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
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
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
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
"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
"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
Sometimes, Ping witnessed these brutal
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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."
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