Four bright Chinese red lanterns hung against the backdrop of dark blue stage curtains, just in time for the annual Lunar New Year Celebration. Ice and wintry weather did not stop local author and Vienna resident Veronica Li from giving a talk at the World Bank last week about her most recent book,
"Journey across the Four Seas: a Chinese Woman's Search for Home."
Li's first book was a thriller called "Nightfall in Moviadishu" about the early 1990s fall of the Somalian government.
Eight years ago, Li began to take care of her mother, Flora, who had moved in with her. In little time, Li discovered that her mother had fascinating stories detailing her family's journey to the United States. So intriguing were the stories that Li soon decided to record her mother's stories on tapes and consequently write a memoir on her mother's life. Li regards her mother as the founder of her clan in the United States. Flora endured much hardship in war-torn China during the first 50 years of her life. Among the few women to obtain a university education in Hong Kong, Flora was thrown into a historical period of turmoil and political and societal change, forcing her to give up her pursuits of further education. For years, Flora and her husband moved their family frequently throughout Asia for safety and security. Today, Li credits great success to her mother for founding her family in the United States. As a result, Li and her siblings are able to live out the American dream in a land of freedom.
ACCORDING TO LI, giving the book talk was in itself a miracle" "The biggest obstacle was the weather. Once I was over that hurdle, I knew I was home free. Everybody was so enthusiastic. The PowerPoint worked, and I was able to show beautiful pictures of my mother and the family."
The audience asked about the process of writing the book and some personal questions, which Li says she "answered with candor." One reader recounted that at one point, she had felt that the author had completely disappeared and the author's mother was speaking. That was a positive comment, according to Li, who had intended her mother to have the main voice in the memoir.
When asked about how her mother's book has contributed to Chinese culture, Li remarked that it gives glimpses of Chinese history. "In China today, people have become very materialistic. So where is Chinese culture today? My answer was that it is materialistic because it has gone from one extreme to another. First there was Communism which had no materialism and no comfort. The swing has swung to a money-grabbing phenomenon. But at the same time, religions are spreading very quickly in mainland China in spite of the materialism. That means that people are reaching for spiritual fulfillment," said Li.
Li says that Confucianism is the basis of Chinese culture and there have been a number of attempts by the Chinese government to revive it. "The problem is whenever the government tries to revive, it becomes a political slogan. People are very skeptical these days, and skeptical of what the government tells them. So this revival hasn't really taken off yet, but there are still attempts to revive Confucianism, which is the foundation of Chinese culture."
Li's book has inspired others to write memoirs on their own families. "My friends told me that I've done a good job for their families. [The book] is for their family, too." People have bought multiple copies for their children and the younger generation to read, according to Li.
CHIALING YANG, a World Bank Institute consultant, moderated the book talk and introduced Li. Li and her husband are retirees of the World Bank. Yang joked about how she used to see the author running around in sneakers after biking to the World Bank on the way to work. She also praised Li saying how the author would inevitably draw a crowd while playing the piano in hotel lobbies on business trips with the World Bank. Besides writing, piano is another passion of hers.
On writing the book, Li says she was inspired to educate her future descendants. "That's the reason I made it a memoir, and not a novel, because I want the pictures in the book. I want my future generations to say, 'this is the ancestor who founded the clan in the U.S.' When they see the pictures, they will say, "this is my great, great, great, great grandmother.' Two generations from now, they will not know her, unless they read my book."
Thus far, Li has given book talks at SAIS, the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and Chinese community centers. "My near future goals are continue to promote and market my book. At the same time, I'm thinking about planning my sequel."
At the end of the book talk, Li made sure that the audience got a taste of Chinese culture by bringing out spring rolls and dumplings.