Translator’s Note: “On Whom to Lean: The Life Stories of the War-Torn Generation of Chinese Americans at Rossmoor” (#ChineseAmerican #OralHistory #Memoirs #Biographies)


I believe that fate is what we make for ourselves. However, the traditional Chinese notion of yuanfen – serendipity – came to mind when I signed on to translate Whom to Lean On: Out a War-Torn Country: Life Stories of Senior Chinese Americans in Rossmoor (2015) from Chinese to English. (See below: The English edition, published in August 2017, has been re-titled as On Whom to Lean: The Life Stories of the War-Torn Generation of Chinese Americans at Rossmoor.)

I used to work as a freelance translator, before finally settling down in June 2012 to help emerging and established English-language authors, literary agents and publishers to promote their titles as digital and print books to the Chinese World. Still, even with a huge workload (I also help Chinese-language authors both within and outside of China to promote their titles across the world), I often check various websites for their posts of English/Chinese and Chinese/English translation jobs, just to keep in touch with the latest market trends.

On this fine day in March 2016, here in Melbourne, Australia, I happened to browse through the numerous translation jobs posted on a website and bumped into this particular call for a professional translator to translate a book from Chinese to English. This project was unique from the start because the book’s author, Ms Zongyi Li from Rossmoor, Walnut Creek, California, United States of America, included the book’s full title and its introduction in the call, precious information that is commonly revealed only after a freelance translator has paid good money to be eligible to bid for translation jobs. As it happened, I was then able to search for details about the book and its author on the Internet.

It took me three hours to locate Zongyi’s email address in a short article published by the online edition of Rossmoor News on November 18, 2015. I immediately contacted her to introduce myself and express my willingness to work on the project – and received her response within four hours! In her email, Zongyi said she was surprised to hear from me, as she had only posted the project several hours before I read it on the aforementioned website. More importantly, Zongyi said she had been “waiting for someone appropriate to drop from the heavens” for months, as On Whom to Lean is not a project that any translator can work on. Not only must the suitable candidate be a highly advanced user of both English and Chinese languages (including a good grasp of classical Chinese literature), but he or she also needs to be able to convey the words and manners of speech of the 14 senior Chinese Americans interviewed in this book.

I knew I was one of the very few translators who could do this job justice, because I majored in Chinese language and literature in Taiwan and am a fluent reader and writer of both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Having studied, worked and lived for two years in the United States and nearly 20 years in Australia, my English language is significantly advanced.

Most importantly, I spent seven years researching and writing a PhD thesis on the formation, circulation and standardisation of “Chinese” cultural identity by English-language authors with Chinese ancestry in multicultural societies such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. In order to understand how these authors identify themselves and/or are identified by readers and critics as “Chinese”, I studied the history of Chinese migration and settlement across the world and have always been interested in learning of the latest books published by “Chinese” authors in the West. Whether these were written in English or have been translated from Chinese, what intrigues me is and will always be the many types of “Chineseness” conveyed by the authors and/or expected by Western readers and critics.

As a book of oral history, On Whom to Lean is a collection of conversations between Zongyi, herself a brilliant scholar, and 14 senior Chinese Americans (and their spouses) who retired in the same community of Rossmoor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Also included are the adventures and achievements of two other distinguished Chinese residents (and their spouses) in Rossmoor who passed away well before this book. While these men and women are now in their 90s, they represented the first wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in the United States after the Second World War. They wanted to study in America in order to return home and serve their fellow people, but became stranded in this country after the Communists took over the Chinese Mainland. Cut off from family and friends and forced into survival mode, they worked hard, settled down, and eventually built amazing careers in this migrant nation.

As I read and translated these life stories, I was deeply moved by the youthful ambitions and adventures of these individuals in China and how their dreams were shattered while in America due to the sudden and irrevocable change of Chinese Government in 1949. Grateful for a chance to stay in the United States, this land of opportunity, they struggled to survive while doing their best to give back to American society and its people. Among them were leading experts in petrochemistry, engineering, architecture, singing, painting and Chinese culinary arts, as well as an internationally renowned filmmaker and two highly experienced translators for the United Nations. They have contributed much to the American Dream, while serving as role models for later generations of Chinese and other immigrants who seek to serve their adopted country. And when they eventually had a chance to visit China, they did their best to give back to their homeland. These men and women are truly global citizens, comfortable between languages and cultures. They have fulfilled their life’s goals and are now keen to help  others pursue and achieve success.

I know I have learned a lot from these senior Chinese Americans, as their life stories fill a gap in existing scholarship on the Chinese diaspora in America. They have lived through history and written new chapters based on first-hand experience, enabling readers to comprehend life in China in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s as well as the rapid economic growth and dramatic social and cultural changes in America throughout the second half of the 20th century. Most importantly, I learned the nature and significance of the often stereotyped “Chinese” characteristics of hard-working, enduring hardships, modesty, and filial piety. As a matter of fact, these are common features of migrants across our world today, a world that is divided by a myriad of prejudices in every imaginable way. Indeed, these are fundamental characters of all mankind that cannot and should not be distorted, disputed or denied.

I would like to thank Zongyi, author of On Whom to Lean, for this wonderful opportunity to translate a great book. A big thank-you also goes to Mr Tianchi Zhao, editor of the Chinese edition, whose intelligent and graceful writing is a challenge to translate but serves as an example of genuine traditional Chinese scholarly work. Much of my gratitude goes to Ms Theresa Kuo, editor of the English edition, and Mr Steve Goschnick, my proofreader and a sub-editor approved by Zongyi and Theresa, for helping to make my English translation better. Most importantly, I am grateful for the 16 senior Chinese Americans (and their spouses) whose life stories are documented in this book. Thank you for allowing me to convey your inspiring life journeys to the English World.

– Christine Yunn-Yu Sun, Melbourne, Australia, March 2017


Updates September 22, 2017: On Whom to Lean: The Life Stories of the War-Torn Generation of Chinese Americans at Rossmoor was published on August 7, 2017. You can find more details about the book (and make a purchase?!) here. I recently learned from Zong-Yi that John Moe and Peter Li have joined the San Francisco Team to bring forth this valuable book. The Melbourne Team — my sub-editor Steve Goschnick and me — are proud of and grateful for their assistance.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Special Mention: A book of oral history featuring the war-torn generation of Chinese Americans | Journey to the Middle Kingdom

Leave a Reply, Please

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: