When I was a child in middle school in the late 1970s and early 1980s the United States had just established relations with the government in Beijing. I remember going to see a performance of a Beijing Opera company in Oakland with my grandparents, either in 1977 or 1979, but whenever it was, the exposure to Chinese culture made a big impression on me.
I became interested in China as my awakening interest in politics and economics was growing. While in sixth grade I had an interesting art teacher who was also my social studies teacher. This man had been in the Army infantry during the Second World War, and he had fought on the front lines for many months, and survived some of the worst battles in Italy, France, and Germany. He was a teacher who was dedicated to peace, and he often encouraged his young students to think of people in “the enemy” countries of the Communist Sphere as potential friends. He was of course very enthusiastic about freedoms and advantages of our political system, but he always urged us to think about social justice and peace as well. I also had a Korean War veteran as a social studies teacher in seventh grade, who again taught us to consider American history and politics from a point of view that emphasized the concerns of workers and oppressed groups. These two teachers were echoing things I picked up in my family, about the importance of looking out for the interests of the “little guy” and seeing everyone with unprejudiced eyes as equal.
Well, in the early 1980s we had a horrible president named Ronald Reagan. He was awful, but not as bad as our current president [George W. Bush]. In fact, Reagan was a nice person, with some good values and idealistic ideas, but he wasn’t very smart and he was surrounded by bad people. And really, his ideology was stupid as well. At the time the USA and USSR were poised for war, and the possibility that any day we could all die in a nuclear conflict was weighing on our minds. I knew the horrors of the Soviet Union’s purges and police-state, and I was aware of the problems China had with the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Great Cultural Revolution,” so I had no illusions that Communism as it was practiced in the USSR or China was a good thing, but I read Marx and Engels (when I was 13-14), and I read other radical social theorists (like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Trotsky), and I was impressed. I wasn’t a “true believer,” but I was impressed. I figured that there were some good ideas at the root of Socialism, but these ideas had been wrongly and brutally applied in the Communist nations, something like the way Christianity was twisted and distorted during the crusades or the religious wars and persecutions of European history in the 12th to 17th centuries.
I learned about the successes of Marxist parties in the Indian states of Kerela (and, to a lesser degree, in West Bengal) after my father married a woman from Kerela. My step-mother was no radical, in fact she was a sort of Ayn Rand conservative, but her experience coming from Kerela gave her a fresh look at the American political system, and her deep criticism of America seemed sometimes right to me.
So, with my disgust with the Communist countries and my dissatisfaction with the economics and politics of America, where could I turn for an example? Well, in the 1980s China seemed like a promising place. It seemed for a time as if China would show the world a third way, keeping the best aspects of socialism or communism while embracing some of the advantages of capitalism, and there was hope in the 1980s that China might move toward more democratic and liberal politics as well.
When I was in college I became friends with a classmate from China whose father was a professor of American studies. Dan Pan told me his perspective on China and America, and so I learned more about China. Another friend of mine, John Wells, spent a summer in Hong Kong, and he also had some interesting views about China and its future. I talked a lot about China with these friends, and I read some Chinese history. At the University of Redlands I took a course on Chinese history from Robert Eng (the economic historian who is an expert on the history of silk) and a course on political development in East Asia from Michael Ng-Quin. I learned that the Chinese government had guys I didn’t like, such as Mao Tsedeng and Li Peng, people I thought were better, such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Hsiao-Ping, and people I actually admired, such as Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang. Modern Chinese history had heroes like Liang Shu-ming and Sun Yatsen, and villains like Yuan Shih-kai and Jiang Qing.
Anyway, in the 1980s the people I liked most, such as Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang were in the ascendancy, and China’s future looked bright. I thought China might find a “third way” and surpass the Communist and Capitalist nations in terms of human development and human-centered economics. As I got into high school and became active in the peace movement in protests against nuclear weapons and American support for terrorists and evil governments in Latin America (and our stupid undeclared war against Nicaragua) I became less interested in traditional socialism and more interested in the Green Movement and the Green Party, which was then forming and establishing itself in Europe. The American Green Movement wasn’t yet a political party, but I liked the basic core values of the Green Movement and thought of myself as a “Green Democratic Socialist” in my political thought. I knew enough about Chinese philosophy from Taoism and Buddhism to Confucianism and Chinese Humanism to think that China might evolve into a nation that embraced many of the best values of Democratic Socialism and the Green Movement. In the late 1980s, this seemed a possibility.
In the summer of 1985 I visited the Soviet Union, and met lovely people from Russia and East Germany. When Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union and began his reforms it was clear that things were changing. I admired Gorbachev, and even put a picture of him up in my dormitory room at college in a place of honor. Then, in the summer of 1988 I went to East Germany as a guest worker in a youth brigade to work on construction sites around the Berlin suburb of Mahlsdorf. The people I met in East Germany were extraordinary. But as we cried and waved goodbye at the checkpoint where we crossed back past the Berlin Wall I knew that things were changing, and soon, I thought, the East German Communist Party would have to liberalize and get rid of the wall. About 14 months later this is exactly what happened.
But about six months before that happened, Hu Yaobang died (in April of 1989). He had been forced to resign as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party two years earlier because he had been too “liberal” and sympathetic to demonstrators. The memorial and funeral events were amazing, as so many young Chinese people came out to honor him. And they didn’t stop coming. All through the end of April and May more and more were coming into the streets. My friend Dan Pan was using my phone to call his friends in China and learn what was happening. It was very exciting. John and Dan and I would get up each morning and get together to read the newspaper and talk about what was happening in China.
But things changed in June, and I lost faith in the idea that China would be any sort of an example to the rest of the world.
I didn’t lose my interest in China. The events of 1989 and my friendship with Dan Pan made me admire the Chinese people. Then, in the summer of 1989, I met a Chinese graduate student at Northwestern University, where I was spending the summer, and we fell in love. In 1989-1990 I was a senior in college in southern California while my girlfriend was a graduate student at Northwestern, and she was a couple years older than I was. Her love cooled, and so did mine, and our long-distance relationship didn’t really work out. We were on very friendly terms, and kept in touch for several years, but that experience of being in love with someone from China made me even more interested in China and Chinese culture.
As an undergraduate I was studying world development. I took courses in sociology, history, economics, and political science, but most of the courses I took were related to development in Africa, Latin America, and East Asia. I even spent the fall 1988 semester in East Africa with the School for International Training. My experiences studying economics and politics in East Africa made me feel very discouraged about poverty alleviation and justice in Africa. But the changes I was seeing in Eastern Europe and East Asia looked promising to me. When I graduated, I decided I wanted to go to East Germany (I studied German in college) or else East Asia (Korea, Hong Kong, or Taiwan). I had been a volunteer at the local high school in Redlands, California (where my university was), and I had experience teaching English to children from Mexico, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cambodia, Romania, and Ethiopia. So, instead of looking for a career in development, I decided to get a job as an English teacher for a couple years while I figured out what I wanted to study in graduate school. I was interested in medicine (I thought I might do research on tropical diseases or work on cures for malaria or water-born parasites), economics, urban studies, and social work. After a couple years teaching English in Taiwan I decided I would study social work, and after I earned a doctorate, I hoped I could return to Asia.
Well, I earned a doctorate, but my wife, who is from Taiwan, does not want to live in Taiwan. She doesn’t mind going back for a month or two on extended visits, but she thinks we should stay here in the United States.
I’ve maintained my interest in poverty in China. I remember how in 1994 my wife and I visited her brother in Dong-guan (near Guangzhou), and we met a group of young children selling flowers and other cheap little items. Some seemed as young as six or seven years old, and the oldest seemed perhaps 11 or 12. I had been studying Chinese in Xi’an that summer, and so I was a little more fluent than I am now, so I looked at those children and started to talk with them. I asked them about their lives, and their families, and their work. It seemed no one had ever stopped and talked with those children, and certainly no non-Chinese person had spoken to them in Mandarin. They were excited to tell me about their lives. The children told me they had been taken from their parents, and couldn’t go back to their parents. They couldn’t go to school or visit their parents because their bosses wouldn’t let them. I didn’t have enough cash or gifts to give the children much, and we were going to dinner. When we came out of the restaurant, one of the children gave me one of the roses he was trying to sell. He wouldn’t accept money, and told me it was a gift.
I’d like to do something in my career that would be helpful to poor children in China. It’s a personal feeling I have. And so, I remain interested in social work in China.