By LAURA WONG
Cynthia Chin-Lee, lecturer and author, whose newest book is A Is for Asia, spoke at the Library on May 4 as part of the celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Ms. Chin-Lee, a fourth-generation Chinese American, began her talk by relating the experiences growing up in the Washington area that shaped her self-image and understanding of her heritage. Her mother's family, which settled in Baltimore, and her father's side, which lived in Washington, both were from the southern China province of Guangdong. Ms. Chin-Lee's parents bought a home in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., at a time when the area was highly segregated.
From her earliest childhood realization of looking different from most of her classmates, Ms. Chin-Lee said that she and her four siblings sought to figure where they fit "in a predominantly white neighborhood in a mainly black city."
Ms. Chin-Lee said she has been drawn to writing since childhood. She cautioned, however, that "to be a writer is to face rejection; each rejection is like a little death. At the end, though, one hears one's heart still beating, and one continues to be inspired to write and submit works to publishers."
Her first work, It's Who You Know: Career Strategies for Making Effective Personal Contacts (San Marcos, Calif.: Avant Books, 1991), is in its third printing, updated with five chapters on use of the Internet (Wilsonville, Ore.: Book Partners, 1997). Using her own advice -- networking being the theme of the book -- she finally found an interested publisher through a personal contact after receiving rejections from all 11 of the publishers she had sent her manuscript.
Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea (Chicago: Polychrome Publishing, 1993), her first children's book, was very much autobiographical. She read from the story of how a white American girl overcomes her fear of visiting the home of her Chinese American friend and is delighted by the cultural differences.
In addition to being able to accept rejection, Ms. Chin-Lee said that a writer must be prepared to handle other criticism. "When my book came out, I cannot tell you how many times I was criticized for perpetuating stereotypes in my portrayal of the Chinese family as operating a laundry. But my grandfather indeed did have a laundry business in Washington's Chinatown. Going there as a child was a part of my own real experiences."
Her newest work is A Is for Asia (New York: Orchard Books, 1997). "I found alphabet books for animals, for Africa, for foods, but it seemed to me that Asia is too important a region for children growing up today to not be aware of." Ms. Chin-Lee read excerpts from the book. "A Is for Asia ... includes not only China, Japan, Korea and India, but also a large part of the former Soviet Union, most of the Middle East, and many of the island nations of the Pacific. Asia is home to more than half of the people in the world and birthplace to some of the world's oldest cultures. ... Q is for the Koran, the Muslim holy book. All over the Muslim world, both children and adults compete in singing the poetry of the Koran. Singing praises to Allah, a child's voice, pure and clear, rises to heaven." Illustrated by Yumi Heo, the book also introduces children to the many written scripts of Asian languages.
When asked about upcoming works, she said that she has collaborated with others on A Is for the Americas, a multicultural alphabet book that focuses on North and South America and is soon to be published. She is also writing a children's novel that is based on her mother's life growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., and Baltimore.
Cynthia Chin-Lee stressed that her need for personal expression is a prime motivator in her work. She resides in Palo Alto, Calif., with her husband and daughter. She majored in Asian Studies at Harvard University and was a fellow of the East-West Center in Hawaii. She is an award-winning speaker and an active member of professional and civic organizations in the San Francisco Bay area.
Ms. Wong is a staff member of the Asian Division.