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My husband is from southern China. One year, when we went back to the village to visit family, I saw a large poster on the side of a house. The poster portrayed a couple holding a child. Underneath the happy couple were the words, "A girl baby is just as important as a boy baby."
"That's so cool," I said to my husband. "That the government is behind the valuing of little girls."
"The government can say what it wants," he said, shaking his head. "But the fact of the matter is a house with no male is a problem."
Aha. Now there was a story. What if a little girl was born into a household and managed to survive? How would she continue to thrive? To succeed in a place where the traditions were so against her? That was the beginning of My Half of the Sky.
My gut instinct is to say, "Yes, of course." I've lived with these characters so long—twelve years—they feel like old friends. Family. But the truth is they are all figments of my imagination.
My husband and I lived quite a while—eight years—in Singapore. Over the years, he has not only told me a lot about the village. His parents, who lived with us while we were in Singapore, told us a lot about the village. And we visited—and continue to visit—the village as often as possible. In fact, the cover photo for My Half of the Sky was taken from my brother-in-law's house.
Not in an obvious way. Oh, there were clues. I can remember sitting down at a typewriter when I was in high school and starting a romance novel. (I'm sure it was a horrible, horrible story). My favorite place was (and still is) the library. And one of my favorite things to do is sit down with a book. But I never thought I'd be a writer. I mean, hey, here I was studying Japanese to become some hotshot businessperson. Then while I was living in Japan, I was asked to teach a group of secretaries from the National Diet (the US version of Congress, only larger). These secretaries mentioned that they worked for the only woman in the Diet. The only woman. I wanted to meet this woman. How had she gotten there? What was it like being surrounded by all that maleness every day?
When I interviewed her, I discovered that the woman had no problem with her colleagues except when she had to go to the bathroom. At the time, the Diet building had only men's bathrooms. So, her male secretaries would have to scout out the bathroom first to ensure the coast was clear. This was in 1986. I was so fascinated by this woman that I wanted everyone to know about her. That was my first magazine article. My first step into the writing world. And I was hooked.
When I graduated college in the mid-80's, there weren't many jobs to be had. However, I had studied Japanese as a minor in college and, at the time, Japan was the language to know. I started out only planning to spend a year in Japan to beef up my language skills enough that I would walk off the plane in the U.S. and be handed a dozen job offers. Talk about fantasy—not only the job offer stuff, but beefing up a language like Japanese in a year. One year turned into two into three into four. I worked at all kinds of jobs and thought of Japan as "the land of rising opportunities." I appeared on tv game shows, did radio dramas, edited, taught English. And started to write.
We all grow up with stories in our heads. Stories about the way things should be. And it's important to have stories. Important until the stories restrict forward movement. As an example, when we moved to the US seven years ago, we had very little furniture. We had brought a couple of pieces with us from Singapore. But, in particular, we had no beds. I remembered that my great-great grandfather had build a wooden bed which was in storage in my mother's garage. I asked her if we could use that bed—it was beautifully made and so meaningful.
"No," she said. "That's your brother's bed."
Well, my brother lives in Germany. How could it be his bed?
According to family tradition, she explained, the bed had been passed from son to son to son.
Never mind that I was in arm's length of the bed and actually needed a place to rest my head. And that was a story passed on by my not-very-traditional mother.
Where we reconcile past traditions with the forward momentum of the globe is a struggle we deal with each day. All of us. So, I think we can all get something from Li Hui and her struggle.
I'm writing a sequel to My Half of the Sky.