Hello World! I’m back after a long hiatus. Things on this site are about to change radically. More soon.
As the novel coronavirus spreads across the world, I was reminded about the city at the centre of this pandemic crisis: Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
I saw a video on YouTube of people all across Wuhan shouting out their windows “Wuhan Jiayou!”. Literally translated, it meant “Wuhan, add fuel.” When I saw that, I didn’t know what it meant to “add fuel?” So I looked it up.
According to Wikipedia (I know, I know. I take this with a grain of salt), the term “add fuel” originated during the Macau Grand Prix in the 1960’s. Spectators would shout “Ga Yau” (Cantonese for “add fuel”) at their favourite car. The phrase implied that the driver should step harder on the gas pedal and accelerate. It was also a metaphor for injecting fuel into a tank. Over time, the phrase morphed in meaning to “don’t give up!”, “do your best!”, or “persist!”. It is now meant as a form of encouragement and often heard at sporting events.
So Wuhan Jiayou! roughly means “Stay strong, Wuhan.” Don’t give up. Without being able to leave their homes and gather, the people of Wuhan have found a way to support each other despite adversity and to show the world the true spirit of their city.
What does this have to do with writing, you ask? The literal translation of Wuhan Jiayou is a colourful metaphor only those who know the culture and language would immediately understand. Plus, it gives me a perspective on the culture I would not get from the rough translation which, although uplifting and heartwarming, does not give me an intimate understanding that the former does.
And although my Chinese and Japanese ancestry gives me some perspective on the culture seen from afar, the lack of language means I miss out on these colourful nuances to the point that when it is pointed out to me, I feel sheepish, as if I should have known better.
And when I am writing stories with characters from those cultures, their voice will get lost within my own, very western voice. The colourful phrases and idioms that are so common to that language would become non-existent. It means I have to be careful.
As Lian Hearn says in her excellent essay Writing About Other Cultures, “all languages construct and describe the world in a slightly different way: you need to know the idioms and every day speech of your characters, what common symbols mean to them, what their belief system is, and use words that are appropriate.” And when you do write in their voice, “better to try to give the flavour of (the language) through the subtle use of sentence construction and idioms.
My own experience is so different from those who live and breathe in Asia. My cultural understanding is filtered through a Canadian lens and what I understand as Asian custom and culture, is in fact, just family quirks passed down as such. “You should never have an empty rice bowl when eating.” Said one aunt. I can’t find anyone who says this is a Chinese custom. “Spring roll parties are a thing,” said no one outside of my wife’s family. Where do they get these ideas? Is that real Asian culture or just something passed down the family tree? I don’t know and any research I do I come up blank.
So for those in Wuhan, I say “Jiayou.” Stay strong. The world is with you and watching as the novel coronavirus wends its way around the globe. In the meantime, I’ll continue to write my stories and continue to watch and learn the idioms of languages of a people who may look like me, but speak very differently.
And I find that fascinating.