Sui Sin Far and Cultural Translation: Chinese Diaspora Then and Now

Image of Sui Sin Far, Image from the private collection of Diana Birchall, granddaughter of Winnifred Eaton via Wikimedia / CC by S.A>-4.0

The first time I read through our syllabus, I almost didn’t notice Sui Sin Far. She was listed as our second to last set of readings—an assignment too far into the future for my brain to really care about—but the obviously Chinese-spelling of her name stopped me in my tracks. This was probably the exact reaction Edith Maude Eaton was hoping for when she originally chose her penname to be Sui Sin Far, the Cantonese pronunciation of the words for “narcissus flower.”

Born to a British father and Chinese mother, Edith Maude Eaton immigrated to Canada with her parents at an early age. It was there that she first began working as a stenographer, but it would be her freelance work for Montreal Newspapers documenting events in Chinese American communities that would really cement her interest in Chinese culture. And although she was never able to fully give up stenography and fully pursue writing, Eaton would go on to write several articles and short stories depicting life for Chinese American or Eurasian women in order to combat the prejudices and stereotypes she had witnessed her entire life1.

It was the first time I had heard of Sui Sin Far, but I was super excited to read her work—she is considered one of the first Chinese American authors, and it’s not often that you get to read works by Asian Americans outside of classes dedicated to doing exactly that. And I wasn’t disappointed. I found her to stories to be engaging and clever and especially relatable—how many times had my mom or dad approached me to ask about a certain English phrase in the same way that Mr. Spring Fragrance asks about the American poetry?

But what I didn’t expect was the feeling that followed—one of dread, of fear. A sinking feeling in my stomach, to be cliché about it. Which made me feel stupid, because I liked these stories and it should be natural to share the things you like. What was there to be afraid of? But I knew it was the knowledge that we would have to talk about these stories, talk about Chinese life in a clinical classroom setting where no one would really, truly understand that made me upset.

And then I realized that this was nothing new, that it was a fear I knew deeply and intimately, one that follows most immigrant children their entire lives. It’s the fear of being made fun of for having a weird name, for eating weird food at lunch, for wearing weird clothes. And let’s be explicit—by weird I mean ethnic. Non-white. For me personally, and for Sui Sin Far, that means Chinese. And sure, you could say that all of that happens because of racism (duh), but I think it’s too easy and too simple to just sweep the issue under the catch-all rug of racism and call it a day.

It’s more complicated than that and deserves a deeper look. The core of the issue has to do with understanding. More precisely, it is a matter of how understanding audiences are when confronted with experiences they don’t know, and how understanding they can be with the information they are given. In this context, it becomes a matter of cultural translation.

Consider Mrs. Spring Fragrance. The story includes a number of traditional Chinese practices and values. Some of these are obvious and explicit—the practice of arranged marriages, Chinese conceptions of love. Some of these are not so obvious—the phrasing Mrs. Spring Fragrance often uses to address her husband, the deference expected between a man and his wife and how that deference looks in real life. But none of the Chinese culture that is brought up is given any context. It’s presented at face value, as “Chinese,” with no nuance or explanation.

Of course, it could be argued that this act in and of itself is subversive—why should minorities have to constantly explain themselves? It’s exhausting work and it’s not our burden to educate you. But the danger that lies with a lack of context is one of audience reaction: how is a white audience supposed to understand any of this? Without any knowledge of Chinese culture, it’s too, too easy to just assume the worst about everything that’s happening in these stories—that Chinese people are just weird and backwards. They have arranged marriage, for god’s sake. This is the assumption that white people make every day in real life when they see something they don’t understand; this is why intersectionality is so important. But unfortunately, Sui Sin Far’s stories do little to discourage such assumptions.

Part of the problem lies in her representation of Chinese culture as well. Some of it she gets right, but a lot of it she gets wrong—somehow, Sui Sin Far has picked some of the most unsympathetic parts of Chinese culture to present in her stories. She’s picked all the parts you see in woodcuts and Orientalized visions of the East: the riches and the jewelry and the incense and the fans and the jade and the arranged marriage and the misogyny. It’s so unbelievably easy to look at the dynamics between men and women in Chinese culture and write it off as backwards and misogynistic without an understanding of the actual intricacies of those relationships. Mrs. Spring Fragrance signing her letter off as “Your ever loving and obedient woman” is most likely a formality that’s been lost in translation, but that context is never given to the audience, leaving them to take it at face value and assume the worst. In some ways Sui Sin Far’s writing tries to present Chinese culture in a positive light, but in other ways it’s done the exact opposite by oversimplifying the culture to a palatable, stereotypical form and then refusing to give context for her audience. We can see this visually as well; even the art that accompanies her work draws from stereotypically “asian” imagery that has no real connection to the actual material.

Title page of Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044023818347&view=1up&seq=13. Accessed May 9th, 2020.

It’s important to note, however, that this conversation is a complicated one because it is very likely that Sui Sin Far herself did not have the necessary context to explain Chinese culture. She was half Asian and didn’t know Chinese; I think it’s a fair assumption to make that her knowledge of Chinese Culture was far from perfect and most likely influenced by the prejudices and stereotypes surrounding her. And I understand where she’s coming from. Any Asian American raised in the US will probably tell you a variant of the same story: “I wish I was more connected to my culture.” There are entire facebook groups dedicated to this exact feeling and experience; I’ve had this exact conversation with most of my Asian American friends.

subtle asian traits Facebook meme, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10222803431179278&set=p.10222803431179278&type=1&theater, Accessed May 9th, 2020.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical. Maybe people won’t jump to the worst-case conclusions, maybe they are more willing to try to understand and learn than I give them credit for. But if that was the case, I’d like to think that our world would be a lot more open and understanding than it is currently.

And maybe I’m being hard too hard on Sui Sin Far. But I want to be hard on her because I like her writing—I think there’s a lot you can get out of it, if you walk into it with eyes open, with at least a basic understanding of Chinese culture and identity politics. We read her because she’s one of the earliest Chinese American writers, but if we’re reading her for that reason, then we need to do some homework. Our reading itself needs to change—if Sui Sin Far couldn’t give us the context we need, then it is up to us, as readers and as humans, to reach for that understanding ourselves and walk in with eyes open.

References:

[1] “Biography – EATON, EDITH MAUD – Volume XIV (1911-1920) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography.” Home – Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/eaton_edith_maud_14E.html.

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