Fragmented identities and other things lost in translation

campus voices

Being funny in a second language is hard. That was one of the first facts I realized after coming to Duke as an international student. As someone who values a sense of humor and views laughter shared with friends as highlights in my daily life, I was at a loss.

In group conversations, even when my mind is not busy trying to figure out the cultural references being mentioned, often a spark containing a vague hint of a witty response would float near, only to pass me by. I had ideas, many of which died out in my throat because I could not express them.

Coincidentally, this realization happened alongside my struggles as a new writer in Recess. In my average 10 to 12-hour writing process for each article then, about a third of the time was spent looking up the translation from Chinese to English for particular phrases, only to frequently find translations that seemed like chewed-up, spat-out words that completely fell short of the nuance I wanted to convey. 

The parallel between this struggle to my experience of being a stranger was obvious. In trying to present my authentic and holistic self-identity, I couldn’t help feeling boxed up and flattened out. My race and home country are salient in social interactions, but rarely in ways that truly matter to me on a personal level. 

I am fortunate enough to have the ability to speak and write fluently in my second language nearly as well as in my native one, yet I still cannot communicate the intricate beauty of “Shijing” – translated as “The Classic of Poetry” or “The Book of Songs – in English.

At Duke, an inherent shortcoming in what can be called “cultural capital” by virtue of my international background has at times put me on the bleachers. I observe the prototypical American college life, overhearing prototypical conversations, from the sidelines.

It should not be breaking news to say that many students not in the predominant identity groups, especially racial minority and international students, feel unseen or experience alienation. Other Duke students have written about accent-based division and being caught between the fence of two worlds

What might be harder to accept, but is nevertheless the reality, is that even if international students are heard, they are not understood. At least not fully, not in their original, layered, cultural contexts. Pieces of their identities are painfully and inevitably lost in translation.

I wish I could offer a clear, straightforward solution, boiled down into the classic “what, why, how” model of argumentative essays, but it would be naive to assume that the complexity and richness of different cultures could be reduced to a simple prescriptive set of communication rules. The irreducible nature is precisely one of the wonders of human cultures. 

Over my time at Duke, I have learned to sit at ease with discomfort, contradictions and paradoxes. Too often those paradoxes are the ones of coexistent diversity and inclusion – or so Duke claims to have. Instead of offering answers to an unsolvable problem, what I can do is offer another framework for thinking about how to celebrate cultural diversity.

Each year Duke boasts its student body diversity in enrollment statistics. But in emphasizing surface-level diversity without mutual understanding, we only see what differentiates us and miss the opportunities for finding common ground. 

Emphasizing ethnic and national identities overshadow people’s unique characteristics that humanize them and bring different groups of people closer. Genuine interactions and personal connections are starting points for transcending this face-level diversity and eventually, hopefully, understanding people in their unique cultural contexts. 

People are complicated, yet have more commonalities with each other than we think. Many who travel the world say that every place they have been challenged their prior belief about it in some way. 

Indeed, we all tread this earth with our schemas about places and people that are distant and unfamiliar. We don’t realize how different our preexisting notion is from reality, or how much our imagination fails to capture the depth and complexity of actual people and their lived experiences… until we take a step closer and really pay attention. If you are not pleasantly surprised even after doing so, slow down, look again, look harder.

Katherine Zhong | Local Arts Editor

Katherine Zhong is a Trinity junior and local arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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