By Maggie Leung
I have never had the good fortune to read literature at the School of English officially – my degrees came from elsewhere. But somehow I have the feeling that I am a student here.
A Messy Start
To many students I know, reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a herculean, if not impossible, task. That was, however, a required text for an introductory course the year I joined the School as a paid tutor. In tutorials, I spotted copies of Sparknotes summaries hidden under the table. After class, I was told how boring the plot was, how difficult it was to understand Hardy’s use of language, or how pointless it was to write about the Wessex landscape. I listened, with sympathy. Not because I agreed with the choice of reference or the opinion, but because about the same time I was struggling over Tess, too.
It started with my plan to write a PhD proposal on gender representation in the Chinese translations of Tess published between 1934 and 2006. The political and social landscape against which the Chinese Tess was portrayed was broad and hardly beautiful. My Master’s degree could not help at all; it was not an MPhil. I walked into two worlds of Tess unprepared for its most complicated textual history among all Hardy’s novels when I made the perplexing discovery that, contrary to the Victorian readership and feminist critics of the 70s– 90s, Chinese readers seemed not to have any trouble accepting the heroine as a pure woman. So how and why could an English Tess be read as unworthy of the novel’s subtitle, “a pure woman”, while the translated one remained as pure as ever?
Shortly before I took on my tutoring duties, my mother was diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness. The proposal was put on hold for months. My full-time tutoring life began with meeting new faces on campus, clinics and hospitals. Towards the end of a chaotic year, my proposal was sent to a translation scholar at University College London.
A Skype Student
In the emergence of a generation of smartphone students, I “upgraded” myself and became a Skype student upon enrolment at UCL. That meant I could have five years to complete a PhD on a part-time basis. My supervisor and I have been meeting regularly on Skype since then.
It is my third year now, yet I have never thought of myself as a UCL student. I once saw myself logging into the HKU Portal in a dream, and even then I constantly forget my UCL Portico password in reality. Most research materials I need, from a copy of the 1935 translation of Tess at Peking University to a DVD of Polanski’s “Tess”, are accessible from the Main Library. As a tutor, I enjoy what is in effect the most quietly brilliant learning environment any Skype student could ask for.
Sometimes I bumped into postgraduate students on campus who would share with me their stories of thesis-writing. I in return reveal one particular episode of my stupidity―the sheer number of grammatical errors I made in the draft first chapter of my thesis. They giggled and reassured me this sort of thing just happened.
Once in late spring, a PhD candidate told me a joke she read on Weibo, in some way a Chinese equivalent of Twitter:
Having presented his date and exact time of birth to the fortune teller, a man waited. His palms and face were being examined. At length, the fortune teller declared: “You fell in love at the age of 20, got married at 25 and had a son by 30. You will be happy and wealthy for the rest of your life”.
Vexed, the man moaned, “But I’m now 35. Single, no kids, have nothing but a PhD degree!”
The fortune teller smiled, “Yours is life-changing knowledge.”
In the Main Building, the pink flowers laughed their heads off from the bushes.
Peer Group Activities
Outside campus, I have been constantly reminded of how I share other aspects of life with my students. If not for my age, I would have mistakenly believed that practising yoga in Causeway Bay, hiking in Sai Kung, queuing for a bowl of Japanese ramen in Central and night running in Tseung Kwan O are all peer group activities.
In two years’ time, I shall become a UCL graduate on résumé. But somewhere deep inside I will feel more like a School of English alumnus.