Letters from China: Part 8

Writing about Chine has left me exhausted, physically and mentally. It wasn’t a clever way to end a rare spectacular summer in England.

Letters from China brought back memories when I used to be the reader of my illiterate mother 30 years ago. Though my mother’s letters to China were mostly written by a professional letter writer in Singapore, letters from China arrived by mail.

My mother would ask her children ‘who recognise words’ to read to her. My sister would read some days, and I would read again on another day. My mother just wanted to hear the voice from the same letter again and again. I was so familiar with the letters that I told my mother “I could read your letters with my eyes closed.” I even told my mother that all the letters were the same. “Mother, you brother is China is just so repetitive.” I was fifteen.

Life as a teenage reader

I must have whined, having to read letters from China often. To be precise, my job was to interpret. I interpreted the letters from the Chinese script into the language that my mother could possibly understand. My mother’s language is Hokkien, not Mandarin. I am the one “who recognises words’ and I was educated in Mandarin Chinese. The letters were mostly written in formal Chinese, full of idioms and hyperbole. My conversational Hokkien, with limited vocabulary related to everyday life, was insufficient for me to convey the essence of the letters fully from Mandarin into Hokkien. My interpretation therefore involved some keywords from Mandarin and the use of gestures to enhance the dramatic effect.

This was an 800-character letter to my mother in Oct 1979, by her nephew in China. He was in the army and was unable to meet my mother on her first visit in China. Letters from China series by Janet on Janet's Notebook.

Interpreting letters from China into Hokkien to my mother

I made up stories when reading letters became tedious. While interpreting the repetitive sad story lines to my mother, I would occasionally add a few creative lines just to glamourise sadness, before bursting into a silly laugh. Of course my mother knew I was being silly. “Oh no, mother, their roof has come off again!” “Another son wants a wife, mother, please help!” In hindsight, my jokes were not funny at all.

Today I would like to share with you one special letter from China. It was written by my mother’s nephew in 1979. My mother visited China for the first time in 1979, but this young adult had just joined the army, so he missed the chance to meet his only paternal auntie. He wrote a letter of 800 characters with a heartfelt apology, to the auntie that he had never met:

“Now you can see with your eyes”

pattern cloud

October, 1979

“My dear paternal auntie,

Before my writing, I would first like to salute you, and wish you good health, happiness and longevity.”

“My dear auntie, don’t you know how much I have missed you? You are my dearest auntie, with our bones and blood connected. Today, I received a letter from my father informing that auntie has just arrived at our ancestral home on the 25th of September. I have cried and cried reading his letter. ”

This was an 800-character letter to my mother in Oct 1979, by her nephew in China. He was in the army and was unable to meet my mother on her first visit in China. Letters from China series by Janet on Janet's Notebook.

Letters to auntie — our achingly sad situation

“I was in the army in mid August, looking forward to be united with auntie and my eldest auntie. However, we received the tragic news that my eldest auntie had passed away, and your journey to China was being forced to delay. Therefore, I missed the precious chance to meet my dearest auntie. I’ve joined People’s Liberation Army and I was called to return to the army. I must obey the rule to protect my motherland.”

“Dear auntie, now you could see clearly with your own eyes the situation in our family. After so many generations, now we are the only family left in China. We don’t have other relatives in China, and my dear auntie you are abroad, we miss you so much. Every time when we receive auntie’s letter, we are so happy, as if we met face to face. However, our situation is also achingly sad. Auntie, now you’ve returned to our ancestral home, you would have a clear understanding of our situation…..I feel so awful that I am unable to meet auntie, and please accept my sincere apology….

“There were a lot of destruction because of the Gang of Four, but now things are improving. I do hope that auntie, my uncle, and all my cousins could return to China to visit us, to appreciate the new look of my motherland….”

The Letters from China series was inspired by Blog Exercises: Before the Blog by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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25 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 8

  1. slpmartin

    Seems like these letters might make a fine book of interest to those in and outside China in that they demonstrate how life used to be…not sure how you would frame the discussion but just a random thought.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      It’s such a good idea — not a random thought. I have never thought of a book. Writing a book would demand a lot of work. If I get the chance to dig out more stories, I would continue this series.

      It seems that many books on China focused on the Chinese Civil War and 1949. It would be interesting to read about stories of the same period with the heart and soul in the Southeast Asia.

  2. janetweightreed10

    Good morning Janet.
    What a fascinating post, and yes, the letters to your Mother would make an incredibly interesting book. I am fascinated by all things Chinese. When I visit the States at the end of this month, I will be staying with my niece who is married to a very lovely Chinese/American named William. William was born in the States, however, his Mother and Father had to leave China under very difficult circumstances…..I look forward to the day when I can sit down with his Father and hear his story.
    Thank you so much. Janet.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for your appreciation.

      A lot of Chinese people had to leave China under very difficult circumstances in the middle of the last century. For my mother and her generation in the south of China, their main reason was poverty. Many people had thought of returning to their motherland (China) after a few years, but history changed its course and people suffered a lifelong of separation.

      Many years ago, I even met people in London who had left China in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square Incident.

      I hope you enjoy a happy family reunion in the States, and if you get to hear about your side of the Chinese stories, please share with us. All the best to you.

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