Ray M. Wong, "Passion, Persistence, Publication"
I received some news that rocked my world, and I want to tell you about it, but first let me provide some background. In 1996 I took a trip to Hong Kong and Mainland China with my mother; it changed my life. I was five when I last saw Hong Kong. Through my American eyes it felt as if I’d been teleported to an alien planet: the August humidity so heavy it clung like a wet sheet, double-decker buses and honking taxis hurtling down the wrong half of the street, endless rows of makeshift sidewalk stands displaying everything from cloisonné bracelets to designer luggage to plastic toy robots, and the ever-stifling swarm of people. All the things I had spent my life running from – my culture, my language, my family – hit me in the face, full and flush.
I saw my father for the first time since I was a little boy, and we couldn’t talk to each other. I spoke English. He spoke Cantonese. My mother needed to translate. Still I couldn’t help but notice my father’s wispy, thinning hair, his dove-white skin, his dark, lonely eyes, half-hidden, almost shuttered by the narrow slats of his eyelids, his soft, silent demeanor, and his kind spirit. I came to know my father in Hong Kong, his family, the people and culture where he lived, where my mother and I lived for the first five years of my life. He was part of me.
I learned about my mom: her childhood in a rural village called Tai Shan, how the Communists shattered the life she knew by murdering her father and jailing her mother, my mom’s struggle to survive in China as a runaway twelve-year-old, her daring escape into Hong Kong, and the hardship of starting over as an immigrant in America. As strange as it sounds because I was 33 at the time, I really didn’t know my mom until we journeyed back to where my life began.
I visited my grandparents’ graves in Tai Shan. My mother and I brought an offering of roast duck, apples, mangoes and plums to honor the spirit of my ancestors. As I knelt on the rain-soaked earth surrounded by the scent of burning incense, I felt my grandparents’ presence at the cemetery. They spoke to me as if to a trusted friend, and I told them about my life in America. The experience left an indelible impression – it told me who I was, it told me I didn’t have to keep running, it told me that my name was Raymond Man-Kit Wong, and I could be proud of that.
When I returned to America, I picked up a pencil and paper and began to write. Although I had written many short stories and essays, I had never entertained the idea of a book. But when those first words appeared on the page I heard a voice I needed to follow, urgent, intimate and insistent. A year later, I completed a 300 page manuscript that chronicled those three amazing weeks in Hong Kong and China. I had written a book. Then as any writer knows, I was just beginning. The first draft is the inspiration; the revision is the perspiration that goes into making a book. I reworked it, reworked it again, the whole manuscript, first page to last – probably 10 to 15 times before sending it out and receiving my first rejection, the first of many.
Agents, publishers, small presses, and literary journals turned it down. Book excerpts came back with unsigned, half-sheet form letters. Thanks, but no thanks. I collected a stack of rejections. So I kept revising, combing, tightening, removing chapters, rearranging paragraphs, sentences, words, commas. And like a badgering neighbor, I grew sick of the book. I put it away, but it was an adamant child and kept tugging me back. “Daddy, wake up. We need to go. We have work to do.”
The first breakthrough happened in 2006. The literary journal at San Diego City College published an excerpt. I began working with an agent, and we submitted my memoir to publishers in New York. I added to my rejection pile.
In 2010, an excerpt appeared in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom,” but my agent suffered health problems. I started submitting to smaller, independent presses on my own. I sent my child into the world again and again.
On Monday, July 25th, 2011, thirteen years after completing my first draft, I received an e-mail from a small, independent publisher in Florida called Kitsune Books. They want to publish my book in 2013. I don’t have the words to describe the feeling as I read that e-mail. All I can say is some dreams do come true.
Ray M. Wong is a freelance writer in San Diego. His memoir, Chinese-American: A Journey of Discovery, will be published by the independent literary press, Kitsune Books, in 2013. He is a degree candidate in the MFA program in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. His articles and stories have appeared in USA Today, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom (2010), Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad (2010), Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness (2011), and Classic Christmas: True Stories of Holiday Cheer and Goodwill by Adams Media (2006). His column, Family Matters, is featured in five newspapers. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website: www.raywong.info.
Excerpt from Chinese-American: A Journey of Discovery
Thick black clouds masked the early morning sky and heavy rains blanketed Cha Shan. Uncle Number One pulled a jeep up to the front gate. Uncle Number Two, my father, my mom, and I met him outside. The others climbed into the old and rusty four-seater, which featured a canvas top extending over a small cargo hold. I sat on a step stool in the cramped tail section next to the spare tire and an empty gas can. The smell of an auto repair shop overwhelmed my senses.
We drove to Uncle Number Four's house. The ride was bumpy, jarring at times. Though enclosed, the very back of the hold remained exposed, like a tent with a flap missing, and rain puddled onto its metal deck. The tight, two-lane road cut through vast plains and soggy crop fields. Again the disparity between the amount of land in Hong Kong and China struck me. It felt like going from a dinky studio apartment in a crowded tenement to the Ponderosa.
After a while we came to a neighborhood of mundane, gray stone houses. I peeked out to see us stop at a modest, one-story with a rain-soaked cement walk leading to a covered porch. Number One honked his horn, which hacked out the sound of a trombone after it had been dropped down three flights of stairs. Moments later Number Four broke from the house. Scrunching under an umbrella, he held two batches of flowers encased in clear plastic. He slogged toward us, talked briefly with Number One, and scooted around to the rear.
He set his flowers on the deck, and showing surprising agility, hoisted his wide girth into the compartment. I got up and offered him the stool. He shook his head, but I insisted. He regarded me, nodded, picked up his flowers, and sat.
The jeep lurched and I nearly tumbled. Number Four grabbed my arm, and after regaining my balance, I sat on the lip of the spare tire. The drive reminded me of an off-roading excursion, as time and again, our vehicle collided with one of the numerous massive potholes. The deck was sopping as water swirled in from the opening. It didn't help that our cubbyhole rendered the disorienting sensation of seeing objects shrinking from us.
We veered onto an isolated muddy road and drove up an incline to a rugged stretch of barren earth and surrounding red-clay hillsides. Number One drew to a stop on level terrain and shut off the engine. We sat in a downpour, swamped in mud and rocks.
No one spoke, so I waited. It must've been twenty minutes before the rain let up. I heard the jeep doors creak and the sound of Number One's voice. My mother and father soon appeared with Number One and Two. Number Four hitched himself out of our hold, plopping into the muck, and I did the same. He retrieved the flowers.
Number One guided us in light rain toward a muddy, craggy red hill about a hundred feet from our vehicle. Number Four left his umbrella in the jeep, and none of the others brought one. Behind my father I noticed beads of moisture in the filmy strands of his hair. His black patent-leather shoes sunk into grimy orange-red goop with each stride.
When we arrived at the base of the hill, Number One gave a directive and headed up while Number Four, still holding the flowers, helped Number Two. I started up, turned, and extended a hand to my mom. My father followed us.