Part Three: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)

Life Update: I’m tossing up whether I want to do a Masters in Translation/Interpreting.

I’m not sure if it’s worth it (time + money wise). It’ll be minimally helpful for my career (though deeply personally interesting) and I’ve been told by the course coordinator it is not a degree designed for part time study.

Surely 1-2 subjects a semester is manageable though? I’m not sure, but I’d like to at least explore this idea a little further – watch this space.

Start here for Part One.


The thief looked at the boy in contempt one last time, decides there is nothing worth stealing, and knows it’s finally time for her to head out and test her skills in the wider world.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if her family is full of the poorest souls.

Now that she is making her own way in the world, the budding outlaw saw possibility around every corner. Why she could steal all over the globe from family and friends to complete strangers. The world is so big and much is ripe for the taking.

Filled with gusto, her fingers twitch with excitement.

《白云堂》an ancient Chinese poems gives her the ability to steal mountains and disguise water. Master Shao, a traditional artists gift her gardens filled with lush greens and a wide varietyof insects, fish and birds to catch. It’s rare to find 《制乐小集》, a musical album, at the market but she buys some beansprouts instead. “Taipei People” accompanies her to the United States as the thief stealthily chews on modern literature. She tip toes around Old Master Q, a comic-book character, as he snoozes, hoping the English poems jingling about in her rug sack do not wake him.

When Mr Cai, a famous astronomer was not paying attention to the observatory, the thief extends her crimes to the galaxies, stealing the stars and moon to illuminate her path of notoriety.

Fang Xinzheng’s “Sleep on the Gale” led the thieving girl to search for Linda’s last summer among the willow trees. She watches as a young man whistles out of tune and trims Whitman’s hair, grown into the grass on his grave. Homer began to sing blindly at some point, please don’t tell anyone else it was me who reached into the window and stole his soul. Aesop, previously a slave, I merely ate his flesh but skipped over the quack toad he speaks of.

Sha Linjie hunted in the fields, but he could never capture half these precious treasures I have. I justified it all too, why Hemingway, if I didn’t kill him now, he will kill himself in the future anyway. Picasso’s circus, Gauguin’s girl, Cézanne’s apple, Van Gogh’s sunflower, all were consumed by me on the grass for a well-balanced breakfast. I also pocketed Dali’s melting clock, a useful tool to improve the precision of my crimes.

That was not all. “The Brothers Karamazov” are all stolen one by one. “The Hunter’s Diary” she also took, though her guilty conscience made her refrain from “Crime and Punishment”.

Little by little, her diet became these squares, squiggles and lines that she could swallow whole.

You may ask why this thief is so focused on literature and art. These cheap and rotten things, what use do they have? Oh, don’t look down on her for her hunger, these are just to tide her over, the good stuff is yet to come.

Over the course of the next few years, the girl’s crimes piled up into a small mountain and she truly earnt the title of the infamous outlaw. One day, she stole a plane ticket, said goodbye to her family, crossed the oceans to embrace new adventures that awaited her.

“Oh lord help us, the infamous outlaw is coming!”

The thief chuckled coldly as shrieks from the people pierced the skies.

She meets a fellow thief in a cornfield. A lone wolf by nature, this was the first time the thief has met a colleague. She quickly gave him a handful of her popcorn.

The other thief bursts out in laughter at her offering, “It is not honourable to steal food, that is for the most squalid of creatures!”

“What do you steal if not food then? I am the empty-bellied thief, out to consume all there is for the world to offer.”

“Well you’ve spent all this time and effort to come here, why not steal… a doctorate?”

“A doctorate? What use does that have? Is it more savoury or sweet?”

“Hah, a doctorate is not food!”

“If it is not edible, it is not my style. I do not wish to steal it.” The thief takes a closer look at the man in front of her. Really he was just sallow skin holding onto sharp protruding bones yet on his back was a huge, bursting backpack.

“Is it a doctorate you have in there? Why do you not eat it?”

“Oh you swine! All you know to do is to eat, do you really not know the benefits of a doctorate?”

“No, please enlighten me.”

“The stealing of this doctorate took all my blood, sweat and tears but now that I have it, it brings me plenty of benefits. At the very least, I can swap it for a beautiful bride. Do you understand now?”

The thief took a look around for eavesdroppers before she lowers her voice and whispers: “You see, yours truly is an empty-hearted thief. Things I cannot eat, are much too heavy and cumbersome for my tastes. Even if it may be used to purchase love in the future. Thank you for your guidance, farewell now.”

Continue reading “Part Three: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)”

Part Two: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)

Hey everyone, sorry for the late post. Happy International Women’s Day! Serendipitously, continuing the translation of Sanmao’s work seemed appropriate for celebrating the occasion.


Part One – After I made up my mind, I decided to go and get an X-ray.

“Wow, it really is empty!” The doctor exclaimed after taking a look at my results.

“Yet you’ve managed to survive 14 years, truly impressive.”

I grab the x-ray image off him, quickly run home and slide it under my bed to keep it hidden and safe. I decide that twenty years later, I will go get another x-ray scan and see if by then, I will be a full person.

As I don’t have a heart or any courage inside, my will has always been a weak one. Even after being inspired by the Japanese thieves, I did not try my own hand at pickpocketing, letting precious time slip through my fingers day by day.

That was until one year, when the neighbours nominated our family to be the district’s model family. Everyone in our district already knew of my parents’ characters but they were still very careful with the selection, coming over and conducting a thorough interview with them.

Question after question cemented the committee’s initial assessment that we were a model family. Alas as the interviews were wrapping up, I walked by the kitchen and was spotted by the interviewer.

“Today isn’t Sunday, why isn’t your daughter at school?”

Mother, trying to protect me, replies “my daughter’s not well, so she has quit school.”

“What type of illness does she have? She looks quite healthy.”

“She has honeycomb shaped holes in her organs. It’s an incurable disease. As you can imagine, it’s very frustrating for us all.”

In the end, because of my strange illness, our family did not become the exemplar of a perfect family. According to the interviewer, a family with a mysterious sickness does not set a good role model to others.

That night, tears streamed down my face as I lay there in the silent night. I vowed in that moment to become a thief.

Now, out of all the outlaws in the world, I bet you could not name even one driven by anything other than greed or power. I did not have a master in the craft but these basic principles I understood well.

As I scanned my surroundings carefully, not letting even a blade of grass escape my sight, my eyes settled on my parents. As a novice thief, they were fantastic practise targets. If I get caught, the stakes would be much lower. It’s not like they’d actually report me to the police!

I carefully sized up my prey. These two are very principled people who are harsh with themselves and endlessly generous to others. They are responsible in all their actions and supportive of their children. They never speak about others behind their backs, never ones to brag either. They are neither insecure nor self-pitying. If others owe them money, they would never chase the debt and often when it comes time to pay, they are the ones footing the bill and then some. I’ve never properly assessed my dear parents before but having taken a look, aside from their above average looks, all this stuff inside them is so outdated! All these old fashioned qualities that nobody wants anymore, yet they treat them like gold!

It was a decade or so ago where they met a ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ type. Since then, both of them have become more and more foolish. Idiotic buggers beyond all hope! Even to me, an empty person, stealing from them would not be worth my time. From the perspective of an absolute beginner desperate for some practise, I decide that these two chumps just don’t make the cut, no thank you sir.

Continue reading “Part Two: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)”

Part One: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)

Backstory: 三毛 (Sanmao) is a Chinese-born Taiwanese writer who was able to capture the imagination of my mother’s generation with her book, Stories of the Sahara, published in 1976.

Sanmao, in a nutshell is “an incurable romantic, a lonely dreamer and a gifted drifter”.

After falling in love with the Sahara from an article she read in National Geographic, Sanmao, a non-traditionalist even by 21st century standards, follows her heart to the great desert. Stories of the Sahara is a window into the life she builds there and her musings on the interactions she has with her Spanish husband and Sahwari neighbours in this completely different world to what she or her audience has ever experienced before.

More than four decades later, I am one of many young women who are finding and quickly falling in love with the unique blend of kindness, wisdom and freedom present in her work. It is such a pity that more of it is not translated into English as I truly believe many will resonate with this gentle force of nature of a woman now and into the future.

I won’t say much more about Stories of the Sahara except that you absolutely should get your hands on a copy. Currently, I’m on book 4/15 of her entire collection with the intention of reading them all. I wanted to share one of my favourite stories so far from 稻草人手记/A Scarecrow’s Scribbles from Sanmao’s time in the Canary Islands.

Please forgive any unintended errors or creative liberties I’ve taken in this translation. I hope you enjoy 江洋大盗/The Infamous Outlaw.


If you want to hear about the Chen family, I have to begin with our ancestors.

We had generations of scholars with not much to their names. The Chens are all known to be humble in possessions guided by a wealth of morals and principles.

You see, we didn’t just record people’s names in our family tree. Our trusty scribe/accountant diligently keeps track of everyone’s ethical income and expenses and the balance sheets he kept were never wrong.

Such is the family I grew up in. Logically speaking, you’d expect my parents to be fielding marriage proposals left, right and center ever since I was a little girl. Alas, that was not the case.

To borrow a phrase from the bible – if my parents were a grape vine, I would not be an off-shoot. In my own words, if a fortune teller was ever to try and predict my future, by the time he gets halfway through his calculations, the disgraceful daughter that I am would’ve already lost the entire family fortune.

Ever since I was born, I’ve locked away a huge secret in my heart. After I learnt how to speak, I’ve made sure to keep my lips sealed tight about this matter. They say blood runs thicker than water but even my parents have heard nothing about this matter.

What terrible secret do I hold that’s making me play so coy?

Fine, I’ll tell you, but only you. And only if you promise you won’t turn around and tell some John Smith or Jane Doe. Even if you are in a tight spot and decide to sell me out…just remember that Sanmao isn’t anyone special and you will get pennies for this information.

As I said earlier, ever since I was born, I knew this truth about myself. Even though on the surface, I don’t look any uglier or different in any discernable way from anyone else, that’s actually far from the truth.

I am a fraud. Not only am I a fraud, I am also empty inside. I’m so goddamn hollow I don’t even have any posters up on the barren walls of my insides. I don’t have a brain, heart, bravery or courage. I am well and truly a black hole, an abyss.

To give you another example of my condition, you know those sci-fi aliens that have come to Earth on their UFOs and have blended into humanity seamlessly? They look just like all these other people living happy fulfilling lives. If you didn’t have any special powers to spot these aliens, you’d never be able to catch them out. Well, I am one of those aliens.

I should let you know now that I don’t enjoy being an empty person. Being hollow inside makes it much harder to go about every day life. When the wind blows, or a stranger accidentally bumps into me, or even when a small branch brushes against me, I would be knocked onto the ground, unable to get back up.

From the first memory I have to when I turned fourteen, I was constantly falling over. My body was covered in bruises and everyone was laughing at me. Even though I had nothing else inside me, my tear ducts and temper never let me down. Every time I fall, they’re there to keep me company.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past fourteen years and have decided I simply cannot go on like this. If this continues, surely before I hit my twenties, I would have had a final fatal fall to my death. If I don’t want to die young, I need to find another way to save my life.

What can I do about this? After careful consideration, I decide to copy those shameless Japanese neighbours of mine and become a thief.

This world is so big and crowded, I figured. Everyone else has so much ready-made stuff. If I take a little from here and nip a little from there to fill up my empty hole, after a while, wouldn’t I become a full person?

After I made up my mind on the matter, I decided to go and get an X-ray.

(to be continued)

How (not) to win over your partner’s parents

I visited the small country town where Darcy grew up over Christmas.

To be clear, calling Moonambel a ‘town’ is incredibly generous. There’s only 167 residents (according to the 2016 census) – it’s no wonder not a single colleague or friend could place it on a map when I shared my holiday plans!

Of course, this did not dampen my excitement for this ‘suburban girl goes country’ adventure. Not only would it be the furthest I’d have travelled since the pandemic, this was the perfect opportunity for me to meet and (obviously) win over Darcy’s parents.


What do I mean by “suburban girl” anyway?

Growing up in Auckland, New Zealand, I spent my formative years within a 30 minute walking radius from the suburbia starter kit: gorgeous beach, shopping centre and local public school.

All my basic needs and more were fulfilled in that bubble.

I’ve always assumed most kids lucky enough to live in this part of the world (with a few key caveats) would have had a similar experience. I had no idea how unrelatable my upbringing was to Darcy and vice versa until we began sharing childhood stories with each other.

What do you mean Linda had to gather firewood and heat up water for you to have a hot shower? Are your fond childhood memories really throwing piles of bricks at the wall and sticking your leg into the river as leech bait? Did you and your best friend spend an entire weekend cycling back and forth (thrice) through the mountains because a girl he had a crush on lived in the town on the other side?

How strange, how fun, how exciting!


As soon as I arrived in Moonambel, I begin experiencing the ‘foreignness’ of it all for myself.

First stop was the winery Linda works at.

All is normal as we wait patiently for her to close up shop… except for the delicious smell of turkey wafting through the building on Christmas Eve. Understandably out of place, particularly after everyone else has gone home.

Why could we smell a turkey being roasted in a winery out of hours, you might be wondering?

Well with no oven in her house and having built up excellent rapport with the chef, it made perfect sense to Linda to call on a few favours for our visit.

A few hours later, with delicious turkey in belly and mission top of mind (to make Linda love me more than she loves her son), I offer to do the dishes to show my gratitude for the feast she made.

I could tell Linda was a bit uncomfortable with the idea at first but I insisted and she relented. She ends up hovering over my shoulder the entire time as I scrubbed turkey stuffing off one plate after another. I didn’t think much of it, chalking it up to the almost obligatory polite dance around guests helping out with the clean up or perhaps she was quite particular and she wanted to make sure I was cleaning the plates up to her standard but too nice to say so? I make sure to take extra care to ensure every dish is spotless.

In my mind, I did a decent job. Linda didn’t really say anything to the contrary either except a gentle reminder for me to turn off the running water when I wasn’t actively rinsing a plate, fair enough.

After she goes to bed, Darcy and I debrief and perhaps we were both being paranoid, but just in case we were committing a heinous faux pas without realising through our insistence of doing the dishes, we decide to take a step back and gather some intel the next day.


As we polish off exorbitant amounts of leftovers on the evening of day two, our eyes meet across the table. A subtle nod and our plan is set to motion.

Soon, with drying towel in hand, I am taking mental notes of Linda’s every move as she begins the clean up process.

Immediately, I notice that she opts for an entirely different method of dishwashing than I do.

She fills the sink with warm soapy water like a ‘bath’ for the cutlery and plates. After the items are cleaned, they are removed from the soap-sudded and scrap-filled water and are immediately air or towel dried.

Whilst not exactly a revolutionary way of doing dishes, particularly for my Caucasian friends, I remember discovering this style of cleaning when I was 11 years old.

At the end of our first soft-tech (cooking) class in school, all the teams are cleaning up their workstations. What would have otherwise been an uneventful day is turned on it’s head when I scan the room to compare our progress and freeze in horror at what I was seeing.

“How can they not rinse the soap off the dishes? There’s bits of food in the water they just pulled that out of…why does the teacher not care? This is so gross!” I whisper to my fellow Asian-New Zealander friend.

“I know, I don’t get it either, but just do it like we’re told.” She replies, clearly embarrassed by how uncool I was acting.

As dramatic as it sounds, it felt like a key tenet of my upbringing, identity and world view was being challenged in that moment and I have never backed away from an opportunity to explain the ‘superior’ dishwashing method since to anyone I happened to share a sink with.

At this point, I should probably explain how I do the dishes. You may read my description and think “duh”, much like what I expected of my classmates and teacher on that fateful day 12 years ago. In the time since, I’ve learnt many life lessons including to never assume anything about anyone – not their experiences and definitely not the way they go about doing their chores.


Maggy’s guide to dishwashing

  1. Fill a bowl with warm soapy water, this is your “main bowl”
  2. Take dish sponge, and clean all your plates/pots/cultery, dipping into the main bowl for more soapy water as needed
  3. Run everything under running water to wash off soap and air dry
Continue reading “How (not) to win over your partner’s parents”

Life: Graduation

Hey, it’s been a while.

I always feel terrible when I take too long of a hiatus without any good excuses but I just haven’t been motivated to write anything, sorry! I don’t really know how other people’s creative processes work, but in my case, I have to wait for ideas to find me, which as you can imagine, limits my output dramatically.

That being said, I am most certainly my own muse when it comes to writing about my life so what better subject to exploit than myself? I guess the biggest (albeit a bit late) update I have is:

 – I am no longer a high school student –

I don’t really remember the exact date of graduation, especially since our emotions were then dragged over the tedious but important final exams for the next month or so. On one hand, I’m completely over it. I’m so glad that I am moving past this part of my life and excited to take on bigger and better things, but on the other hand, I don’t feel ready at all for what’s to come.

Thinking too much about the future fills me with jolts of panic about whether I’ll get into my university of first choice, if I’ll survive moving out of home or be able to make any friends…

Most of the time, I just feel like I don’t deserve to graduate yet with the minuscule amount of knowledge and life experience I have. I mean for heaven’s sake, I don’t even know what price point I should purchase potatoes at to get a bargain, much less how tax return works!

Continue reading “Life: Graduation”

Lenny’s Oranges

This is a true story from when I was a little girl. Although the details have blurred over the years, the feeling of regret that comes along with this recollection has not changed. 

Oranges – Dan Petrov

When I was just five years old, my family migrated from China to New Zealand. We lived in a unit house, because that was the best that my parents could afford. I thought of it as a quirky little place. It was like living in the middle of an evenly sliced chocolate-log-house, everything was so much fun! Thinking back, it must have been a difficult time for my parents, leaving their white-collar jobs behind to become a waitress and butcher in a country where they barely spoke the language. I was too young to understand all they went through, instead, I became enamoured by the orange tree in our backyard.

It was, admittedly, a rather ugly thing. Wrangled limbs reaching for, but not quite touching the sky as droopy leaves clung onto peeling bark. That didn’t matter though, because it bore fruit that tasted like drops of sunshine. I remember being upset during summer when there were far too many oranges to eat and stuffing myself full so they would not be wasted. I loved how my mother carefully peeled back the lumpy, freckled skin and a faint citrus perfume would fill the air. If you concentrated hard enough, you could still smell the remnants of happiness hours later, clinging to the space under her nail bed, my teeth, our hair as the summer fruit stained our hearts with joy. Ah the memory of tangy jewels of succulent juice bursting on our tongues before fading to a uniform sweetness… Continue reading “Lenny’s Oranges”