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Woodstock library assistant bridges cultures with books

by: Merry MacKinnon, Woodstock library assistant Amber Houston’s family was persecuted during the Chinese Cultural Revolution for being “bookish”. Now, books are Houston’s profession, and she has the world’s classics at her fingertips.

Now that she is surrounded by an endless variety of books, there's a certain irony in the fact that Amber Houston doesn't have much time to read.

During her youth in China, Woodstock's tri-lingual library assistant went to great lengths to read books.

At the time, novels from outside of China, like 'Jane Eyre', 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', and 'Anna Karenina', were banned. It was the era of the 'cultural revolution' in China. But through an underground network, Houston got her hands on copies of forbidden texts.

She was given only two days to read those novels--and, then, secretly, she was to pass them on. Sometimes, to help increase the supply of copies, she would write out a book's entire chapter. In scenes evoking 'Fahrenheit 451', Ray Bradbury's science fiction classic on book-burning, Houston's family fearfully hid their books when Chinese authorities came to their house.

'Those were tough years for a family like ours,' recalls Houston, who currently lives in Southeast Portland, having emigrated from China 20 years ago.

Houston was recently hired as an assistant at the Woodstock branch library. She earned post-Cultural-Revolution English and Chinese Classical Literature degrees from Shanghai University, and she speaks Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.

Houston's library duties include outreach to Portland's Chinese community and, this summer. she will prepare a Children's Storytime in Chinese.

Because of her experience in China's Cultural Revolution, leaving her homeland behind was not hard. Her parents were intellectuals, and her father--a professor of economics-- had been sent to the countryside to pick cotton. 'With the Cultural Revolution, everything turned upside down,' she recalls sadly.

When she first arrived on the west coast of this country in 1987, she faced other hardships. 'I had a friend here, but when I got here, he had left for China, so I was alone.' In those initial years she first found work babysitting for a Lake Oswego family, and later was employed at the Japanese Garden in Old Town.

Now, her brothers also live in this country, and so does her father. That's why, when she did find time to read a book recently, it was one to which she related.

Entitled 'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress', the author had been a Chinese intellectual sent to a peasant village for 're-education' during the Cultural Revolution.

Arriving this country, Houston felt welcome, she says. 'Chinese is my specialty but I serve everybody. My library work is a good opportunity to give back, because people here have been helping me.'