Personal Story

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My grandfather, far left, led the family. This photo was taken in the 1940s in Shanghai, His brother, far right, and most of his family (half the people in the photo) drowned on a ship headed for Taiwan. My father is in the back, fourth from the right.

I’m a first-generation American, having moved to the United States at age five. I was born in Hong Kong and lived in Brazil as a toddler.

My grandfather Chen, pictured above, had been a successful businessman in Shanghai, owning a chain of pharmacies. He took the family to Taiwan at the end of China’s civil war. My mother’s family also fled Shanghai, going to Hong Kong, and that’s where she met my father. He had received his PhD in the United States and was teaching at the University of Hong Kong.  Soon after my brother and I were born, we took an ocean liner to Brazil, to join Grandpa Chen and my father’s brothers who had gone there earlier.

We lived in Santos, where my grandfather had a beach shop.  My father taught mathematics at a nearby research institute, and sometimes he traveled to the United States for academic meetings. One of my early memories is of sitting on a stone wall in Brazil waiting for him to come back from America. In 1962, we moved to the United States. I grew up in university towns, following my father’s career. We moved from New Jersey, to New York, to Illinois.

Growing up in the U.S.,  I hardly knew anything about China. I used to impress my friends by counting to ten in Portuguese, not Chinese. Then I quickly lost my Portuguese and became American just like any other kid in school. My idea of Chinese society meant my parents, their friends, and our extended family. I had no idea about Chinese history. My family never discussed politics. We were focused on assimilating.

Perversely, from my parents’ point of view, I wanted to study art instead of engineering. My father reluctantly let me attend Sarah Lawrence College, where I studied liberal arts with a concentration in studio art. I spent a semester in southern France painting and sculpting in the landscapes of Cézanne and Van Gogh. I also studied European literature, philosophy, and law, and I dabbled in Chinese literature, as well. After college, I got a job in the city, in book publishing, and I frequented all the art museums in New York, not to mention the hip galleries in SoHo and Tribeca.

It was a time of Asian American consciousness, so I volunteered at Asian CineVision in Chinatown and helped write and edit for Bridge magazine. I also started taking Chinese classes in the evenings, thanks to the consciousness of the times. That led to a fortunate opportunity to travel to China as a tour guide.  I accompanied groups of elderly Americans who had taken vacations everywhere in the world but China. China had just reopened its doors to the West.

On my first trip to China, when I visited the musty old Shanghai museum, I was stunned to see the exciting, bold ceramics from the Song dynasty. They seemed even more contemporary than what I had seen in SoHo. How could that be? I was so proud to think I might have that ancestral artistic blood flowing through me. So my deep fascination for China began.

I have witnessed China’s monumental changes since the early days of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. I worked in Beijing for more than two years in the late 1980s and again for six years in the late 1990s to 2000s. After living with local relatives, working together with Chinese colleagues, and maintaining friendships in China over many years, I feel equipped to explore and tell how people’s lives and attitudes have changed.

My journalism training comes from the University of California at Berkeley, where I received master’s degrees in broadcast journalism and Asian studies, through a joint program combining the two fields.

I have been immersed in the academic world of Chinese studies through my roles as associate director of Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies, 2003-2008, and as executive director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, 2008-2014.

I’m delighted now to offer my own perspective, the way I see and understand China.

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