What Bruce Lee’s Films Taught Me About Writing My Mother’s Voice
I know by worrying about a room of mostly white readers I undermine myself, but it’s become instinct. And, honestly, I just get tired.
It’s nighttime in Taipei. Blinking store signs linger in my vision as spots and blurs. My mom drives a little too fast and jagged, making me car sick. I try to hide it and my mom tries even harder to talk to me. “Okay,” she says, “Pronounce it again for me.”
Voices like Ted Thomas speak like they own the English language, inherited it like they would a family heirloom. People are just so generous with white voices. In a very different way, my mom is always so generous with mine.
I used to have this recurring nightmare that I’ve written into a lot of other essays and short stories: I’m in my room. I hear a voice I don’t recognize. Knowing the only people home are my mom and me, I tiptoe out to investigate. It turns out, the voice is my mom. She’s on the phone and her voice is made up of smooth long As, and it’s so deep. It sounds like she’s making shady business deals. I stumble in and she goes back to her accented English like nothing’s happened. Every time I’ve read this nightmare out loud at workshops people smile with their eyes. I’ve never landed how ominous it feels.
I’ve thought a lot (probably too much) about what it means. Maybe I’m threatened at the idea of my mom becoming more assimilated. Maybe I’m secretly harboring an intense internalized racism and fear sneaky Asian people. Maybe I don’t even know my own mother. Maybe I just watch too many poorly dubbed martial arts films.
But the answer that I see in myself is that I can’t stand the sound of my mother’s voice. I’m not always patient enough to teach her to say long As and do the mental translation work to get to know her. I find it hard to stay in the same room as her voice, hear it bounce off the walls.
Writing this essay, I picture her driving in the car, but I hear that crisp nightmare.
When speaking to me, my mom rambles into admissions. Recently, she admitted she thinks I’m strange. Well, actually, she said I feel like a “陌生的東西.” Which means I feel like a ‘strange thing’ to her. But the ‘strange’ of “陌生,” is more specific than ‘strange’ as in odd. It’s the ‘strange’ of ‘stranger,’ unfamiliar and foreign. It never occurred to me that she sensed a disconnect. It snapped me back into attention, I pressed my ear closer to the phone, eager to listen more carefully.
In a 1971 interview on the Pierre Berton Show, Lee is first introduced as “the newest Mandarin superstar!” Berton asks Lee how that can be when Lee doesn’t even speak Mandarin. Lee explains the art of dubbing in martial arts movies, his voice remaining crisp and careful. From his tongue, every English word becomes distinct vowels and consonants. This may sound obvious, given that it’s a celebrity interview, but Lee is always on. He cannot afford to mess up, and he knows it.
Halfway through the interview Berton says, “I’m told that you got the job on The Green Hornet, where you played Kato the chauffer, mainly because you’re the only Chinese-looking guy who can pronounce the name of the leading character, Britt Reid.” Lee laughs and clarifies “I meant that as a joke, of course.” Lee goes on, “and it’s a heck of a name, man. Every time I said it, at that time, I was super conscious.”
Bruce Lee on the set of a movie, weaving an act of translation into his performance, is what I imagine now while writing about my mom.
His presence on the small screen with The Green Hornet is much quieter than his presence in interviews. He was the breakout star as Kato, the perfect sidekick—quiet, stoic, so that at the end of the day, this was still a show about the white American hero.
Even now, directors and producers place more value in white voices than the accented English of Asian Americans. It’s uncomfortable to watch Bruce Lee open his mouth and hear a white man. But I want to be clear that dubbing is not just an act of erasure. At its core, dubbing is a means of translation, of giving a larger, more diverse audience access to art. And dubbing is fundamental to how martial arts films operated.
While the mismatch of lips and voice looks funny today, Aaron Magnan Park—a professor at the University of Hong Kong and speaker at the 2018 Martial Arts Studies Conference—notes that it was actually an “aesthetic choice” on the part of Hong Kong studios like Shaw Brothers. These were always films made for a variety of Asian viewers, Cantonese and Mandarins speakers alike. The mismatched lips are just part of the viewing experience of a multi-lingual project.
In that Pierre Berton interview, Berton remarks, “doesn’t that sound strange when you go to the movies? Especially in Hong Kong, in your own town, and you see yourself with somebody else’s voice?” Lee laughs it off, and insists no, this is just the nature of how these films are made. Berton presses on, “your lips never quite make the right words, do they?” Lee explains, “That’s where difficulty lies, you see, the Cantonese have a different way of saying things . . . I have to find something similar to that and keep a kind of feeling going behind that, something matching the Mandarin.”
Bruce Lee on the set of a movie, weaving an act of translation into his performance, is what I imagine now while writing about my mom. In watching martial arts films, I’m reminded that translation is allowed to be messy, awkward. To have the room to make mistakes—or, rather, room to make ‘aesthetic choices’—is to live freely within a language (or between multiple), to make it our own. The texture of our voices—the letters we skip, the words we create our own pronunciations for—mark our identity, make our voices recognizable to loved ones. So, I’m trying now to let the dialogue be clunky, to thud on the ground. Because my mother should feel free to make English her own. Because to speak in stumbles and hybrid-languages, to feel, at times, 陌生 to each other, is fundamental to what it means for us to communicate.