My mother’s accounts of her childhood and the homeland from which she emigrated are often characterized by turmoil. Little else can perhaps be expected from a country that was born less than two decades before her. On October 1st, 1949, Mao Zedong declared himself the ruler of the newly founded People’s Republic of China. In the years that followed, he would go on to exile those who publicly voiced dissatisfaction to labor camps, initiate failed agricultural reforms that devastated farmlands and caused 20-40 million people to die of starvation, and instigate the infamous Cultural Revolution, a movement that urged a disillusioned youth to leave their universities and act on his orders to oust intellectuals, professors, and anyone who might be able to credibly denounce his government.
By the summer of 1967, when my mother was born, Mao had begun to reign in the Revolution, sending his once beloved Red Guards en masse to farms in China’s countryside. My mother’s father, an electrical engineering professor, had just begun to teach at Jinan University when the Cultural Revolution had taken hold and had been forced to leave his position to work in a local factory. Soon after my mother’s birth, Mao allowed the universities to reopen and he was able to return. So, my mother spent her childhood exploring the grounds, classrooms, and corners of Jinan University. Though her father was free to teach, however, his curriculum was strictly regulated and monitored. Though her environment nurtured her passions for science, literature, and art, she studied them with the understanding that severe government scrutiny restricted both her own original thought and the material to which she had access. While rich in the cultural capital characteristic of elite institutions, my mother was still surrounded by famine and poverty, the vestiges of Mao’s dominion. Her parents shared the belief, though uncharacteristic at the time, that both girls and boys deserved equal opportunity, and to save for her and her sister’s college tuitions, her parents worked long hours, lived nearly ascetic lives, and relied on food rations. To my mother, the pursuit of higher education, thus, became the most accessible means through which she might achieve greater freedom. She was uncharacteristically fortunate in her proximity and accessibility to academic and cultural enrichment, and in that her parents were able to scrape together enough money to fund her aspirations. Still, even as a child, my mother felt the burdens of the systems of political, economic, and social oppression under which she lived, and learned early on to approach her studies with competitiveness, resilience, and enthusiasm not only so that she might attend university, but also so that she might be able to use higher education to subvert the systems of oppression that restrained her free speech, agency, and opportunity.
In 1977, after Mao’s death, the new leader of the People’s Republic, Deng Xiaoping, established sweeping economic and international policy reforms that began to establish China as an industrial and international trade powerhouse. My mother and her parents still remember seeing, in early-1979, grainy photographs of Deng in the newspapers donning a ten-gallon hat, and reading that he had convinced the U.S. to recognize the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate country. So, as my mother entered secondary school, so too did China enter an economic revolution. China’s gaze was cast increasingly westward, but my mother’s exposure to Western culture was fragmented until she entered college. Rare magazine clippings offered glimpses into what American life might be like, but Deng’s insistence that China maintain Mao’s political structure, despite his economic reforms, required that Chinese citizens refrain from discussing Western ideology and imagery. The line that Deng, like Mao, had drawn between interest and treason was extraordinarily fine, and my mother lived in fear of expressing any sort of overt curiosity about the United States.
During the 1980s, however, the West’s burgeoning presence in China’s economy made the government’s censorship of Western influence on other aspects Chinese society nearly impossible. As my mother entered college, Western television, culture, advertisements, and luxury brought color into the lives of Chinese youth who dreamed of a future greater than the desolation that had overshadowed their parents’ lives. These superficial cultural objects were also symbolic of the same freedoms my mother had dreamed of since she was young - freedom of expression, of opportunity, of sociopolitical agency - and ignited within Chinese youth the idea that they might in fact be achievable and real. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 1980s’ drastic economic revolution also brought with it government corruption, steep inflation, and uneven economic development, and in 1986, college students across China began large demonstrations calling for a more transparent government and a more market-oriented economy. My mother, who began attending FuDan University in 1985, found herself in the midst of these protests. Her, her classmates, and her friends, had perhaps been inspired both culturally and politically by Western imagery and philosophy. They took to campus with a sense of agency, purpose, and hope that their historic show of activism might for once affect real change in China’s autocracy. My mother participated in several demonstrations, but anticipating backlash from the Chinese government, she made sure not to be photographed. While she valued political reform and protested for both her and her family’s economic and sociopolitical agency, she feared that her participation would compromise her studies and thus, her belief that her education might somehow grant her the same privileges.
By the time General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who had defended the student demonstrators, died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989, the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee had already given my mother a full scholarship to their biology graduate program. Months earlier, she watched as her classmates grew more restless and became more organized, and the government became angrier and more intolerant. Disillusioned by the political instability that surrounded her, and discouraged by the waning prospects of greater sociopolitical and economic freedom, my mother decided to seek opportunity in the United States. She studied diligently and poured over the Princeton Graduate School Directory’s graduate school scholarship listings, translating as she read with a pocket Chinese-English dictionary. She completed eight applications for biology programs at graduate schools spread throughout the United States, and paid for each $30 application fee (160 Yuan at the time) with help from her sister, who had immigrated to the United States with her own engineering degree three years earlier.
When student protests erupted on April 18th in response to the government’s treatment of Hu’s death, my mother laid to rest her hopes of ever dismantling Deng’s suppressive, subversive political system, and returned home to Jinan so as to avoid confrontation. Throughout April and May, protests continued to escalate until students began to camp out at Tiananmen Square and hunger strike. Fearful of the public’s growing support of the anti-government movement, high government officials agreed to meet with several of the student protest leaders, but agreements were often heated and unconstructive. Then, on June 4th, 1989, two weeks after Deng had declared martial law, Chinese military mobilized armed forces to forcibly remove the thousands of protesters that had gathered in Tiananmen Square, the heart of the protests. The number of students that died that day as soldiers opened fired into the crowds is still unconfirmed. My mother, who had not yet returned to school, relied upon word of mouth to hear who of her friends had survived and who had not. Devastated by the ruthlessness of her own country’s government and afraid she might be found out for participating in previous demonstrations, she elected to leave early for the Medical College of Wisconsin’s biology program that would begin in the fall.
The United States saw fleeing Chinese citizens as pioneers for democracy in a hostile Communist land and declared itself a democratic sanctuary. On June 5th, 1989, President Bush announced a military weapons embargo on China and, the following day, automatically extended all visas of Chinese nationals studying in the United States by one year. He also promised sympathetic review of visa requests and visa extensions for all other Chinese nationals in response to overwhelming public support to grant Chinese students studying in the U.S. permanent residency, which bode well for my mother who began the process of acquiring a student visa shortly after. President Bush later issued an executive order that allowed Chinese students to seek permanent residency without returning to China for two years first, which had been the policy prior to the massacre. The public’s and government’s support of Chinese students was largely motivated by democratic ideological convictions, but these also coincided with the United States’ general immigration policies at the time. These policies, which had been established in 1965, gave preferential access to skilled and educated workers in order to enhance the economic life of the country.
The massacre, however, had also prompted the United States to close one of the only three embassies in the country, so to obtain a passport and visa, my mother and her father traveled for a week cross country from Jinan to Beijing. The embassy saw only 20 to 30 people each day, and my mother and grandfather woke before sunrise for several days to wait in line and send in her application. After waiting several weeks to schedule an interview, she waited several more to hear whether or not her application had been approved, and then several more for her father to help her cover the cost of the plane ticket to Milwaukee which cost 4-6 months of her his salary. Nevertheless, this unique combination of geopolitical events, the Tiananmen massacre, China’s burgeoning population of university-educated youth, their recently established but influential and vital trade relations with the United States, and the United States’ domestic economy and immigration policies, facilitated a large, new wave of immigrants from China who were highly skilled and educated, within which my mother was included. The Immigration Act of 1990 only further supplemented this movement by increasingly prioritizing educated, rich, or skilled immigrants. Still, my mother would never have been able to benefit from these structural and political developments had she not also been able to successfully navigate through China’s education system. That feat had been conquerable because of her work ethic, her determination to overcome China’s structures of oppression by working within them, and her cultural capital provided to her by her upbringing. My mother, in the absence of adequate sociopolitical or economic agency, had employed her own personal agency to maneuver her way to a biology degree, a ticket toward greater sociopolitical and economic freedoms and opportunity.
She arrived in Milwaukee in August of 1989 with $300 for food and books, all that she had saved during her four years at FuDan University. Learning to speak fluent English as quickly as possible from the same pocket Chinese-English dictionary that had helped her pen her graduate school applications so as to keep up with her classmates, she found a partner to practice with, a friend, and a mentor, in the chairman of the biology department. She speculated that perhaps his Jewish ancestry and his parents’ own immigration to the United States from Europe before World War II had compelled him to guide her, a student fleeing possible political persecution at the hands of the Chinese government. So, four years later, he wrote her a glowing recommendation for her application for a post-doc fellowship at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City. While in graduate school, my mother also met my father, with whom she had bonded over more than their shared experiences navigating foreign spaces. She had found love, and she felt extraordinarily lucky to be able to pursue it fully unrestrained by financial, social, or cultural duty. My mother also felt privileged in that he was willing to uproot and move to New York with her after learning that she had been accepted to study at Sloan-Kettering, finding his own position at a nearby hospital only after wholeheartedly agreeing to support my mother’s endeavors. Finally, she felt that fortune had blessed both her and my father, after learning that they would be granted permanent residence because they had entered the United States classified as young student activists fleeing political persecution in Communist China immediately following the Tiananmen Square massacre.
After four years in New York City and two children, commuting three hours to work everyday because housing closer to her work was far too expensive for my mother and father to afford, my mother felt blessed again when my father again supported her decision to shift career paths and pursue clinical medicine rather than biological research. Though my father’s parents fought bitterly to keep my mother at home taking care of her two children, reasoning that my father’s salary could comfortably support them, my mother found her work to be more a source of purpose than income. Though she felt waves of guilt leaving her children, wondering at times whether they deserved a more traditional household, she felt ultimately that she was setting a greater example for her children, something to aspire towards that was greater than traditional values.
The continued expansion of her career and thus, her socioeconomic and political opportunities after arriving and settling in the United States had, as in China, been made possible by her enthusiastic pursuit of more prestigious forms of academic distinction. Both her and my father’s bachelor’s and doctorate degrees also provided them the economic capital to more easily redefine their gender roles to fit their own desires. So, because my mother practiced unrelenting control over her own personal agency, manifesting resilience and tenacity, and through doing so achieved extraordinary academic accolades, she was able to subvert the systems of oppression in China that threatened her social, economic, and political freedoms and realize her full potential in the United States.