Palo Alto Weekly 29th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

Mistranslations

By Hannah Knowles

About Hannah Knowles

I'm a recent graduate of Castilleja School in Palo Alto. I live in San Jose. I love to write: mostly short stories and essays, but hopefully someday I'll work up to something longer! My story was inspired by a travel experience: I was lucky to go to China last year, where I did a homestay in a rural village in Yunnan. I've been learning Chinese for years, but my (admittedly poor) language skills were almost useless in the countryside, where the villagers spoke a completely different dialect. "Mistranslations" drew on some of the frustrations I felt when I was unable to communicate, as well as on my collage of sensory impressions from the trip. Beyond writing, I enjoy playing piano, trivia-hunting and painting. And I'm always looking for something good to read!

 

Judge's comments

"Mistranslations" is the touching story of a young woman between worlds and the words that keep her in a limbo of language, culture and tradition. Adrift, Lian fears she will never be able to realize the promise of her new life, even as her old one recedes into the past.

Six months after I came to America, I sat down to eat in the house of a stranger, at a dinner party whose conversation I couldn't understand. The stranger's name was Mark. He was Darryl's friend from work, and he and his girlfriend Claudia had invited us and two other couples over for the evening.

As a child, I studied English in school (it was a required subject for all students in China), but the rural schools where I lived were dirt-floored and poor, and I got all the way through high school with only broken sentences, pale and unconvincing words. Darryl, American-born, slipped easily from English to Chinese and back, the way you might slip out of jeans and into sweatpants. Both were comfy. Both fit him well.

"What are they talking about?" I whispered to Darryl, who was seated next to me.

"Nothing really," he said.

"More specific?" I said.

Darryl shrugged. " The Devil Wears Prada? I don't think you'd know it."

I said nothing.

"Sorry if this is weird for you," he said. "I--" He broke off. From across the table, Mark was speaking to him. "Just try and practice your English," he whispered before turning away.

For a while, I tried to pick out their words and was moderately successful. Please, school, house, excited, many others. Lots of I's and we's... I listened helplessly, trying to gather together the clumsy English phrases I know for such occasions. Happy to meet you, my name is Lian. Delicious! Excuse me, could you pass the plate. My name is Lian.

- - -

My name is Lian and I was born in Yunnan Province in a village you haven't heard of, a village next to a lake that sparkles but is always cold, even in the summer. It's a place of dirt roads, of houses whose courtyards are filled with great piles of grain feed, of loud but chicken-hearted guard dogs who slink away when you throw a stone. I grew up surrounded by women who were strong as men--a relic of the not-so-long-ago time when my ancestors practiced walking marriages and when family names were passed down from mothers to daughters. As a child, I watched my grandmother carry four-foot high bundles of firewood on her back while my grandfather played Mah-Jong and, clouded in a haze of pipe smoke, pondered the spirit world.

I met Darryl when I was 22 years old. I was still living with my parents, and I had a job at the local elementary school teaching everything except English. There was another teacher, an old man named Mr. Sung, who did that; sometimes I would look at the chalkboard after Mr. Sung's lessons, and eventually the letters would resolve into words and primitive sentences-- cat, dog, red, my father is a farmer--but at first glance they meant nothing to me. Gibberish.

Early June. I stood alone in my classroom cleaning the chalkboard, my pupils gone outside to play in the summer heat and dust, or to beg candy off of monks, or to trek back to their homes and do their chores before their mothers could call them lazy.

"Hello?" a male voice said.

I turned around from the board to see a young man in a T-shirt and khaki pants standing in the doorway. Stooping, really, because he was too tall for the frame.

"Hi," I said. The young man peered around the room.

"Are you the teacher?"

"Yes."

"I'm afraid I'm lost," he said, sheepish. "I can't find my way home."

I stared at him. He looked Chinese and spoke Chinese, but his voice had the tinge of a foreigner, like the clueless white tourists who sometimes stopped by our market to happily buy fruit at triple its usual price. I had the feeling that his home was somewhere very far away from here, but I offered to help all the same.

"Where are you going?"

He began to explain. This was only his third day here, he was from America, staying with his Aunt and Uncle while visiting relatives. He had wandered out to see the lake, but now he was trying to get back and he didn't know which way he came from. His Aunt and Uncle's house was the one with a mural of child painted on one of the walls-- Did that help? he asked me.

"I'll draw you a map," I said.

As the teacher I was only allowed two new sticks of chalk per day, so I took up a nub left over from that morning and used it to sketch out the world that I knew. I pointed out landmarks: the distant mountains, on this side, the lake, over here. I drew the roads. I drew the school, and the house with the mural where his Aunt and Uncle lived, then began to trace out his path for him. I realized, as he listened attentively, that I didn't know his name.

- - -

At the end of the summer, I stood with his relatives on the day he left and watched his Uncle's Jeep roll slowly down the gravel. A single bewildered goat trotted behind the car, until at last it lost interest and bent down to eat some mud.

America. What did I know about America? A big country, a rich country, a fat country. A beautiful country? Maybe, but I grew up in Yunnan, the third-poorest but most breathtaking province in China; was told all my life that nowhere would ever be as lovely as home. And yet-- America. Shiny and strange, hamburger grease and the best universities and all of the best TV shows, like Vampire Diaries. As I watched the goat quietly and patiently chew its mud, I wondered whether I would always live in Yunnan, and if so, for how much longer.

Doomed for the next year to an ocean of separation, Darryl and I corresponded in romantic handwritten letters. I found his letters endearing: though his spoken Chinese was fluent, he had had never really learned how to write and used the cramped script of a 10-year-old boy. I marveled that such refined hands could produce such ugly-looking words. I corrected his characters and encouraged him to practice, delighting in the idea that I could teach him things.

The next summer I packed my belongings into a single suitcase and said my farewells. My mother didn't cry. My sister told me to watch all the American TV shows and tell her which ones were really the best. My father drove me to the airport. And when I landed, tired because the idea of flight made me too nervous for sleep and cold because I had not thought to bring a coat on the plane, Darryl was there waiting for me.

- - -

We temporarily gave up trying to find me a job--my English was terrible, and Darryl didn't have much time to help me look anyway. Darryl knew a Chinese man from Lijiang who owned a gift shop, who said he might have an opening soon and could hire me as his assistant. But the promise dangled indefinitely, and I fell back on the strategy that I had used for the first 22 years of my life: waiting.

I thought of Yunnan often during the day, while Darryl was gone at work. I filled the empty hours with house chores--there was only so much cleaning to be done in an apartment so small, so mostly I cooked. I experimented; I chopped and pickled and salted; I stirred loneliness into the food that Darryl and I ate together each night.

There's a story that my mother made up for me when I was little, about a young woman named Yi who has left her hometown to work in the Emperor's kitchens. According to my mother, everything Yi made was beautiful--on the outside her dishes looked simple, like the fare of a peasant, but they tasted like heaven. Everyone asked her, "Yi, what's your secret?" And no matter how many times they asked she wouldn't tell them. Finally, one day, the Emperor himself brought Yi before him and, peering down from his seat on the high throne, demanded to know her techniques. The Emperor himself! She couldn't refuse. So she told him the truth, that her secret ingredient was sorrow. Her heavenly food was laced with tears.

At this point, I would always interrupt my mother. "Ew!"

But my mother wasn't done. Yi, she said, was satisfied for a while. But as time went on, she felt less and less content with her life at the Emperor's court. She was far from her family, and the Emperor had decreed that Yi should never marry or have a child, because he feared that the sadness that made her food so delicious would be replaced by joy. Homesick and lonely, she grew old cooking for the court. And a strange thing happened: as Yi aged, the flavor of her food changed. At first it was barely noticeable, but before long it was unmistakable--all her dishes tasted like acorns, acrid and sour. Hearing of the change, some were puzzled. Shouldn't the talent of the greatest cook in the land only increase with time? But one bite, and they understood. Everyone wept, because Yi and her food had grown bitter.

- - -

I told the story to Darryl one night over dinner. We were at an Italian restaurant, and, as usual, I couldn't read the menu, so Darryl ordered me spaghetti.

"Isn't it a good story?" I said.

He nodded but made an odd expression, a wrinkle-grimace. The ending is a bit gloomy, don't you think? he said.

I frowned, stabbed at my pasta. "It's sad because it means something." For a few minutes we didn't speak, and I imagined us as two fish, mute and strange to each other.

"Do you want to go back home?" Darryl said--sudden, like he was trying to catch me off guard. He reached out, tentatively, to rest his hand on mine.

I felt like crying; how could he be so calm and gentle and kind? Once, a great-aunt of mine, an elderly woman who made Goji berry cures and gave out free love advice to all my younger family members, read Darryl's and my palms; she said that our hands told opposite stories. Darryl's fingers were Water, soft and yielding. Mine were short and stubborn. Fire.

That night we lay in bed, our dinner conversation a distant, garlicky memory. The room was drafty, and I could feel the heat of Darryl's body inches from mine. I felt a sudden ache for Yunnan, for my father boiling hot water on the stove, my mother sitting at the kitchen table rubbing her weathered face, my sister drinking sugar water before bed.

Tears of wonder in the dark.

I sat awake grinning, thinking ahead to the wedding: my return. My father my mother my sister our faces hot with joy they hug Darryl as their son; we overflow. But then I imagined returning home to Yunnan alone. A single ticket, the same luggage I left with, barren greetings. I hated the idea of people guessing at what had happened when I was in America. Poor Lian. It didn't work out. I hated thinking that they would try to put things together, to understand what had gone wrong and why.

- - -

At the dinner party, I listened for simple words, but mostly I watched faces. Mark talked often, his voice and expressions animated as he told elaborate funny stories whose punchlines always got laughs. Now a pinched-looking man I didn't know was speaking, now Maria and Maria's husband or boyfriend or whoever he was, now Maria again.... Back to Claudia. Dizziness. What if I got up and walked away from the table--

All of a sudden, I realized Darryl was speaking and heard the word "China." Someone else spoke, I looked up, and the entire table's eyes were upon me.

I turned to Darryl. My face warm.

"They want to know how you like it here," he said.

Oh. "Your house is very nice," I said, using a phrase I remembered practicing many years ago in school. But it came out more like a question. Your house is very nice?

They laughed, and I realized I had said something funny. "No," Darryl said, shaking his head, "What they mean is how do you like it here?" He spread his arms wide. "Here, in the U.S."

"I like it," I said slowly. "But I think it is--difficult." I let the last part hang, paused to collect myself, then all of a sudden decided to be bold.

The problem was, I didn't have the words. "I don't know how to say it," I said quietly to Darryl in Chinese.

"What do you want to tell them?" he asked.

For a few seconds, I did not speak.

"A lot of the time," I told him, "I wish I had never left."

He stared at me. I had hurt him. I felt powerful, my face burning.

The other people at the table were watching, waiting for Darryl to translate. He cleared his throat, and I heard him say, "She something something something." A few people nodded, the conversation moved on, and I tried to read in their faces clues to what Darryl had told them. Maybe, I thought, he really had said what I told him. Maybe I was being silly. But I couldn't tell with certainty, and for a moment I saw my future stretching out and out, long and terrifying and blazing with sadness or happiness or both and impossible for me, Lian from a village you haven't heard of, to ever know.

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