Posted in Books, Politics, Reviews

The Approximation of Meaning: Book Review – Babel by R.F. Kuang

I’ve been sitting at my desk for half an hour, staring at a blank Word page, surrounded by bits of scratch paper that contain hastily scribbled, half-formed thoughts; wracking my brain, typing and deleting in quick succession, attempting to figure out how on earth I was going to write this review.

I want to write it in a way that will do it justice, because I think this is one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. 

I first bought Babel because, ever since I started studying Mandarin a year ago, I have been obsessed with authors and stories that give voice to the history, culture, and experiences of the Chinese people. When I learned that Babel’s author and its’ main character were Chinese, I immediately made my way to the nearest Waterstones to buy a special edition of the book, with its spray-painted edges and beautifully made cover. 

I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. The blurb was quite vague and didn’t give a lot of information about the plot, apart from the fact that the story was set in Oxford and is a reimagined history of the British Empire, with hints of magical realism involved. I was half afraid it was going to be another dark academia novel that was overly long and exceedingly pretentious (I’m looking at you Atlas Six), with entitled, self-involved characters that half the readers wouldn’t be able to relate to. 

The truth is probably quite the opposite. Babel is fundamentally a story about people who struggle with their place in this world, whose lives are driven by a desperate wish to be recognised as people, rather than as objects. It is without a doubt a commentary on the impact of colonialism, and the problematic issues of class and racial divide that comes along with it. 

I would love to be able to discuss these very important matters, especially in light of the current geopolitical climate, where countries are being affected by the actions of a mad tyrant, and where the world and its leaders are increasingly focused on what divides, rather than on what unites. However, I don’t feel like I can broach these subjects with any kind of credibility. I can’t even articulate my political views to myself, let alone to the 360-odd followers of this blog (only 5% of whom will actually read this post).

My book reviews have always been personal, and I always talk about the things that really resonated with me. And there is a specific moment in Babel that turned this from just another book that I would have forgotten about in a week, to a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Posted in Health and Well-Being, Lifestyle, london, Self-Discovery, Stress Relief

Learning Mandarin: A Journey of Language and Learning and Finding Myself

Part 1: Self-Image: 我是张丽安. My name is Angela.

I learned how to read and write my name in Chinese 张丽安 (zhāng lì ān) even before I learned how to write it in English.

The very first sentence I ever learned in any language is 我是中国人. 

This literally translates to I (我 wǒ) + am (是 shì) + China (中国 zhōng guó) + person (人 rén).

I find it somewhat ironic that pretty much as soon as I learned to speak I was using Chinese to reaffirm my identity as Chinese, even though I am technically Filipino (菲利宾人) and these days I mostly read, speak and process thoughts in English.

Chinese is the story of my childhood, it’s as much a part of my history as the scars on my legs (because I used to attract mosquitoes like honey to the bees), the lumps on my fingers (from a lifetime of gripping my pens too hard) and my craving for sweets whenever I’m stressed. 

I have a very complicated relationship with Chinese – the language, the culture, and that part of me that is undeniably 中国人. I can’t help but associate it with the feeling of being boxed in, with that constant pressure to conform to certain societal and cultural standards. 

As I saw it, to be Chinese (and to be Filipino on top of that) required adherance to long-standing traditions: the subservient role of the woman, the obligation to prioritise managing a home over having a career, and the expectation that certain milestones – like marriage and giving birth – has to occur by a certain age. Anyone who knows me can see why this would chafe. 

I went through a period of my life where I was determined to make everyone, including myself, forget that I was Filipino-Chinese. I’m not really sure if this was a conscious decision, if it was a direct result of me wanting to rebel against expectations, or if there were other mental calisthenics involved.

But for the first few years of my life in London I was on a mission to be more British than even the British. More European than the Europeans. The most Westernised non-Westerner you will ever meet. Anything apart from Asian.  

I embraced all the opportunities and freedom that my adoptive home had to offer, wide-eyed and dreamy, like Rapunzel stepping out of the tower for the first time. I tried my hardest to make friends with non-Asians, to be invited to Friday nights at the local pub, to learn to love Sunday roasts, and to go to house parties where no one served adobo.

I tried to enrich my mind with the right kind of books and television shows so that I can be conversant in the sort of topics that my non-Asian colleagues talk about, to like art and history, and pretend to know the rules of rugby (I really DON’T) – all whilst revelling, with embarrassing superiority, in my “excellent” grasp of the English language (spoken with an American accent of course, but some things can’t be helped).

But I guess once you reach a certain age, you suddenly realise how exhausting it is to wake up every morning feeling like you always have something to prove, and to constantly have to put on a mask that hurts your face because the dimensions don’t fit.  You get to a point where you realise that you have the right to breathe, and to just be, same as everybody else.  

So, you take what feels like the first gulp of air after years of drowning, and then you begin the long process of taking a long hard look at and reconciling all the parts that make you uniquely you

It feels a little awkward and scary at first, like putting a t-shirt on for the first time after a long hard winter of wearing jumpers. It feels like you have to have some kind of jacket, some kind armour, because you don’t know if you can bear to be so exposed. But then you walk out the door and you realise your skin is made of much tougher stuff than you thought it was.

There’s a tiny spring in your step that gets bigger the further you go, when you suddenly realise that you’re going to be okay