day back in Shanghai. This humid August, I would officially enter 9th grade at a school close to home. "Home"–what a strange word to use when I had just left home for this vaguely familiar place. Everything around me felt new, but not really, because I'd spent many summer holidays in this city. The scene outside the window became a blur as the car whizzed down the road. When it came to a halt at a red light, I read the street sign to myself: 高科中路 (gāo-kē-zhōng-lù). Its characters formed a beautiful cadence, three flat tones culminating to a shift at the end, a resolute falling tone grounding me in my surroundings. Yet, this road and my immediate environment felt empty-- because I could not relate to them in a personal way. 高科中路—over and over again, the sound of these words, the music of the sign, played in my head to no end. The reality dawned upon me. This time, I could not simply treat the signs as a mere convenience, as I did when I spent my summers here. I must befriend these streets, these green railings, shrubs, bricks, and buildings. Tears filled my eyes. I was overwhelmed by the foreignness of the city of my birth.

Outside, the sun's rays burned like the taste of spicy pepper. In the classroom, the air conditioner blasted away the fiery heat of a humid September morning. A few weeks into the semester, I had adjusted fairly well to my new school in Shanghai. Studying at an international high school, I followed an American curriculum and my school life remained highly westernized. Around me, classmates jotted down notes as Mrs. M and Mr. K taught us Grade 9 Humanities. As a short exercise, the teachers asked us to reflect on our identities: most students at an international high school have a complicated history of moving between places, so it's challenging to talk coherently about ourselves. I remember an outgoing girl in the class who shared her extensive family tree that stretched across multiple countries on more than half of the continents. In my case, I was torn between Canada and China: the country of my childhood versus the country of my roots, the country familiar versus the country that I was learning to love. I didn't know how to balance my feelings between the two countries and cultures. In this anguish, I thought, rather than choosing between one or the other, it would be more adequate to think of myself as a combination between the two. "It's more of a 50-50," I told the class.

I think of the contemporary poet Shu Ting, and these lines from her widely read poem:









但没有人 听懂我们的言语。


To the Oak

... I must be a kapok tree by your side,

Standing with you in the image of a tree.

Our roots

hold tightly beneath the ground;

our leaves

brush and blend in the clouds.

With every passing breeze

we greet each other—

But no one, not a soul,

understands our language...

It's never as clear as a "50-50" division.

To the music of blending leaves and tightly held roots, cultures and languages dance together. I live in these jagged convergences, breaking, and reforming as the trees encounter and grow. I sing the notes, confused and babbling, jigsaws that don't fit together but complement each other to create a whole. Do you think you are Canadian or Chinese? I can't respond because the notes of the leaves that brush and blend have no name.


In a modern poetry class at Penn, we studied the American poet John Ashbery’s poem, “Some Trees.” Reading these lines again, I cannot help but connect them to the lines from Shu Ting:

“Some Trees”

John Ashbery

These are amazing: each

Joining a neighbor, as though speech

Were a still performance.

Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning

From the world as agreeing

With it, you and I

Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:

That their merely being there

Means something; that soon

We may touch, love, explain…

Shu Ting’s oak and kapok can't grow side by side, just as it's logically impossible for something to be "arrang[ed] by chance." Yet these paradoxical relationships exist: the trees thrive together, complementing each other's existence. As Ashbery suggests, meaning lies in this uncanny relationship, this extraordinary interdependence. Am I reading Shu Ting in Ashbery, or did Ashbery's lines help me understand Shu Ting? Perhaps it's both. Like the trees, languages and cultures break away from isolation and separation, touching, loving, explaining

Translation completes these poems.

So, languages need not, borrowing Benjamin’s terms, live in a “constant state of flux.” (see 1) The splintering of the division between languages and cultures allows meanings to complement each other, and the various modes of intention exist and interact in harmony.

Do I want to be a Chinese writer or a Canadian writer?

I don’t need to answer this question because translation makes me complete.

1. “In the individual, unsupplemented languages, meaning is never found in relative independence, as in individual words or sentences; rather, it is in a constant state of flux until it is able to emerge as pure language from the harmony of all the various modes of intention. Until then, it remains hidden in the languages. If, however, these languages continue to grow in this manner until the end of their time, it is translation which catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language.” (Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”)

photos by Jenny Fu