This is my story. This is where I come from…
Dad was raised in China from the age of two, after my grandfather moved from Paris to Shanghai in the early 1900s to work as an engineer on the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway linking China to Russia.
In his adulthood, Dad enjoyed playing football and became infatuated with my mom, the Chinese daughter of a diplomat. And so my future parents, Georges and Yufon, fell in love and got married in 1951. Two years later my brother Roger was born.
The Cultural Revolution that erupted in the 1960s wasn’t favorable to foreigners, forcing my future family (I wasn’t born yet) to flee Continental China. They spent one year in Hong Kong, another year in the Philippines, and finally they landed in France where my sister Léa was born. The country was in bad shape after the Second World War and my parents decided to try their luck in a young country full of promises: Brazil.
They took a ship and arrived at the city of São Paulo without knowing a single word of Portuguese. Those were tough times for them. An engineer like his own father, Dad eventually found a job in his field. Mom became a model to famous brands from that era and modeled in France for a while (Dad was not very happy about it).
Communication at home consisted of a strange melting pot. Dad’s Chinese wasn’t good enough nor was Mom’s French, so they spoke between themselves in English and with their siblings in broken Portuguese. I arrived unexpectedly in the 1960s as an “accident” and soon my grandma Zhēn Zhū came to live with us. I grew up learning Chinese at home with her and Portuguese at school.
In the meantime Dad spoke in French to me:
“Kiki, apporte-moi mes lunettes!”
I couldn’t bother and always replied in Portuguese:
English was a mystery to me. Grandma spoke it fluently, but I had already figured it was far easier to learn Chinese for communicating with her. And learn I did. I even became the official interpreter in the quarrels between Grandma and my Brazilian nanny Arlinda, rushing back and forth from the bedroom to the kitchen to deliver their bilingual insults.
“Linda, Granny said you are a lazy demon and forgot her tea.”
“Tell her she’s a pain in the butt.”
“Grandma, Linda said you’re a pain in the butt…”
Besides interpreting, I loved to read and write. From an early age I became a grammar buff. At school I helped the teacher test my classmates while they recited the 14 tenses of the verb “to bring” in all 6 pronominal variations. Portuguese verbs are harder than English verbs, as every pronominal tense has a unique form. You can say in English: I/you/he/we/you/they will bring.
This is how it goes in Portuguese: Eu trarei / tu trarás / ele trará / nós traremos / vós trareis / eles trarão. (And don’t forget the accents!)
Multiplying that by 14, you end up with 84 different forms to memorize for each verb. I knew them all for every single verb, regular or irregular. As a daughter of immigrants with Asian features, my way of blending into the Brazilian culture was by conquering language.
Poet Fernando Pessoa once said language is the true motherland. You can only feel at home in a country once you master its language. Later in life I became a translator converting English, Spanish and French works into Portuguese. I also edited Portuguese texts to perfection, devouring and regurgitating complex grammar rules that I would study at breakfast.
I moved to the United States, becoming an immigrant just like my parents and perfecting my English for 9 years. Upon my return to Brazil, I wrote my debut novel RED: A Love Story in Portuguese and English. It was a double challenge: writing a story for the first time, and then retelling it in a different language.
When I moved back to the United States, I realized how dwelling deep into English for my novel had made a difference. During my first time living here, I wasn’t that comfortable around English even though I managed to communicate well enough. Now I felt truly at home in the US.
Fernando Pessoa is right. Language is the true motherland.
As for Chinese, my grandma died when I was ten and from then on I refused to speak it. Chinese was our special bond and I didn’t want to share that with anyone else. I used to speak Mandarin like a chatterbox when I was little. Now I have forgotten it all, except for these words:
Wŏ ài ni po po.
Which translate as:
I love you, Granny.