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 Why I Write Multicultural Books
by Cynthia Chin-Lee

Cynthia Chin-Lee is the author of five children's books, Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea (Polychrome Publishing), A Is for Asia (Orchard/Scholastic), A Is for the Americas (co-authored with Terri de la Pena; Orchard/Scholastic), Amelia to Zora: Twenty-six Women Who Changed the World (Charlesbridge), and Akira to Zoltan: Twenty-six Men Who Changed the World (Charlesbridge). Cynthia lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband, two children, and a bunny. She often does school and library programs. For more infomration, visit her website or contact her via email.

What are your values? What is your passion? I feel lucky to combine one of my values -- inclusion, tolerance, and a multicultural vision -- with my passion, which is writing. I've always loved writing, playing with words, writing poetry, scribbling in my journal, taking a journey of introspection through words. In the sixth grade, I wrote a poem on Brotherhood, which my class recited at graduation. In retrospect, maybe I should have entitled the poem Humanity, rather than Brotherhood, but we were not so conscious of gender-exclusive language back then in the late 60s.

The poem began"B is for our brotherly love." Those lines seem quite prophetic, since I have written four alphabet books. All five of my published children's books have a theme of a multicultural life. This vision of inclusion and tolerance for differences and a celebration of diversity came not from having lived it, but from having lived the opposite.

I was born in Washington, DC, in 1958, the last of five children, to a Chinese American family. Both my parents were born in the U.S. My grandparents on both sides came from southern China, Toishan to be exact. My mother's grandparents immigrated as merchants in the late 1800s with my grandfather, age three, and his future wife, my grandmother arrived in the US later, as his picture bride. My father's parents immigrated in the 1910s with the paper name of Chin. In short, my grandfather was a"paper son," a man who took a false identity to immigrate to the United States.

Put put things in context, I should mention that the Chinese first came to the U.S. in significant numbers in the1850s to seek gold from the Gold Rush or to work on the transcontinental railroad. After several decades of Chinese immigration, many European Americans resented the hard-working, low-paid Chinese and lobbied to keep them out of the country. Many of these Americans took the law into their own hands, lynching, murdering, and otherwise victimizing the Chinese. Local, state and national laws were passed to discriminate against the Chinese, including one law which prevented the Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens. That law was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943.

California senator, Leland Stanford, was among the ones to lead the call for the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that would basically ban large numbers of Chinese to enter the United States legally. There would be a small quota for merchants, students, and diplomats, but the U.S. Congress essentially halted the Chinese from entering the country. So much for the lines from Emma Lazarus's poem,"Give me your tired, your poor‰¥Ï" carved on the Statue of Liberty! The Chinese would not be included in that refrain for 83 years until the Immigration Act of 1965.

To get around the strict quotas, Chinese men bought papers from a legal immigrant, like my grandfather did, pretended to be someone else for the entire duration of his life in the United States. My grandfather, whose clan name is Lee, gave up that name and became Chin. Years later when my father was in his forties, he claimed our true name for the family, so we legally became Chin-Lees (our paper name and our real name hyphenated).

I know of Asian Americans who say they have never felt discrimination or racism, but I wonder if they have read history. Have they ignored the overt or subtle slights of our society? My books have a strong multicultural vision because that is what I want to see for all of us, including my children and my grandchildren-to-be.

I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in Washington, D.C., a neighborhood in which my parents were not allowed to buy a house unless the white neighbors approved. I remember, from elementary school and on, that I was made to feel different, maybe not all the time, but certainly many times. The questions might be as innocent as my friend who asked me why I had black hair and looked different. There were also the taunts from bullies who called my siblings and me,"Chink, Chink, Chinaman." As I grew older, I would feel the scorn of African American classmates, too, as I was thought of as a tiny, voiceless shrimp. In junior high, I was a pariah, ostracized by the"in" crowd. Some of my high school classmates would make it clear that I should not even consider dating their brothers.

The most dramatic incident of my childhood happened when I was eight and my oldest brother was eighteen. Saving to go to college, Bruce got a job at the local McDonalds in Bethesda, MD, where he commuted by borrowing our uncle's sports car. His co-workers, clearly jealous of his car and his future plans, picked on him. One night, unbeknownst to Bruce, some of his co-workers followed him to our home. In the middle of the night, we got a phone call from our neighbors,"Your car is on fire. We've called the fire station."  The car was destroyed as well as one of our heritage magnolia trees. Lucky for us, our house stayed intact and none of us were injured. The investigators never identified the arsonists, but the message seemed clear to our family.

So did we give up and move out of the neighborhood? No, our roots were already too deep. I think my parents earnestly tried to work in the community and change things, and passed their goal onward. In my small way, I hope my books communicate a vision that all people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, can give something of value to our communities. I don't know if every book I write or publish will have a multicultural theme, but I am grateful that I can share this value with my readers.

posted: November 2006

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