City Paper is not for tourists
Veronica Li spent most of her life believing that her mother was a saint.
As a child, first in Hong Kong and then in Redwood City, Calif., she heard fantastic stories of her mother’s suffering: Flora Li was a lifelong refugee who lost her father at age 3, grew up in deep poverty, bootstrapped her way to the prestigious Hong Kong University, had her schooling interrupted by numerous invasions by the Japanese, and fled to Thailand during the communist revolution. Later, she married a man psychologically wrecked by abuse and war trauma yet stayed by his side through all of his breakdowns. And after she became a mother, Flora emigrated once more—this time to the United States, where she ensured that all five of her children graduated from college.
“This was the first generation of women to be free of the practice of foot binding,” says Veronica, 55. “Just the fact that [women such as my mother] survived, raised a family, got everyone educated, and came over to the states—you realize how much courage it takes to keep going, uprooting themselves and starting over again.”
When Veronica’s parents journeyed east from California eight years ago to live with her and her husband in Vienna, Va., however, her mother’s canonization seemed less of a sure thing. Flora refused to treat her daughter as an adult and butted heads with her over everything from the way she ran her house to what she wore. Even though Veronica, a former journalist and World Bank manager who quit in her 40s to concentrate on her writing career, felt rich in upper-middle-class security, Flora castigated her for not having a bigger, nicer house.
“As a child, I adored her, but when she came to me as a grown-up, I saw things that made me question her sainthood,” Veronica says with a chuckle. “She can be petty and hold grudges.”
Flora remained a fantastic storyteller, however, and at the urging of her writer friends, Veronica reluctantly decided to capture her tales on tape. She began in 2000 during the spare time she found while wrapping up her first book, Nightfall in Mogadishu. At first, Veronica says, she worried that her mother might clam up at the sight of a recorder—but Flora had so much to say that she wouldn’t even stop when Veronica had to change the tape. When Veronica transcribed the tapes, she discovered that the life story behind the anecdotes of her childhood was richer than she had ever imagined.
In 2002, Veronica set about weaving the stories into a book. In order to preserve her mother’s voice and point of view, she says, she immersed herself in Flora’s life—and by assembling the vignettes into a chronology, she saw more fully the motivations that drove her mother’s decisions and the resulting consequences. She also realized that she was absolved of her mother’s suffering. “I know the unhappiness comes from her past, not me,” Veronica says. “She’s done wonderful things for the family, but she has not fulfilled her ambitions. She gave up everything for us.”
The book, Journey Across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman’s Search for Home, was published by Homa & Sekey in November 2006. Since then, Veronica has been busy marketing her book and making appearances and signings. Flora even joined Veronica for a reading at Vienna’s Patrick Henry Library, where she gave a short talk about her childhood that began with typical Chinese humility: “I didn’t do anything fantastic.”
“It was the highlight of the event,” says Veronica.
The book also seems to have helped Flora make peace with her regrets, and Veronica says her mother is much calmer and more philosophical about her life—and less of a nag. For Veronica’s part, she no longer views Flora as someone beset with pain. “In the end, it’s such a liberating thing to see she’s only human,” Veronica says. “Because now I can fight with her and not feel guilty.”