After years of trying to forget his past, Raymond Wong was forced to face his heritage when he visited his homeland. The longtime San Diegan shares his story in his book, “I’m Not Chinese: The Journey From Resentment to Reverence.”
“I pushed away my culture, I pushed away my language, I pushed away really anything that was Chinese,” explained 52-year-old Wong. “For much of my life, I didn’t want to be Chinese.”
Born in Hong Kong, Wong was 5 years old when he and his mother immigrated to the United States.
In 1996, when Wong was 33, he visited his native country for the first time since he came to the U.S. He met his father and extended family members during the trip.
“I basically met a father I had no contact with since we moved here,” Wong said, noting that he and his father had never talked on the phone or exchanged letters.
Because his father spoke Cantonese and Wong only spoke English, they communicated through his mother.
The experience inspired Wong to write his memoir, an endeavor he began 19 years ago, shortly after he returned from the three-week trip.
“The most challenging part was seeing the people and a country that I really had pushed away my entire life,” he said. “I really didn’t want to have anything to do with being Chinese or Asian. Being on that trip, there was no way around it. It was absolute culture shock for me.
“It really made an impact on me. It really made me realize how much I had lost.”
What started as an autobiographical novel transformed into a memoir. It took Wong about a year to finish the first draft and another four to five years for revisions.
“There were a lot of rejections along the way, but I kept trying to make it better,” he said.
Eventually, Baltimore-based Apprentice House picked up the book, which was published in October 2014.
Wong’s memoir gives an inside look at the pain of being an outsider in America. He discusses the struggles of cultural alienation and his personal journey to embrace his identity through writing.
“Being Chinese and speaking Chinese made me different,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to be different.”
Wong’s mother remarried when he was about 6 or 7 years old. His stepfather was Caucasian. They later had two children.
Wong was about 12 when the family relocated to San Diego, where his stepfather, who was in the Navy, was stationed.
“There was no reason for me to speak Chinese,” Wong said. “There was no reason to keep that tie. I wanted to speak English and I wanted to fit in, so that’s what I did.”
Since his initial trip, Wong has returned to Hong Kong twice — after he married his wife, Quyen, in 2008 and after his father died in 2010. He has kept in touch with his family through his mother.
Most of all, he has embraced his heritage.
“I used to say I was British because Hong Kong, at that time, was under English rule,” he said. “Since that trip, I have learned to say that I am Chinese, and I have come to embrace a part of my heritage, a part of my culture, even a part of my language.”
Wong has taken Mandarin Chinese classes. He has also encouraged his two children to know their heritage.
His daughter, Kristie, 11, studies Mandarin Chinese at her elementary school. His son, Kevin, 14, has studied Chinese and has recently started studying Vietnamese at a Saturday school.
“My hope is that they will embrace their languages and their cultures — that it will be a part of them,” said Wong, who lives in Rancho San Diego and works as a counselor at San Diego City College.
Wong also hopes that readers will connect with his journey.
“If there’s a reader who’s felt like an outsider, maybe they’ll connect with it and not feel like they are so alone in this world,” he said.
Wong will discuss “I’m Not Chinese” at 6:30 p.m. June 24 at the Del Mar Library, 1309 Camino Del Mar in Del Mar.
For more about Wong and his book, visit www.raymondmwong.com.