Friday, November 21, 2008

Traditions Are Great... Until They're Not

Tuesday, I spent a wonderful morning with Jill Ferguson's
Asian Literature class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They are reading My Half of the Sky as part of their class, and invited me to join in on the discussion. After answering their questions--How did I think up the idea? How did I get in the head of the character? Why did I go to live in Japan? How did I get published?-- I asked them, following the theme of the book, to tell me stories of times when they questioned or went against a tradition.
This was certainly the right group. As musicians, they were often in the position of having to buck the norm. Several students said their parents wanted them to get a four-year liberal arts education, to become a doctor, to pursue a degree that would be more secure. They had to convince the parents that no, they wanted to play music. One student actually quit high school to study voice. She didn’t get flack from her parents, but from the public school system. One student said her parents were from Russia, and all the time growing up she had wanted to celebrate holidays like her friends in the US, but her father wasn’t interested in celebrating those foolish American holidays. He finally relented. Now she celebrates all the holidays. (My partner in joy. )
What made me laugh, though, was that at the end of this enlightening discussion, this man whose parents had wanted him to be a doctor instead of a pianist, raised his hand and said, "But I like tradition."
Everyone agreed. Traditions are fun--like everyone sitting together to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. But what happens when those traditions become barriers?
I shared the story of when we arrived here ten years ago and were in need of furniture. I knew that my mother had a wooden bed in storage in her garage, a bed that my great-great grandfather had built. So I called her and asked if we could have that bed for my daughter's room. "No," she said . "That's your brother's bed."
My brother lived in Germany at that point.
My modern-minded, women's libber of a mom said that the bed had been handed down through the male lineage. But if I called my brother and he said it was okay for us to use, we could have it. I called him, the whole time thinking this was ridiculous. Of course he'd say I could use the bed. But you know what he said?
"No, that's my bed."
That bed, ten years later, is still in storage in the garage.
We all had a good laugh and everyone agreed that traditions are great...until they're not.
Do you have an example to share?


Anonymous said...

The one that jumps into my mind this month is the tradition that says marriage is one man, one woman. We could let that one go any day now.

On a more personal level, my family just doesn't have a lot of traditions to let go of--I think they dropped off the journey somewhere during immigration. And, really, I find that's okay with me--I'd rather build my life/my family's life around what's important to us today. The only time I ever think about these "traditions" is when a school assignment comes home asking for a list!

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

Dear Becky,
That's a great addition. I agree.
That's interesting that your parents dopped their traditions during the journey. A lot of people hold on tight to theirs--as if it's all they have left. Like the woman in the class whose parents were from Russia.

Anonymous said...

Not so much my parents--my mom did come here, but she was pretty young. And I'd say my great-grandparents dropped them on the other side (from Lithuania and Ukraine). Not sure we've EVER had them, I guess! :)

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."
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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