I wrote a letter to my mother on my computer. It began as an enumerate sort of text, detailing my day — I woke up, I went to yoga, I ate a bowl of porridge, I drove to work — but then quickly spiralled into an unbiddable series of paragraphs about my views on gender politics, feminism and the dire state of our country’s incarceration system.
I highlighted the text, then cut and pasted it into Google Translate. I printed out the document with the Chinese text on an A4 sheet, put it in an envelope, sealed it and put it in a post box. Two days later, my mother called me and told me the sentences were awkward and didn’t make sense. She didn’t quite know what I was getting at, but she was glad I was thinking of her.
I do this twice a week because my mother does not have email. And I do this because she does not speak English. And I don’t speak Mandarin.
I was four years old when my family and I immigrated to Australia. The little Mandarin I had as a child has worn off after 26 years of living in Sydney. My parents had spent the first 35 years of their lives in Taiwan, speaking one language. My father learnt English quickly, running his own travel agency in the city. My mother fulfilled the expectations of her cultural heritage and took on the full-time housekeeping duties of a stalwart housewife and mother.
At school, I quickly learnt that if you wanted to be seen, you had to speak up. And speaking up meant getting really good at this new language. I loved English from the moment I uttered my first syllables. I understood, at a young age that, tied in with learning a new language was the sense that I was being accepted. If I could speak well, use the English language with articulate authority, I might accomplish that ineluctable dream of all migrant children — to “fit in”. But here is the tragedy and truth I discovered very early on — the deeper I went into that relationship with English, the further it took me away from my mother.
For my entire adult life, my conversations with my mother had gone as far as the following:
Me: How are you? Mother: Good. Me: What did you have for lunch? Mother: Noodles. What did you have? Me: A sandwich.
I hadn’t been able to tell her what I wanted out of life. How I felt when I fell in love and when I fell out of love and all the emotions in between, because I had no words for them in Mandarin.
This all changed in 2006 when Google launched its free online translation service.
At 21, I began writing long letters to my mother. And 10 years later, I’m still sending them off twice a week. Often, the translation is syntactically and grammatically wrong, the semantics all over the place. But writing to my mother feels so liberating — even if the metaphorical expressions I use often get lost in translation. Simple sentences are often lost. “Thank you for driving me to the station” was translated into Chinese as “Thank you for servicing me the vehicle to the station.”
How ironic, that someone like me, an antiquarian who wrote handwritten letters to friends during high school and university (this eventually paled out when I was discouraged by the paucity of letters I received in response), technologically illiterate by most people’s standards — I have a total of two apps on my phone — would eventually owe it to technology for bringing me closer to my mother.
Communicating is one thing. Understanding is another. The experience of writing letters to my mother, and our staid conversations proceeding from them, is both humbling and frustrating. Technology has aided us in finding this half-satisfying resolution. Ultimately, Google Translate helps us form some sort of bond, even if it’s not the apotheosis of the mother-daughter relationship I have always yearned for.
It’s the gesture that becomes my form of communicating my love for her, not necessarily the content of my letters. Just as she has always used food to show her love, I am simply sitting down, typing out sentences and sending her pieces of paper with ink on them. Each time she receives my letters, she knows I love her. And isn’t that what I was trying to do all along?
Jessie Tu is a Sydney-based writer and teacher