Two and a half years in an American public school changed my life forever. I was fifteen when I arrived at Sequoia High in Redwood City, California. It was 1967, the year my parents took my four siblings and me to the U.S. so that we could have the best college education. Before then, we had been living in Hong Kong.

Having traveled half the world to go to school, I dived straight into my studies. To my shock and horror, I discovered that in an American public school, a student’s popularity was often in inverse proportion with his grades. Being a foreigner and straight A go-getter, I was an outcast. My social life consisted of hanging out with teachers after school and doing extra-credit work (which endeared me to my classmates even more). One teacher who always kept an open door was Mrs. Bradley, my English teacher. On the pretext of discussing books, I went to her after school every day.

It should have come as no surprise that I majored in English at U.C. Berkeley. After graduating, I went back to Hong Kong. Journalism became the outlet for my urge to write. AFP, the French news agency, employed me. I took on feature writing and produced my share of China watching. In 1976, when the Asian Wall Street Journal started operations in Hong Kong, I joined the young and dynamic pioneer staff. It was a privilege to participate in the birth of a newspaper.

Two years later, personal and career factors led me to apply for graduate studies in the U.S. The School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University accepted me. After obtaining my master’s degree in International Affairs, I found employment with the World Bank in Washington, DC. At the time, China had just become a member of the World Bank. My Chinese proficiency was an advantage.

While working in the East Asia Department, I started dating a colleague, an Icelander. But I almost couldn’t marry him because I couldn’t pronounce his name, Thorolfur Sverrir Sigurdsson. Fortunately, he usually went by his middle name, Sverrir.

For six years, I traveled to my home territory, East Asia, to assess Bank-financed projects. To diversify my experience, I transferred to East Africa, specifically to work on Somalia. I watched the country explode into civil war, some say despite western aid, others say because of it. The Somali tragedy moved me deeply, and I began searching for answers.

The old writing bug bit me. To understand something, I have to write about it. In 2000, I published a spy thriller, Nightfall in Mogadishu. It was my way of coming to terms with what had happened in Somalia.

Writing became not just a hobby but a passion. One evening, I broached with Sverrir the idea of taking very early retirement. He immediately went to the computer and created a spreadsheet to see if we could survive on one income. All the expenditures we could think of filled one column. Then we subtracted the total from Sverrir’s salary. The number “1” popped up. We were going to have a $1 surplus every month! Let’s do it, I said, and Sverrir agreed.

My second book, Journey across the Four Seas, is about my mother’s life. I wrote it after my elderly parents moved in with me. It started as a bonding project with my mother, and it turned out to be a journey in self-discovery. My third book, Confucius Says is a fictionalized tale of a Chinese American daughter’s struggle to take care of elderly parents while caring for herself. For the first time, she reads Confucius in his own words and understands the true meaning of “honor your father and mother.”

In 2020, I coauthored a book with Sverrir, called Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir. I’d visited Iceland many times before and enjoyed its spectacular landscapes, but helping Sverrir write his memoir made me appreciate the Viking spirit of adventure. The Icelandic word for stupid is heimskur, which literally means “homebody.” In other words, a person who stays at home is stupid. Since Sverrir’s early childhood, when Allied forces swarmed into Iceland and turned it into a fortress to stop Hitler from advancing toward North America, Sverrir’s sight has always faced outwards. It’s no wonder he went on to conquer (without the looting and raping) twenty-six countries on five continents. I’m glad he finally settled in the DC area, where we now live.


Veronica Li

Veronica and Sverrir in Iceland

Book Signing

Copyright © 2006 Veronica Li. All rights reserved.