March 22, 2003

ACROSS THE OCEAN, OVER THE
MOUNTAINS TO AMERICA

Photo

  Dr. Ping Yang meets with her
  research staff at Mayo Clinic
  to discuss a life expectancy
  study of lung cancer patients.
 
(Photo by Jerry Olson/Post-Bulletin)

 


 

By Douglas McGill

Ping Yang learned quickly how important it is to master the tiniest subtleties of a new language -- lest one be horribly misunderstood. She learned the lesson from
a fellow Chinese student shortly after arriving at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from Beijing in 1984.

"My friend was trying to tell everyone how important
her adviser was," Ping said. "But she put the stress
on the wrong syllable." And how. The friend was
baffled by the loud guffaws that greeted her gushing announcement that "my adviser is a very, very impotent man."

From the hilarious to the tragic, from the strange to the sublime, Ping Yang, a Mayo Clinic researcher and principal of the Chinese Language School in Rochester, has experienced it all in her journey from China to America, where she is now a wife, mother, doctor and citizen. She's lived through a revolution that killed 3 million Chinese; she was one of the first Chinese students to live in the United States after 30 years of frozen relations thawed in the middle 1980s; and she was stranded in the United States, unable to return to China after the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989.

Now she divides her life between running the Chinese School, directing Mayo's world-class lung cancer research program, religious attendance at a 6 a.m. aerobics class ("it's my drug and my remedy"), and, the most challenging of all, being a full-time Chinese-American mom to two teenage daughters who were born in America.

Besides notching up their own impressive achievements in piano, ballet and learning to speak Chinese, the daughters, Hannah and Shanna, are beginning to show interest in makeup, boys, Christina Aguilera and other American ways that, if truth be told, baffle and sometimes frustrate their traditional Chinese mom.

Changing America

Ping and her family are part of a post-war immigration trend that is profoundly changing American society and culture. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limited Chinese immigration to the United States for nearly a century. But since 1970, China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, has sent more immigrants here than any other nation but Mexico. Almost 1.5 million Chinese have become U.S. citizens in that time, with many more living in the country on long-term visas.

As important as their sheer numbers is the effect Chinese immigrants are having on the direction and quality of American society. Most immigrant populations are driven to succeed and are willing to work, but an unusually high percentage of Chinese immigrants are highly educated and thus quickly contribute to the highest echelons of American society.

The effect has been transformative, especially in areas such as high technology, engineering, medicine and scientific research, areas where China's education system is traditionally strong.

While in the middle 19th century Chinese immigrants helped to build America's railroads, in the late 20th century, super-educated Chinese immigrants helped build the world's information superhighway, mostly from office cubicles in southern California. In Silicon Valley, one in four workers were born in Asia, and about a third of those are Chinese. Bringing with them strong values towards family, education and work, Chinese Americans have raised test scores and set new standards in fields ranging from the movies (martial artist Bruce Lee) to architecture (I.M. Pei), from medical research (David Ho developed the "cocktail" strategy for fighting AIDS) to music (cellist Yo-Yo Ma).

Early lessons

Ping's journey to Rochester began in the early 1960s. She grew up in the rural town of Taigu, about 600 miles southwest of Beijing. The town's big employer was Shanxi University, an agricultural college, where her grandfather taught veterinary medicine. Ping was born in Beijing but was sent to Taigu because her mother and father, college students at the time, couldn't raise her, whereas her grandparents could.

As Ping tells it, being raised by her grandparents was a key to her life. That's because she learned from them the values of traditional Chinese culture, especially the redemptive value of hard work, persistence and sacrifice.

"In public and at school, our brains were washed by Maoism and Communism, which were our faith and our future," Ping said. "But at home my grandfather showed me and taught me about the old Chinese ways, about Chinese history and Confucius. He read me the great Chinese literary classics like 'The Dream of the Red Chamber,' 'The Water Margin' and 'The Three Kingdoms.'"

From her grandmother, Ping learned even more.

"She taught me what a girl should be," Ping said. "She said, 'If your life is totally dependent on a man, you never know what will happen. So you need to learn all the skills you need to stand on your own -- cooking, sewing, stitching, embroidering. And you need to learn your own professional skill. After you learn all that, if you want to act like a boy, that's OK.' From her I learned that you can be just as capable as a man, but people will always see you as a woman first."

Taunts and beatings

Ping came face to face with history in the late 1960s when the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse Tung's attempt to revive the communist revolutionary spirit in China, began to unfold. It was one of the bloodiest and psychologically most damaging events ever to be inflicted on a human society. Mao's idea was to elevate ordinary peasants and demote and denigrate all "bourgeois" intellectuals, professionals and, of course, anyone who had ever politically opposed him. Between 1966 and 1976, when Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended, millions of educated Chinese were torn from their lives and families in the cities and sent to be "re-educated" in factories and farms in rural China.

Unfortunately, Ping's grandfather had belonged to the political party Mao crushed on his rise to power, not as a soldier or politician but simply as a party member. Still, that put him squarely in the crosshairs of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

For having sided with Chiang Kai Shek, the other party's vanquished leader, Ping's grandfather was stripped of his professorship and sent to a pig farm to shovel manure for a living. He was frequently harassed and beaten by young Red Guard thugs as a "historical counter-revolutionary." Worst of all, he was routinely paraded in the public humiliation rituals known as "struggle sessions."

Sometimes, Ping witnessed these brutal events.

"He would be criticized by a big audience, on an evening or a weekend, at the school auditorium," she said. "He had to stand on stage with the other counter-revolutionaries. They put a dunce cap on him and a sign around his neck. He had to bend over so the sign hung from his neck.

"My heart was just broken. It was hurting so much. I was so totally confused, just 6 or 7 years old, and I had to watch this. My grandfather was such a sweet, nice guy. How could he be going through that?"

Eyes on the goal

Ping didn't escape harassment herself. She was labeled a "little historical counter-revolutionary," another category of Red Guard victim, and was subjected to taunts and beatings while walking home from school.

She credits her grandmother with instilling the life philosophy that got her through that rough patch and future ones. "She always told me, 'No matter what they call you, you are the same person, and heaven will not fall.' She said if you keep your eye on your own goals, you will be OK."

At age 13, Ping moved to Beijing, was reunited with her parents and attended high school. Her test scores at graduation got her into a medical college, after which, armed with a Chinese medical degree, she took another test and, in 1984, qualified to become one of the first Chinese to visit the United States.

During the next 12 years, she earned a master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University in 1985; a doctorate from Johns Hopkins in 1990; and worked as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh until 1996. She moved to Rochester with her husband, Bosheng (or "Bo" as he's known to everyone), and their two daughters in 1996.

Ironically, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese premier whose "Open Door to the West" policy made Ping's move to the United States possible, was also responsible for her staying here. Originally, Ping's plan was to return to China after she got her PhD. However, when she was ready to do that in late 1989, Deng sent the army to suppress several thousand pro-democracy activists in Tienanmen Square, killing several hundred of them. The country was plunged into chaos, and when Ping's letters seeking employment in China went unanswered, she chose to stay in the United States.

Cultural lessons

As principal of the Rochester Chinese School, Ping is able to address the imbalances she and other Chinese Americans experience between the two cultures, she said. The school, started five years ago, serves about 50 students, most of them the American-born children of Chinese-born parents. Some of the Chinese-born students are the adopted children of American-born area residents, and a sprinkling of American, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai adults also attend the school.

The essential raison d'etre of the school is to teach the Chinese language and culture to the American-born children of Chinese parents. The parents want their children to understand their family ancestry and be able to communicate with their grandparents and other family members who still live in China.

"We want to teach the best parts of both cultures," Ping said. "By learning the Chinese language they can learn to love the best traditions and values of Chinese culture."

The school also organizes occasional parties and festivals, especially Chinese New Year's, when traditional food is served and students put on a talent show with humorous skits, an opera and poetry readings -- all performed in Chinese.

Cultural clashes

Being a mom to two teenage American daughters often brings Ping into conflict with the traditional values she learned from her grandparents.

"Kids in America aren't taught that real accomplishment requires hard work and sacrifice," Ping said. "Young women want to be like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. It looks so fun and so easy. But of course it's really hard work to succeed at what those women do, or to succeed at anything else. It's a strength of Chinese culture that it teaches those important lessons."

Ping went to Working Mother magazine (her kids had bought her a gift subscription) recently for some tips on American family life. An article about how to deal with your in-laws shocked and angered her.

"One of the tips was that if your in-laws live close by you and drop by often without notice, change your locks. Another was to break all ties with your in-laws. But what if your in-laws are poor and they need your help? Do you just cut off ties? Can you really advance yourself in life and enjoy 'success' without thinking about and helping others, especially the people in your own family? It made me really angry, and I canceled my subscription."

East meets West

Infrequently, Ping has encountered racism. When a grounded U.S. spy plane was held captive in southern China for several weeks in early 2001, vandals in Rochester knocked over mailboxes at the homes of several Asian families, including the Yangs. That reminded Ping of the harassment her family suffered during the Cultural Revolution.

Her overwhelming experience of Americans has been that "they are a genuinely warm and open and welcoming people. And there's freedom here. You can do the work that you want to do in this country."

When Ping and Bo named their daughters they put their philosophy of "joining the best of both cultures" into action. The name Hannah, given to their first born, comes from the Chinese phrase "Hai Na," which means "across the ocean." Shanna, born three years later, comes from the Chinese "Shan Na," which means "over the mountains." The Yangs were living then in Pittsburgh, in the foothills of the Appalachians.

A Chinese saying, "The mountains and the sea depend on each other," added another value that Ping wanted to pass on to her daughters.

"Because Bo and I grew up in a different culture from them, maybe we can't support them as strongly as our parents and our grandparents supported us," Ping said. "So they'll have to be each other's strongest support.

"I want them to be in harmony. I want them to care for each other and to support each other all their lives. Whether they are in China or in this country, Bo and I wanted them to know the meaning of their names, which is also about the meaning and purpose of their lives."

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report