The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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PERSONAL JOURNEYS. Becoming American: Personal Journeys features archival footage of interviews with five prominent Chinese Americans who have made significant contributions in the fields of literature, science, business, medicine, and the arts, including author Gish Jen (photo by J.D. Sloan, courtesy of Knopf), physicist Samuel Ting (photo by Gregory Heisler, courtesy of NASA), and artist and architect Maya Lin (photo courtesy of Public Affairs Television).
From The Asian Reporter, V19, #18 (May 5, 2009), page 13 & 16.
Becoming American series spotlights prominent Chinese Americans
By Julie Stegeman
Becoming American: Personal Journeys is a three-part series presented by the Public Broadcasting Service. The show, airing this month on Oregon Public Broadcasting, features archival footage of Bill Moyers interviewing five prominent Chinese Americans who have made significant contributions in the fields of literature, science, business, medicine, and the arts. The series presents a fascinating glimpse of the life experiences of Chinese Americans from five different perspectives, and its sole shortcoming is that the compressed interview segments leave you wanting more.
The first segment in the series includes interviews with businesswoman Shirley Young and AIDS researcher David Ho; the second covers author Gish Jen and physicist Samuel Ting; and the final episode is reserved for artist and architect Maya Lin.
Born in China, Shirley Young was the daughter of a diplomat. Her family was living in the Philippines when the Japanese arrived during World War II and arrested, imprisoned, and executed her father, the consulate general. Her father’s death forced the family to become very self-sufficient and resilient — farming, keeping poultry, making their own shoes and soy sauce — qualities Young drew on in her later professional life.
Young eventually moved to America with her family and graduated from Wellesley College on scholarship. "I was treated so well," she said. "And therefore, I always have felt I owe a great deal to this country." She stumbled into the world of advertising, where she excelled and pioneered the concept of focus groups — a very familiar idea these days, but radically different than what was occurring at the time.
When asked if she ever felt discriminated against, she told the story of how one of the vice presidents of the advertising company she worked for stated that if she hadn’t been a woman, she’d be the head of the department. He intended this to be a compliment. Young said, "I had never thought that was the reason I wasn’t the head of the department." Eventually, after she quit, she was rehired as department head.
She went on to work for General Motors, working to open up the market for its cars in China.
AIDS researcher David Ho was born in Taiwan. His father came to the U.S. in 1957 and sent for the rest of the family once he was established. Ho said of coming to America: "I was 12 when I came and I remember thinking it’s truly a different world." He had trouble in school when he first arrived due to the language barrier and went from being a stellar student in Taiwan to a struggling one in the U.S. "I was generally viewed by others as the dummy in the class — you know, kids can be cruel at times," Ho said. "The first few months were really rough for me and my brother."
Ho was inspired to become a scientist by two physicists from China, Yang and Lee, who won the Nobel Prize in the late ’50s. He became interested in HIV research when, as chief medical resident of a hospital in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, a few gay men came into the hospital with infections only seen in immune-compromised people. The virus was a great mystery and challenge.
Ho and his team of researchers discovered in the mid-’90s that HIV reproduces "ferociously" in the early stages of infection and not in the late stages, as was previously believed. They came up with the combination therapy of a three-drug cocktail that corners the virus and can bring it to undetectable levels in the body. He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1996. Currently Ho is trying to find a vaccine for the HIV virus.
Author Gish Jen was born in New York, the daughter of Chinese parents who immigrated to the U.S. during World War II. She was inspired to become a writer because she was trying to make sense of living in two different worlds — Chinese and American. "I came from a world where — in every sentence — in everything they did, there was this idea that there were obstacles everywhere that one could not simply go out and do what one wanted," Jen said. "That one had to be canny and one had to be smart because the world opposed you."
In her writing, she wrestles with the question of what it means to become an American. Moyer asks her about this and she answers: "It does seem to me that by the time you ask yourself, ‘Well, what does it mean to be Iranian American, Chinese American, Jewish American, Irish American,’ you are American ‘cause it’s not a question that people ask in other parts of the world."
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Samuel Ting was born in the U.S. but raised in China during the war with Japan. He was 20 years old when he returned to the U.S. on scholarship and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. He found America to be overwhelming "only for the first few days because I didn’t know the language."
He won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for the discovery of the previously unknown J-particle. He gave his acceptance speech in Chinese — the first time the language was ever used by a Nobel Prize recipient.
At the time of the interview, Ting was researching antimatter. He said, "If the universe came from a big bang there should be matter and antimatter equal amount at the beginning. Where is the universe made up of antimatter?"
Maya Lin — born to Chinese parents who immigrated to the U.S. to avoid the communist takeover — grew up in Ohio. Lin, the only Chinese American in her school, spent her youth wanting to fit in and be an American. "I looked out at everyone and everyone is white," she said. "So, what would make me more uncomfortable was hanging out with a group of Chinese Americans. And I knew that this was bad."
She studied architecture to combine her love of science and art. Her sculptures, monuments, and buildings are influenced by her Chinese heritage. "My work is inspired … by an eastern sensibility coming from my father and probably my mother," Lin said. "It’s there but I’ve only recently become really aware of how in a strange way it percolated up."
Lin’s best-know work is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. When her design was chosen, both she and her design were criticized and verbally attacked. "I had no idea that there was a problem with my race," she said. But as Moyers stated, "the bigotry and the hatred and the racism did not have the last word. The monument was the last word."
All three 30-minute episodes of Becoming American: Personal Journeys air on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) Plus on Sunday, May 10 from 7:00 to 8:30pm. The series replays Wednesday, May 13 from 1:00 to 2:30am. To learn more, visit <www.opb.org> or <www.pbs.org/becomingamerican/ap_pjourneys.html>.
A companion series, Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, airs May 17, 24, and 31 from 7:00 to 8:30pm and repeats May 20 and 27 and June 3 from 1:00 to 2:30am on OPB Plus.