‘Letters Home’ Jennifer Wong
In this collection, home isn’t a fixed place. It could be a location, a shared dream, language or even finding a restaurant that serves familiar food. The opening poem “of butterflies” explores these complexities,
‘It’s British summer time
in my living room
but my watch in the drawer
moves seven hours ahead.
The past: is the door still open?
The future: am I a filial daughter,
living so far away from my parents?
Wearing her marmalade camouflage,
the butterfly of unknowing
pollinates in one world and another.’
It captures that sense of being in two places at once and not quite fully in either. Another poem, ‘Chinese Classifiers’, looks at language and how some words don’t translate easily,
‘How come the gan is the unit for a room
but is also good for a school?
Why is Beijing more polluted than London
and Hong Kong different from the mainland?
How much freedom have you got there?
I tell you I don’t know. Someone handed us the rules.’
Naturally, gan makes sense in Chinese because the surrounding words would give it context. But in English, it’s baffling that it measures both a room and a school because there’s no direct equivalent. The questions then flow beyond language to culture and geography. There’s no quick answer to the questions asked and these wouldn’t be questions that would occur to someone growing up in Hong Kong. The English questioner needs to ask a traveller rather than a native. A long sequence, ‘Mountain City’, deals with attempting to settle in England,
‘In Lingnan’s canteen, flipping through the menu
for foreigners, I try to understand
why Jing Sam Sik Dan is translated
into “Steaming Three Kinds of Egg”
I turn back to my Murakami. So when
will we call things by their real names?
There’s no treasure in Cheung Po Tsai’s cave.
In Lady Market bazaar, you ask me
how do you distinguish real jade
from the fake jade… I say, why does it matter?
The real, the fake, the old or the new.
Why the minibus destination still reads
Daimaru Department Store, closed down for years!’
More questions and tricky translations. Three kinds of egg steamed doesn’t make sense in English so can’t be an accurate representation of the Chinese. I’m also guessing the “Lady Market Bazaar” doesn’t sell ladies, but the origins of the name are probably lost and obscured by time. How many times do buildings get referred to by an old name that belongs to someone or some corporation that no longer owns it? Under English law, while vendors are obliged to label goods correctly, it’s down to the customer to establish whether the jade is fake or real, but do labels matter if the customer knows what they are buying? Does it matter if a building is referred to by its old or new name if people know which building you mean? The differences between two cultures are thrown into sharper contrast through a more personal connection in ‘A personal history of soups’,
‘ My brother and I loved your tomato
and fish soup. Your own childhood stemmed from the
taste of egg flower broth your mother used to make.
Coming home: a bubbling clay pot, steam rising from
The lid raised by wooden chopsticks. The juicy cartilage
between the softened bones. The butcher in England
hasn’t a clue if you ask for a soup bone. Say that again? The
only one I can make nowadays is chicken and carrot, even
without fresh lo gai. You said that every Chinese woman
must know how to make soups to catch a good husband.
Except that Alex has never cared because he is a European
vegetarian! The hot and sour soup they have here even
in Royal China, is not half as good.”
It seems the soup in the Royal China restaurant is not authentic or perhaps the problem is that they don’t make soup like the narrator’s mother did and her mother may have raised her to be a good wife to a Chinese man, but she is partner to an English man where the dating rules are different.
“Letters Home” explores the Chinese-British diaspora from the viewpoint of someone beginning to find her place in the world, looking at how to forge an identity which includes her origins and her new life. They don’t offer easy answers or stereotypes. They seek the novelty of experience and the comfort of familiar food. The poems reject exclusion and focus on the things humans have in common, how relationships are built and maintained. The poems themselves are rich in detail and wry observations, making a solid, worthwhile debut.