Mei-Ling Hopgood is the author of the memoir “Lucky Girl” (see my review) and has been gracious enough to provide me with this guest post while I’m busy with baby.
Has your family read it?
I get this question a lot from readers of Lucky Girl, a memoir about my reunion and relationship with the family in Taiwan that gave me up for adoption. In 1997, I was reunited with my birth parents, six Chinese sisters, a brother who my birth parents adopted, another sister who was also given up and raised in Switzerland and tons of in-laws, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. In the book, I describe my 10-year quest to get to know this colorful bunch and understand the decisions, twists of fate and sad turn of events that made me who I am today.
People are curious to know if my Chinese relatives have read Lucky Girl. My answer is a complicated “kind of.”
From the beginning, the extent of our language and cultural differences has been dizzying – at times funny, but often terribly frustrating. I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Mich., and speak English first, Spanish second and only started learning Mandarin after I met my family. My birth parents, originally from Kinmen Island, speak Mandarin, but their first language is a dialect called Holo (most commonly known as Taiwanese). My sisters in Taiwan speak some English, thank goodness, so we muddled. But there were countless times during our visits over the last decades in which I felt like Bill Murray’s character in the movie Lost in Translation, when a Japanese photographer’s rambling directive gets translated into a few words. I always knew I was missing so much.
This communication gap could be entertaining: the misunderstandings, the over-acted pantomimes and many sisterly Three-Stooges-like exchanges. One that immediately comes to mind happened during my first trip to Taiwan. I had heard the woman who was translating for me say many times: wo bu zhedao. So I asked the sister who sat next to me in the backseat of the car, “What does wo bu zhedao mean?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Wo bu zhedao. Am I saying it right?”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
This went on for a few minutes before another sister turned around from the passenger seat and said: “Wo bu zhedao means I don’t know!”
Other times, the language barrier was a much more difficult issue. To this day, even though I’ve studied Mandarin, I can’t hold much of a conversation alone with either biological parent. I’m forever at the mercy of my sisters’ translations, so I know only what they choose to tell me. For a long time, some of them didn’t want me to know the family’s dirty secrets and even those that did were conflicted because they wanted me to accept our family. I kept pushing and, fortunately, there were so many sisters (with independent minds and mouths) that someone was bound to fess up. Family drama very much impacted who would talk and translate for me. I wanted to ask my birth father, for example, to clarify some basic facts about our family history, but the sister who lives with him was not speaking to him at that time. No one else wanted to call him either. I’d have to ask him on a visit later.
Despite these challenges, I was determined to get the story right, for myself and the book. It was easy on the American and European side – my American mom and brothers, Swiss sister (who speaks better English than I do) and anyone who had more than a bit part in Lucky Girl read early manuscripts and offered feedback and corrections. I tried to do the same for my birth family, sending copies of the manuscript to Taiwan by email and snail mail over and over. My Australian brother-in-law read and offered help, but I got an excruciatingly slow response from my sisters. A couple kept saying they were reading the manuscript, but had nothing to add. Impossible, I thought. Months went by, and I kept begging. I understood –they had their own jobs, kids and lives, and I myself couldn’t imagine reading a manuscript in Chinese – but couldn’t wait forever. I finally sent my Australian brother-in-law True and False questions, which he read to my sister, who read them over the phone to my birth mother. True or false, Ma was in the vegetable patch when the bombs fell.
As a journalist who has fact-checked her own investigative pieces word-by-word, the potential imprecision was maddening. As a daughter, it was exasperating and sometimes flat-out depressing. A big part of my journey was accepting this imperfect puzzle of a personal history – holes and all – as my own and moving forward. Just as I’ve had to come to terms with the limitations of my emotional relationship with my birth family, I’ve accepted the limits of what they can and will share with me and how much they could contribute to my book. At least some of my sisters say they and Ma are proud that I’ve written Lucky Girl. Whether they will ever really “read” it remains to be seen, and I’m fairly sure they will never understand the nuances if they do. But in the end, this is my side of our story, the truest version that I know.