From the eighteen varieties of potato served at my college’s dining hall, to the narrow cobbled streets of the city centre, Durham University seemed at first glance to be the furthest place from home, where I was surrounded by skyscrapers and shops that closed long after 5pm. Prior to embarking on my university studies, I remember trying to decide which books to bring, leading me to contemplate the most important books to me throughout my entire life.
My eyes landed upon the small, brown, tattered cover of Adeline Yen Mah’s memoir Chinese Cinderella, which I read religiously from the ages of 6 to 8. As the title suggests, upon the arrival of her stepmother, the structure of Yen Mah’s family life changed irreparably. However, unlike Caucasian Cinderella, whose problems were solved by a benevolent fairy godmother, handsome prince, and new shoes, she dealt with the abuse of her stepmother and death in the family through reading.
Durham University seemed at first glance to be the furthest place from home
Inspired by King Lear, Yen Mah eventually won an international playwriting competition, prompting her to consider studying abroad. In simple prose, Yen Mah’s memoir excellently foregrounds the struggle of self-definition, a nuanced glimpse into the complexities of Chinese family structures, and the beauty of literature as escapism and a support system. More importantly, it inspired me to keep reading and encouraged me to pursue my interests in English Literature abroad in the UK.
Another novel which played a very important role throughout my early adolescence was Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, which details the lives of a mother and daughter (the narrator) who immigrated from Hong Kong to New York, but eventually face exploitation by their relatives, who own a sweatshop in Chinatown, resulting in poverty.
Similar to Chinese Cinderella, the narrator uses her academic success as a form of uplifting her family from their circumstances, despite grappling with a language barrier, racism within her monolingual English speaking community, and authority figures who would question her intelligence and intentionally exclude her, while coming of age at the same time. The constant translating between English and Cantonese in the narration, coupled with the highly relevant themes of transitioning from a bilingual culture at home to a monolingual culture in the West, helped prepare me with the skills I needed to study at university away from home.
As a student of English Literature, I encounter a lot of poetry, but should read a lot more of it than I already do. Without hesitation, I can tell you now that my favourite poetry anthology is Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in the UK, and is ethnically half Chinese and half British.
Her poems explore the concept of home, family, and Chinese and British culture, and every poem is a delightful surprise as she plays with language and makes it her own. The imagery she uses is highly allusive and specific, yet the emotions her poetry evokes are almost universal.
I had the privilege of meeting her two years ago after she kindly performed a free poetry reading at the University of Hong Kong. In awe with her presence and her poetry, I was too shy to tell her how much I enjoyed her work. However, after my year at university, where her work was one of the pivotal forces that helped me define my identity, I am certainly confident enough to tell her what I just told you.
Her work was one of the pivotal forces that helped me define my identity
Regardless of where you come from and where you will go next, I hope that the work of these writers will help give you comfort when you’re struggling to find your place in a new environment, inspire you to try your best and keep striving to learn more, and give you hope and determination to enjoy coming of age in university.
Image by Lê Tân on Unsplash