A Book Person on Film

Another season of college applications (this time for exchanges for our mandatory gap year), another flurry of college essays. This one was for Yale.

Write about a book, play, movie, piece of art – anything in literature or arts, classic or contemporary – that has affected the way you think.

I was always a book person. So it surprised even me when I knew it had to be a film. The truth is, I cannot narrow down any commentary on my personality to anything less than ten, maybe twenty books. But there is a singular film I immediately name whenever I am asked which one my favourite is.

I grew up in Eurocentric ‘international’ schools, and consequently had exclusively entertained myself with British and American media. I was never remotely interested in local pop music or TV shows, due in part to my shameful incompetence in my ‘mother tongue’. But the primary reason slunk in the beautiful blonde models plastered on our billboards (even though Hong Kong is 90% ethnically Chinese) and the sense of superiority enveloping the small but significant expat population. I had long internalised the ‘fact’ that Western means cool, and Chinese therefore uncool.

That is, until my parents tricked me into watching 3 Idiots with them. When I found out it was a three hour-long Bollywood film, like in an American sitcom, I groaned and rolled my eyes. See, extrapolating the ‘non-Western means uncool’ sentiment means Asian media can never be as worth my time – the scripts are lame, the actors gauche, the cinematography kitsch. But just half an hour in and I had wept for joy and for sorrow, froze with shock and suspense, and was struck dumb by its profundity and breathtaking visuals. This film dropped some fire wisdom, y’all. Go watch it.

When I left the theatre and Googled 3 Idiots on my father’s phone (I still had one of those indestructible Nokias then), I saw that it was already an immense international success. And like in an American romcom, that was the precise moment a life-changing revelation clicked: non-white people can be cool too. Foreign films can be cool, and not just in the francophone arthouse way. Foreign actors are ridiculously talented at singing and dancing and being hilarious and heart-breaking at once. Side note: Notice how I say ‘foreign’ when I am neither American nor British myself? Sure, Indian culture may not be my culture, but the sheer sensation that was this film ignited a desire to get to know my own culture, and to own it.

The second way 3 Idiots reshaped my self-identity may sound clichéd. A film unafraid to show student suicide and suffocating academic pressure, it was the first narrative to chip away at my belief that only my grades are worth measuring. They were the only area that I could see myself empirically excelling in. I had many interests (horse riding, running, music), but at most I was above average. And in the rat race to the best universities for the best jobs for the best life, it had felt futile to be anything but the best.

“Ever since we were young, we believed that life was a race… Man, even to be born, we had to race 300 million sperm.” – 3 Idiots

Because I knew there are countless people much smarter than me, this sense of futility only further dampened my self-esteem. Sure, phenomena like Harry Potter has lines like:

“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”

But 3 Idiots pierced the viscous film of un-relatability I had not even noticed was enshrouding my mind. It spoke from a culture similar to my own – one in which education is worshipped as the one sure way to success, and parents are willing to splurge inordinate amounts of money on marginally better schools.

Did 3 Idiots magically snuff out all my doubts? No. But fictitious though it may be, it proved how my empirical performance is not the best predictor of my future success. Do something meaningful, and you are successful. And I am confident that in my pursuit of medicine, I will find many things that are meaningful, and achieve them.

What My Mother Speaks

As Chinese New Year approaches (the best holiday, really, with the optimum permutation of food, family festivities and money), it is inevitable that I would contemplate how much more concrete the ‘Hong Kong’ facet of my identity has become since spending two years abroad. And enclosed within that facet, as the city is plastered with more and more fai chun (auspicious characters and couplets calligraphed onto bright red paper), is the problem of my mother tongue.

Against my own (and my family and friends’) expectations, I enrolled in a Hong Kong university four months ago. Since my early childhood, initially for no other reason than a romanticised Great Britain constructed from The Five Find-Outers and Harry Potter, I had always envisioned myself studying in the halls of some centuries-old English institution for my university career. It was only when I reached the wholly surprising conclusion that yes, I do want to be a doctor, and yes, I want to be a doctor in Hong Kong, that I grudgingly admitted Hong Kong is the most practical choice. Continue reading “What My Mother Speaks”

Moi, en français

J’ai lu récemment un paragraphe du blogue d’une vieille camarade de classe, dans lequel elle a discuté de ses personnages différents quand elle emploie les langues différentes. C’est un phénomène scientifique – nous adoptons des personnalités, des manières distinctes avec les langues différentes. Et sa réflexion m’a incité à réfléchir quelle sorte de personne je suis quand je parle le français, une matière que j’étudiais avec assiduité pendant sept ans.

Contrairement au cantonais ou même le chinois, je n’ai pas fait apparaître d’une image immédiate. Y auraient-il des différences nettes de ma conduite? D’impressions les autres développeraient de moi? Alors, l’idée me vint soudain que pendant ces sept ans, je parlais le français rarement à l’extérieur de la classe. Sans occasions d’examiner mon ‘caractère français’, ce n’est pas étonnant que je n’aie pas une image plus claire. Néanmoins, je remarque des changements subtils quand même. D’abord, je deviens plus aventureuse avec mes choix des divertissements (français, bien sûr) – je suis attirée par les films d’art et d’essai (normalement, je me sens intimidée), je mets de côté les productions amusantes mais bêtifiantes, je fais attention sciemment à la technique cinématographique, le montage et la réalisation… Non seulement je suis bien plus sensible aux films, j’apprécie les émissions et romans plus aussi. Je les considère comme des œuvres d’art et non pas des simples distractions. Oui, peut-être ces pensées découlent du cliché de la France cultivée et artistique. Mais comme j’ai écrit dans mon dernier paragraphe français, quand on acquiert une nouvelle langue, on s’informe sur la culture et les normes sociales aussi.

Deuxièmement, je fais l’effort d’être poétique. Pour les étrangers comme moi, le français semble vraiment musical à cause des rimes internes abondants et les élisions et liaisons. La juxtaposition des bruits gutturals et légers créent un son chantant aussi. Par conséquent, chaque fois que je dis ou j’écris, je fais attention à la ‘mélodie’ de mes phrases. Je me demande comment les syllabes s’alignent pour modeler les rythmes. Ce qu’il y a bien, c’est qu’on peut dire n’importe quoi pour sembler lyrique – un autre cliché, mais c’est vrai! De plus, j’ai tendance à employer les expressions et les gestes plus exagérés. Il y a un élément particulièrement brûlant quand les Français allongent les voyelles et mettent les accents toniques sur les derniers syllabes. D’une certaine manière, l’intonation ondoyante m’encourage à adopter un langage du corps plus expressif.

Et en dernier lieu, bien que je devienne douce (parce que mon vocabulaire est relativement limité), je deviens quelque peu idéaliste aussi. Peut-être que c’est en raison de mon appréciation augmentée pour les arts, ou l’élégance de la mélodie ondoyante, ou le fait que le français est ma langue enfantine tout de même. Quoique je l’étudiasse pendant sept ans, j’apprenais le chinois (mon autre langue étrangère) depuis deux fois plus de temps. Et peut-être c’est parce que d’habitude, je suis seulement exposée aux problèmes discutables et questions mondiales par les sources en anglais. La crise des réfugiés à Calais? Le BBC, le CNN, The Economist… Je suis Le Figaro et Le Monde, mais je n’ai toujours pas cliqué sur les gros titres (plutôt que de faire défiler distraitement). Encore une résolution pour la nouvelle année!

Pour conclure, il semble que beaucoup d’aspects de ma personnalité devienne plus prononcés (j’ai utilisé le mot ‘plus’ dix fois dans ce paragraphe jusqu’ici). Peut-être (j’utilise ‘peut-être’ beaucoup aussi, mais ces réflexions sont toujours spéculatives) c’est parce que lorsque j’ai commencé à apprendre le français, je m’étais battu lamentablement pour apprendre le chinois depuis neuf ou dix ans. Par contre, j’ai saisi le français vraiment rapidement, et j’ai obtenu les notes meilleures de ma classe. C’était pas surprenant que je suis légèrement plus hardie quand je suis en mode français. Bon, je réfléchir quelle sorte de personne je suis quand je parle mes autres langues?

Les Mondes entiers

Il y a deux choses que vous ne devriez jamais abandonner: l’instrument et la langue. – Une élève de terminale de mon premier lycée

De toute évidence, j’ai déjà raté le premier lorsque j’ai arrêté de jouer du piano et de la cithare chinoise avant que je sois allée en Angleterre. Et à cause de ma paresse, il se peut que je perde le second aussi. Si vous regardez la page Currently ou mon Goodreads, vous remarquerez que le même livre français avait figuré dans la partie ‘reading’ pendant cinq mois. Donc, ce paragraphe est une tentative de préserver mon aptitude s’effaçante. Notez le mot “s’effaçante” – je m’excuse pour mes fautes nombreuses. Si vous parlez le français, corrigez-moi s’il vous plaît!

J’ai découvert mon amour pour les langues quand j’avais environ sept ou huit ans. J’aimais beaucoup un anime (après coup, l’émission était vraiment hérissante, mais l’intrigue banale plaisais aux écolières jeunes) et j’ai supplié ma mère de me laisser avoir des leçons de japonais. Bien que j’aie commencé cet hobby en raison d’un réflexe soudain, je m’ai rendue compte que je possède un intérêt réel pour l’apprentissage des singularités et des nuances des langues différentes. On peut comprendre les attitudes d’une culture étrangère dans une mesure qu’est impossible d’atteindre avec des autres façons. On peut interpréter leurs médias et publications directement. Et on peut s’entretenir avec les autres qui étions issus des milieux très divers. Contrairement aux autres matières, les langues m’offrent des mondes entiers (🎧 Ce rêve bleu). C’est éculé, mais cette profusion d’opportunités semblait incroyablement séduisante.

Malheureusement, comme la musique, la langue est insaisissable. Sans entraînement continuel, son aisance dégrade rapidement. Il est nécessaire qu’on se plonge dans les œuvres du pays – une tâche intimidante et quelquefois usante. Après tout, de nos jours digitals, il est facile de chercher les sous-titres et les traducteurs intégrés. Pourquoi doit-on utiliser toujours tellement de temps et d’effort? De même, nous savons que les conversations avec les personnes originaires sont l’exercise le plus utile, mais d’habitude, nous sommes trop gênés. L’acquisition d’une langue est un art qui a besoin d’assiduité continue.

Et mon progrès personnel? Ma compréhension du japonais est pratiquement inexistante. Mon vocabulaire latin aussi. En plus de mes langues maternelles (l’anglais, le chinois et le cantonais), ma seule activité linguistique restante est le français. Ce fait me propulse dans l’auto-apprentissage proactif, et la rédaction de cette réflexion. Alors, quelles sont mes prochaines mesures? Bon, il est probablement une sage idée de finir le roman susdit. (Je lis encore le premier chapitre, c’est honteux.) En outre, je prévois de publier au moins un paragraphe français chaque mois. Ainsi, je peux garantir que je rafraîchirai mes compétences régulièrement. Gaspiller encore tant d’ans que je consacrais à étudier une autre langue, quel dommage!

On Diversity

Yet another post stolen from a college essay. Two days ago, a university emailed me a stack of essay prompts and forms to complete – just four days before my IB results will be released. Somewhat irritated (alright, very irritated), I thought: Couldn’t they just wait until then? I might not make my offer anyway. Unfortunately, the essays were due this morning, and I was (and am) still in Taiwan without a laptop. I had to resort to using my cousin’s yesterday evening, which refused to run its only word-processing software. Thankfully, our hotel has a working Internet connection, so I dutifully copied the fonts and formats of the forms on Google Drive.

All three essay prompts were maddeningly vague (we only had to choose one). For some friends, this was probably a godsend. But for me, already nonplussed at the idea of actually having to think during my vacation, I was only even more annoyed. In the end, at some hour long past midnight, utterly defeated by the word limits of one of the forms, I simply gunned for the topic that I had already rehashed countless times in my US applications: cultural diversity. At least this university opted for a slightly less conventional direction, asking for both the values and the problems of a highly diverse community, all presented in a specific encounter. It may seem blatantly obvious to inhabitants of cosmopolitan cities that multicultural, multilingual populations face unique challenges, but in the essays that I had had to write so far, a purely positive spin was always expected.

In any case, the encounter that immediately sprang into my mind had occurred during my final year at my English boarding school. On an otherwise unremarkable winter evening, a close friend suddenly exclaimed, “I wish I could visit China!” Without much thought, I automatically replied, “Then go.” “I can’t, they eat dogs there.” Granted, she had never set foot on Asian soil in her entire life. And people do still eat dogs in very few isolated rural regions, despite many residents living in considerably less impoverished conditions. (The practice of eating dogs is a relatively universal characteristic of areas suffering from famines; historically, it has been recorded on all continents, including the Western cultures that condemn it so vehemently today.) It is also true that the Western and international media focus on communities where dog eating does persist, because commenting on the vast majority of the Chinese people’s nonexistent interest for dog meat would not make particularly gripping news.

Nonetheless, I was still caught off guard. I had thought that in such an international environment – our school prides itself on actively accepting 80 strong cohorts representing over 40 nationalities each for every incoming Sixth Form class – everyone would recognise this stereotype as largely just that, a stereotype. Admittedly, I know relatively little about my friend’s own culture beyond the events commonly taught in History and significant enough to appear in the international news. But I like to think that any misconceptions I may have are never founded on something so widely recognised as a ridiculous stereotype that it is now the punchline of countless clichéd memes.

What shocked me even more, however, was when I tried to tell her that no, dog eating is not rampant in China and she retorted, “How would you know? You’re from Hong Kong, not China.” While I appreciate her recognition that Hong Kong and China are not interchangeable, I still felt that as a Chinese national, I was much more likely to have the better understanding of the dog eating situation on the mainland than someone who identifies as a European and who had only ever travelled within western Europe.

So what are the values and problems of highly diverse communities? Let me begin by acknowledging that despite the singular incident mentioned above, I personally experienced overwhelmingly more benefits than problems. Still, spending 24 hours a day with students from backgrounds very different from my own inevitably led to clashes – cultural, dispositional, political… While it was a springboard for lively debates, congregating so many cultures also highlighted unfair stereotypes and inaccurate preconceptions. Almost every cliché that I had heard of was thrown at me during my first term in England. “How is your English so good? You must have grown up in America.” In good humour, I would reply, “Your nation did only colonise us for 150 years.” Another one: “[A friend’s name] is hot for an Asian.” Complete strangers would approach me in the library asking mathematics questions, without even bothering to introduce themselves or ask me what subjects I take. Every interaction enlightens us about another nuance of our cultures’ influences on our behaviours, but they also create opportunities for miscommunication. Such is the dual nature of diversity. And this was only considering a community that spoke a unifying language fluently – in this case, English.

But having discussed both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, it becomes apparent that the ‘bad’ are just stepping stones to the ‘good’. Every (usually unconsciously) microaggressive comment is another opportunity to clarify. Every argument against your nation and culture is another chance to refute, reflect, even be proven wrong. And when understanding cannot be reached, at least we become acutely aware of the pitfalls that we should avoid next time, or the prejudices that we subscribe to too steadfastly. When there is deliberate racism, it builds our resolve. As we navigate the labyrinth of political correctness, we become extraordinarily prepared for our futures as global citizens. And so, while I know I sound terribly cheesy, I still conclude that a diverse community is the best community of all.