Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Cool Breeze From Afar

My brother lives in Denmark and my sister in Illinois, so whenever either of them comes to California, it's a reason for a reunion. Last week, they both landed in southern California where they picked up my mom and then drove up to see us.
It was a long, hot car ride as my mom's air conditioning didn't work. In fact, before braving the desert-like heat on the drive up, my brother had stopped in at a mechanic for an estimate. After hearing the mechanic's busy schedule and outrageous prices, they decided they could live with a little sweat rolling down the back of their necks.
Having family come in is always an expansion of the heart and mind. When we get a heat wave, my sister says, 'Well, at least it's not humid like Chicago."
When my kids complain about our old van, Mother pipes up about how her car has aging difficulties as well. The windows don't work. Dashboard lights flash on randomly. And then there is that air con thing.
And when I tell my younger son who has just done a cool experiment in science class with dry ice that no, I don't want to drive 45 minutes to find more dry ice, my brother and sister both chime in, "Why not? That's not far."
"But the gas prices are terrible," I counter.
"Life is good, " my brother reminds me. He says in Denmark, a gallon of gas is close to $8, there is a 25% tax on things, and an inexpensive restaurant meal is $25/person.
That is how we found ourselves circling around an industrial area in my mom's hot car, looking for this place that sold dry ice. No, my dear son--a chip off this block-- didn't know the name. No, he hadn't written down the phone number. We just had this address which turned out to be a darkened building. We decided to try the Great Mall which was down the block.
Oh, my gosh. What a huge place. One square mile of shop after shop after shop. (none of which sold dry ice.)
Overwhelmed (how many shoe shops does one need in one square mile?) we gave up and decided to come home. The traffic was bad. The heat was unbearable. My brother was driving, and he reached over and fiddled with the heating/air con dials. Suddenly a blast of cool air filled the car.
Cool air. Wow. Where did that come from?
"I thought the thing was broken," I said.
"Well, she said it was broken," my brother pointed at my sister. "Next time I'll know better than to believe--"
"Well, mom said it was broken," my sister said.
"How did you get it to work?" I asked
"I just pushed the air con button on," he said. "She hadn't had it on."
So the air con button hadn't been pushed on. And Mother assumed when no cool air came out that the whole air con was broken (after all, it is an old car.) And the story was spread to the point that everyone believed it--even the mechanic. Until one person came along and tested the whole "it's broken" theory.
We all got a nice laugh out of that....
And I've been fiddling with the air con dials in my car ever since, hoping the same theory will work for me.
But perhaps I better just go see that mechanic.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wikipedia Set Me Straight

In 1992, I was invited to present a paper at Vietnam's 1st Women's Conference in Hanoi. ( My topic--no surprise--was how culture and the stories each culture tells shape attitudes towards women. ) It was an interesting weekend, not so much for what we accomplished as for the friendships we made with women from all over the world.

One particular woman I met was an energetic and kind young Vietnamese named Miss Ha. We had such fun talking with one another and trading stories, that when she offered to guide me to a beautiful part of the country--Halong Bay--I wrapped the rest of my time in the country around this plan. She said she would have to take a day off work, but not to worry. Just to go ahead by myself. She and her husband would meet me in a certain hotel lobby at 2pm.

So off I went in a battered old taxi. All I had was the name of the hotel and her name: Miss Ha. I reasoned that there couldn't be too many hotels by the same name in a small village and certainly nobody else by the strange name of Miss Ha.

After riding on a dusty road for several hours, I arrived in this amazing place where black rocks jutted out of the emerald green Halong Bay. There were different names for the rocks and stories behind each of those. I was mesmerized. I needed to find Miss Ha and her husband so we could go out in a small wooden boat and explore.

I went to the designated location, an old colonial style hotel with a wide open-air lobby and a lazy ceiling fan stirring up a breeze. A man and two women were chatting behind the counter, laughing. Miss Ha wasn't there. I walked out to the back where there was a garden. But Miss Ha wasn't there either. I checked my watch. It was 2pm.

"Can I help you?" the man behind the counter asked.

"Yes, " I said. "I'm looking for Miss Ha."

"Which Miss Ha?"

"I don't know," I said. "She's with a man, her husband."

They exchanged looks.

"Miss Ha is a very common name in our country," the man explained.

Despite my predicament, I had to laugh. Just because I'd never heard the name, I'd assumed it was rare. Here it turned out that it was the equivalent of Smith or Jones. (Or so I thought)

As luck was on my side, Miss "Jones" came running up the path with her husband just as I was leaving. They'd been caught in traffic. "What is your full name?" I asked before we went further. "Nguyen Thanh Ha," she said. Great. Now I knew (or thought I did.) We had a wonderful time together wandering around the Bay, and have been corresponding ever since.

Last week, though, I was working on a Vietnamese fairytale that she told me, and I needed some common Vietnamese names to work with. I went to Wikipedia. Turns out --as I had learned so many years ago--that Ha is a very common name. But it's not a common last name. It's a given name. So when I went walking into the lobby, I'd been asking for Jane.

All these years, my friend probably assumed I knew I was addressing her letters as Miss Jane. I always assumed that she had taught me her name from given name to surname as we do. It took Wikipedia to set me straight.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lost At Orientation

I've been told that this is the toughest thing I'll ever do....that it's like mourning a death. But actually I was unconcerned, feeling fine until about a month ago when my youngest woke up crying .

"What's the matter?" I asked her.

"I don't want jiejie to go away," she said.

"Go away?" It was a Sunday. My eldest daughter hadn't mentioned she was going anywhere that day. "Where's she going?"

"To college," she said.

Oh. Yeah. That thing.

Recently, I took my daughter to That Thing. It wasn't the pull-up-to-the-curb-and-drop-off- type of trip I remember from "my day." I--along with a multitude of other parents--was asked to stay at the college for two days and undergo orientation along with our children. I stayed in the dorm and ate at the commons and got lost looking for the right buildings. Just like in the old days.

The first day the Administration told us how wonderful our students were, what a fine school it was, how grand the experience would be. I was feeling great, patting myself on the back at our good fortune.

The next day, however, the Administration took us down reality lane--about DRINKING (49% of students binge drink, but that's not too bad compared with Harvard which has 44%) , DRUGS (a "small percentage" of students do hard drugs: 10%), RAPE (1 in 4 women in universities should expect to be assaulted in some fashion). And by the way, if you're feeling sad, apprehensive, having trouble letting go, that's normal.

I felt miserable. What was I doing thrusting my dear little one out into this crazy world?

Fortunately, my husband showed up. The voice of reason. He said not to worry. Everything would be alright. He had brought our daughter's belongings--two suitcases full of clothes, bedding, hangers, etc.

We thought we'd perform a last parenting-type duty and set up her room while she went off to register for classes. He made the bed. I unpacked her suitcases --the whole time thinking why does she need two full suitcases worth of clothes for six weeks of summer school? I ended up only unpacking one suitcase and just sliding the other under the case. I noticed she'd left her cell phone on her desk where I put photos of her friends and family. The room looked cozy and fun. She'd be thrilled....

If we could find her.

She wasn't at the class registration area. She wasn't at the dining hall. She wasn't soaking up sunshine on the grass. Where was she? The statistics regarding assualt ran through my head.

"Well, she's got to have gone back to her room," my husband reasoned.

"No, if she were there, she would have called us," I pointed out.

We wandered around and around til my feet felt disembodied from my legs and the Administration was ready for us to leave. This was horrible. Where could she be?

"Surely, she's fine," my husband said.

We slogged our way back to her room, ready to give her room key to her roommate. My eyes stung. Would I not even get to say, "Goodbye?" I knocked on her door. The roommate answered. But, lo and behold, surrounded by a mountain of clothes on her bed was our daughter.

Why hadn't she called? She was busy.

Busy remaking the bed (My husband had used the boring sheets.)

Busy unpacking the suitcases (of course she needed all those clothes).

Busy reorganizing the stuff I'd unpacked (I had done it wrong.)

I had to laugh. With that kind of focus and determination, she'd be just fine. And if she was fine, I would be too. (sniff...sniff.)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Still in Awe

Last night, we went to an Opening Ceremony's party. The party consisted of friends I don't often see (except when dropping off/picking up kids), so I was thrilled to sit down and hear about what was going on in their lives. Then the ceremony began--and I might as well have been sitting in my own living room for all the socializing I did. What an amazing event. Gone was all the banter about pollution , visa crackdowns, and freedom issues , as we all sat mesmorized by Zhang YiMou's amazing production. If you missed it, go to

When the last of the fireworks went off and a burning image of the rings went across the screen, we finally got up to go. One guest, pointing out the ceremony's meaningful display of tradition juxtaposed with modern technology, said, "Jana, that's what your book is about." A thrill ran down my spine, as if those 2008 drummers had given their final ba-boom.

Speaking of the book, some fun things have been happening. I was invited to Book Group Expo 2008 (October 24-26) in San Jose ( Also, a great literary blogspot posted a review:

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You