What Language do I Write in?

I’m a writer who writes in Mandarin Chinese. I’m a writer who’s always been writing about foreign culture in Mandarin. For example, about design, startups and the industries in the Bay Area. About spirituality, paganism and even buddhism which I read about all in English. About city cultures, food and local flavors. About buzzwords and current trends and slangs and the English language.

The time I’m developing my determination to write is also the time I’m reading the most in a foreign language. Come to think of it, I don’t really consider it a foreign language anymore. It’s natural to me. Not in terms of how good I am in this language, but in how it’s a part of my everyday life, my natural communication tool, my natural channel for artistic and spiritual and mundane and practical purposes. So many of the things I want to learn and do came to me in English.

With so much information and experience inside me built on English and English-speaking culture, I become puzzled when I want to write. Do I write in Chinese, or English?

This could be broken down to several ways to look at it.

One is the the affinity of the content and audience. Of course I like to write as if talking to friends, with like-minded people. So if the thoughts I’m reflecting on is cultivated in the English world, it feels so much closer and warmer to address to those people as if you’re already on the same page. The people who read the same blogs and magazine as I do. The people who are interested in similar cultural events as I do. They would be my natural reader, and I can talk in the same language that we’re all familiar with. In this case English is the first language. If I write in Chinese, Chinese becomes the foreign language, needing introduction, orientation, translation and lost of context. There’ll still be readers, but since I’m ignorant of who they might be, I’d be needing to write in a different style, an introducing, journalism style establishing a context, because they don’t have the common ground to jump right in and immediately be clear of what I’m talking about.

Another is practical audience and purpose. In which language can this topic gain more eyeballs or monetary value? Is this topic more scarce or valuable in Chinese or English? Which language is more likely to land me a publication opportunity? If this is a column topic I’m already establishing, than probably I should write for the sake of growing that “collection.” The thing is, most topics I’m interested in are not widely presented in Chinese, which is good in terms of market. However, Chinese writing is cheap labor. To flip sides again, English writing is not a good source of income either unless you’re established and working with publishers, or is disciplined enough to scope, write and market books after books. The internet is flooded with information and writings in English. I’m bound to drown in there, or not — and connect to a network for myself.

Probably 1 out of 5 people I meet in San Francisco identifies themselves native to 2 or more cultures and language. It’s not just how long you spend in one culture that makes you identify with one. It’s the kind of connection you have with it, the purpose it served and the hole it filled in your life, and the level of impact as well.

There must be a genre of writings that emphasis and muses on this multi-language influence. It’s not an obvious genre. I’m not aware of which writers and works best represent this area. They do come to me, little by little,  and I plan to grow this garden, where writers (who are especially bounded to language) both struggle and find pleasure in ambiguity and undefined-ness.

Through all those moments where I wasn’t sure which language to write in, I mostly end up not even writing. Through deliberate writing in English, which I didn’t even consider a practical training for career and income, now becomes a matter-of-fact practice. Sure, I can, I should, and I want to write as much as possible in English. I am this mixed, this unique, this simple and I’d better explore even more.

What pain, what fun!


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