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My First Comic

It's quite a strange question, as it never occured to me what this title could be. And as I thought about it, I was surprised to realize that the correct answer to this question would be Lao Fu Dzi (Old Master Q). Really, I was expecting Donald Duck or Peanuts. But I do remember being a child on the floor of my grandmother's house, flipping through these tattered remains of Lao Fu Dzi comics and playing with my male cousins' Tonka trucks. I never quite learnt to read in any language till I was about 7. But I could memorize what my parents read to me, and I used to remember whole picture books that way, so it gave the illusion that I could read. I knew words, specific ones, "love" seemed to be quite popular, and "birthday", because I used to like making birthday cards for people. I didn't know how to string sentences together on paper. And I remember this part quite clearly because I was at a friend's house when I was about 5 or 6, and they had these hardback editions of Robin Hood. She took out a book and was pointing to this page. I couldn't figure out what was going on. She and her brother laughed and the brother wondered if I could read. Because of that, I then tried very hard to read everything I could. Which I did, for the next 10 years or so. As we know, that stopped pretty abruptly when I found the Internet. It's my theory I only began reading because I didn't have friends, and I began to write because that was really the only way I knew how to talk. It's a strange memory to have. When I had friends I forgot how to read. But I still write because I don't know how to talk.

I liked comics because they didn't require too much reading. They were very nearly the first things I learnt to read without help. I couldn't understand Lao Fu Dzi at all. I did learn how to read Chinese in kindergarten, but it just never struck me to apply it to the comic because I was too lazy to. But it was okay though, because the comics had a lot of unscripted humour, and Lao Fu Dzi, that fat round guy, the tall skinny guy and the one lady were all quite amusing for a 5-year-old. When I grew a bit older, I liked the things I saw in newspapers, Modesty Blaise and The Phantom. I have an uncle in Singapore who had this massive collection of really old 1980s Marvel and stuff I just haven't seen since. He was the guy who started me on the X-Men, and I was really, really fond of two comics in particular I'd love to get my hands on again -- Cloak & Dagger and Firestorm/Firehawk. Interestingly enough, it was his sister who got me reading the Water Babies (which had amazingly vintage line art) and The Color Purple. I found a very beat up copy of Cloak & Dagger #1 once, which I still have, but is so beyond repair I would like to find another. Another uncle collected Groo the Wanderer. I swore I'd never read stuff like that again.

Fast forward a few years and my first few expensive obsessions with collectable cards (they were shining at me...), and a local newspaper began running prints of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Bone on Sundays. Suddenly, comics weren't what I remembered them to be, and that graphic novel section at the local comic store didn't look so incredibly daunting. Sandman, Bone, Will Eisner and most of the other graphic novels we could mail order are expensive things for a teenager. Between actual textbooks and comics, I'm sure I drained most of the money I made selling poetry as a teenager buying graphic novels. They helped fill in that void that was beginning around that time -- my short attention span with books. Graphic novels are books, but they had enough details to keep my brain from wandering. They were also different from comics as I used to know them. I couldn't jump in at #57, run back to #10, check in again at #100 and sort of still know what was going on. (This is, by the way, how I read fully-worded books too.) Will Eisner's A Contract With God, incidentally, is still among the best books I've ever read.

But yes, my first comic was Lao Fu Dzi and his disco-era afro taunts. It's one of my few childhood memories about my grandmother's house. It comes up because today, my grandfather dug up my great-grandparents' bones, intending to move them near my grandmother's grave. Mom stopped him before he did some seriously wrong feng shui. Now we have nowhere to put my great-grandparents' bones for another year. Mom was always a little upset I never had any particularly affectionate memories of grandmothers from either side. My father's mother was distant. I was welcome in my maternal grandmother's house, but I was too quiet. There was always a real language barrier between me and my maternal grandmother. She spoke three Chinese dialects: Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka. And smatterings of Bahasa Malaysia. As a child, the first thing I ever learnt to say to her in Mandarin, apart from her name, was, "Popo, wo yao chien chi tan." ("Grandma, I want a fried egg.") Grandma raised her own chickens, so when I was at her home in the mornings, I used to request a fried egg (edges nearly cremated) with lots of that really black soy sauce that would come in 1 litre bottles kids would later recyle as water carriers to school. And ham chim peng (deep fried five spice bread roll). Eggs are still my favourite food ever. But, as I grew older, and as my memories of speaking Chinese dwindled, it became harder to talk to her. Today, listening to my mother speak on the phone in Cantonese, I realized I could understand every word she said. If you asked me to repeat what she said though, I wouldn't know where to start. That was what it was like talking to my grandmother. I could only imagine what it must've been like from her point of view. I was the eldest grandchild, after all. She didn't have any others until I was seven. And remember, I was the one who didn't know how to talk.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 15th, 2006 04:24 pm (UTC)
I think I know which comic you are talking about. My childhood home always had an issue of it laying about. :)

I suspect that, even in adulthood, I'm still a little peeved that my Cantonese is shit. My dad and his parents spoke a slightly different dialect so my mom (who grew up in Hong Kong) ended up using their dialect more often. On top of that, my parents gave up trying to teach their kids Chinese long before I was born. Of their kids, I'm the only one with some handle of Cantonese which I had picked up from my Hong Kong born cousins. By the time I expressed that I really wanted to learn, I was too old to ben sent to Chinese school.

/slight tangent

I've observed that it's generally easier to listen and translate than it is to translate and then speak.
Mar. 15th, 2006 04:51 pm (UTC)
Wow, this angst sounds familiar. :)

I started out in a Chinese kindergarten. Because primary schools wouldn't let me in till I was 7, I actually spent three years in kindergarten. So I was able to write at least 1/3rd of the first JLPT test (ironic, since it's one of my current interests to learn enough to take the Japanese Proficiency Test) for two years of my life. My parents wanted to continue sending me to a Chinese-language schooling system. I refused because a) the curriculum in those schools are total sausage machines and b) I didn't want to conform to school rules and cut my then waist-length hair up to my ears. For the next 16 years or so, I went so far as to forget how to write my Chinese name.

But the language never left, because it was spoken on my mother's side of the family, and I picked up a lot just by watching them. It helped I like HK cinema and 1/3rd of Malaysian TV programming is in either Mandarin or Cantonese. My parents really wanted me to pick up some Chinese, and they still do. It's really late now, but I still try. On the other hand, I left pronunciation exercises for so long, my pronunciation is terrible, so I'm still essentially afraid to speak.

It is indeed very peeving. *sigh*

But it is easier to listen and translate rather than translate and speak. These days, I'm also going with, "easier to read and translate rather than speak." It freaked me out the other day when I was trying to translate text from Malaysian (my father tongue) into English. I was never really good with Malaysian, although I was better at it than Chinese, and I think I'd have real trouble in a formal situation in that language (normal Malaysians speak a much more broken version, with as many other languages as we can throw in -- somehow, we get along). But I was freaked at how much easier it was for me to get what was on paper rather than having to deal with forming those same sentences to say out loud.

/slight tangent

Translating is fun! :)

And as for Old Master Q, I think he's a real staple wherever there are Cantonese speakers, really. Even in places where there aren't. It's really cool someone else out here knows stuff from my childhood!
Mar. 15th, 2006 05:37 pm (UTC)
I had a lot of Chinese comic books growing up. I couldn't read a single word, but the pictures were more than enough. I also used to make my mom read them to me at bed time since she had trouble reading out of a book in English.

At some point, I had decided that I would not learn Mandarin. Ever. So, I took up Japanese in college. (a Chinese American kid learning Japanese is a great way to confuse everyone she knows)

It's really cool someone else out here knows stuff from my childhood!

Mar. 15th, 2006 05:57 pm (UTC)
*LOL* I'm a half-Chinese half-Malay kid who speaks mostly in English trying to study Japanese in the vapid and unlikely dream I'll grow up to be a translator. My Chinese relatives are baffled. Some are wondering if I'm right in the head. At least my mother seems pleased I'm picking up lots of new words. :)

I used to make my mom translate TVB dramas before bedtime when I was little. That used to annoy her, especially if she was watching TV, but she still does help me translate a lot of things. It's nice.
Mar. 19th, 2006 04:53 am (UTC)
It's always easier to understand it than to say it, because your brain does all the piecing of patterns for you when you're listening, but when you're trying to speak a language you're not comfy with, you're spending half your time thinking (in your comfy language) of what you want to say and the other half flipping through your mental dictionary for equivalen words.

To get speaking you have to force yourself to speak, and that's the bitch of it. When you force yourself to speak, whether you like it or not, there will come a point where the brain stops acting like a dictionary and instead flips over to the other language, where you begin to think in that language.

But don't underestimate how much Chinese you've picked up just by virtue of having heard it. I suspect that, if you forced yourself to try to use it with your mother, you'd find you've got a pretty good handle on it, verbally at least.
Mar. 19th, 2006 05:16 am (UTC)
Yeah. When faced with the prospect of speaking Chinese, or even Japanese, my brain twitches around in the language and then English to find the appropriate vocabulary. By the time I figure out how to translate anything verbally, I usually stop wanting to talk. :/

Hence: force self to speak.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )