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My mom and dad in Hangzhou. Photo courtesy of Sarah Ding.

Zhijian Ye and Shinghua Ding

While I’ve lived in American suburbs my whole life, my parents grew up in rural parts of the Zhejiang province in China. My dad’s father was a government employee and worked in the next town over. I never got to know him, as he passed away when my dad was in middle school. Although their family never went hungry, they had to work constantly for basic needs. Eventually, my dad’s mother, my nai nai, started working in the village-owned community farm to make more money to support their five children.

“We were not the poorest people, compared to other families,” my dad said. “Some families [did not even] have enough money to eat.” 

He lived in a village called Shengzhou where my nai nai still lives, although she has a much bigger house now ⁠— the house they lived in burned down, but long after the family moved out. His sisters still live near this area and also farm for a living. He went to elementary school in this village.

“[It was a] very simple classroom, actually, just a room [where] people put a few tables. The classmates ⁠— only maybe 18 people, I think ⁠— [were] from different villages; not just from the village I lived in, a neighboring village because they didn’t have elementary school,” he said. “And actually, it was a very good, happy time. I never [felt] unhappy.”

My mom’s parents were elementary and middle school teachers, and they moved towns a few times when she was young when her father, my wai gong, became the principal of different schools. He taught math and art while his wife, my wai po, taught Chinese and music. Wai po was my mom’s first teacher.

Art by Sarah Ding.

For middle and high school, however, my mom went to a larger school in a bigger town, a lower-level city that’s now larger than Columbia, with teachers who came from different places. Some were sent from cities like Shanghai to teach in the rural area after China’s Cultural Revolution. She lived in a dorm with bunk beds with other girls. She liked to sleep on the top bunk. For meals, each student had a tin container to put raw rice and water in; everyone carved their names into them since they looked the same, but sometimes they still got lost. The kitchen would steam the rice and the students later came back to it for lunch.

When kids go to college in China, they don’t have four years to build up GPAs or extracurriculars like in the United States. Instead, they have one chance to take a series of subject tests called gao kao in a few days. This was very important, as colleges selected students solely based on these scores, although they’ve expanded what criteria they look at since my mom was in school.

She was a good student and did well in gao kao. Although it took awhile for her to adjust in middle school, coming from a rural area to a big school, by the time she moved on to high school, my mom was always in the top five students in her grade. She received priority selection going into college, meaning she could choose what school she wanted to attend. 

“They recommended me to go to three schools, and I [could] go to any of those three because they gave me priority,” she said. “I picked the one that’s farthest away from home because I wanted to go to far places. I guess I didn’t get a lot of chances to go to other places. [I] just wanted to go, maybe farther, then I [could] explore.”

My mom ended up going to her top pick, Wuhan University, in 1987. Her first choice for a major was epidemiology, but she didn’t get picked for this. She ended up studying Information Technology, though she didn’t know much about the major. I asked if she was disappointed she didn’t get her first choice.

“Not really. To be honest, a lot of kids didn’t know, because back then, we were not exposed to so many things like you guys,” she said. “So, we were not very well-informed, and sometimes the teachers didn’t even know how to advise you, so we just picked … Choices were much more limited back then. Because, you know, [there was a] big population of students, and only so many colleges back then. There are definitely more choices nowadays in China.”

My dad also did well on gao kao; in fact, only three people in his grade were accepted by universities. He was second in his class and went to the Zhejiang University of Technology, a great achievement, he said, because enrollment rates at that time were very low. His classmates who didn’t get into college had to retake their tests the next year, or even a third or fourth year later. My dad was a little older than 16 years old when he arrived on campus in 1982.

“At that time you don’t care, because as long as you can go to college, that’s very good already, so no matter what kind of major, you just go.”

Shinghua Ding

“I still remember the first day when we went, so the receiving stations ⁠— they have a bus ⁠— they [took] us to the to the school, and they put me in the in the dormitory,” he said. “There [were] … eight beds, but one [was] empty; people [could] put their baggage there. So seven people in one room ⁠— it’s very small, but it’s good, actually.”

My dad’s major was called Microbiology Engineering, which had to do with fermentation and making alcohol. Like my mom, my dad didn’t have much of a thought process when choosing his area of study. 

“At that time,” he said, “you don’t care, because as long as you can go to college, that’s very good already, so no matter what kind of major, you just go.”

One key event in China’s history was the Cultural Revolution launched by Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1966, during which he shut down the nation’s schools. Because of this, my dad’s three older sisters have stayed in the rural village while he and his brother, the two youngest siblings, went to college.

“The [Cultural Revolution made] education, really, not normal,” he said. “That was, about, for 10 years. So [my sisters were] just not very lucky at that time because they are older than us. So when we got to middle school in 1976 ⁠— the Cultural Revolution [ended] in 1967 ⁠— they were already old and missed that opportunity, already. Otherwise, they maybe could also go to college.”

After college, some of my dad’s peers went to work at beer factories. He decided to instead earn his master’s degree and later became a professor at Zhejiang University, one of China’s most prestigious colleges. A mutual friend introduced him and my mom, who worked as a librarian there. They married a year later. I always wondered why they didn’t have any wedding photos when I was younger, but not many people had big weddings in China back then. They went to dinner with friends and family, instead. My wai po gifted them rustic gold wedding bands, which have since been switched out for my mom’s thin, diamond encrusted ring, but I have the old rings tucked away for safekeeping.

My dad decided to pursue a PhD at University at Buffalo—SUNY in the United States in 1993. My mom stayed in China for six more months while she was waiting for her visa.

Wai gong passed away fall of 2019. Here he is with wai po, who still lives in Hangzhou. Photo courtesy of Sarah Ding.

When she moved to the United States, her visa still didn’t allow her to work officially, so she babysat to make some extra money. My dad’s stipend was very little ⁠— $800 per month. They shared a two-bedroom apartment with another couple; rent was about $300 per month. I asked my mom if it was strange making such a big move across the world.

Then, my sister, Sam, was born in 1996. With my dad already being a full-time student and my mom preparing to go to graduate school, they decided my wai gong and wai po back in Hangzhou would have to take care of her until they graduated. My dad took her back to China when she was almost one year old. They couldn’t go visit Sam because their visa status meant they could risk not being able to return to the United States if they traveled. My mom then started going to classes to earn her MBA, also at University at Buffalo.

“It was a hard decision,” she said. “Good thing we didn’t have to do it with you. We were better financially when you were born.”

They wrote letters to Sam and sent clothes. My dad’s brother came to the United States on a business trip one time and showed them recordings of her. She came back to Buffalo about three years later.

“I think she was excited, coming back. And wai gong [and] wai po came with her so she didn’t feel like she’s going to a new place all by herself,” my mom said. “But she did have this one issue, because she didn’t like riding in the car. Every time when she [went] into the car, she [didn’t] like the smell. So I had to give her some perfume to hold under her nose every time she rode in the car.”

When my dad went to the airport to give my sister to wai gong and wai po, he spilled some cereal and Sam cried, causing a scene. Art by Sarah Ding.

Sam mostly spoke Chinese, but my parents taught her English, along with other skills like going to the bathroom and reading to get her ready for daycare. They could also now receive food stamps and Medicaid for kids. Wai gong and wai po, who were retired, stayed with them for six months, applied for a visa extension, and stayed another six months to help take care of Sam and help transition her to the new environment.

My parents graduated around the same time and moved to Haddon Township, New Jersey, but they both worked in Philadelphia, about a 40-minute drive. My dad did post doctoral research in a lab at Jefferson University and then UPenn, and my mom did temporary work through a job agency until she found a permanent job as a financial analyst at a law firm. They made more money at their new jobs, and in fact, they didn’t qualify for food stamps when I was born in 2002.

It’s weird to think about how different my parents’ upbringing was from my own. I’ve never had to worry about money like they did, and have acted completely spoiled in years I don’t wish to think about. I see my dad’s experiences I’ve never had to go through in his words and values, such as when he tells me to finish every last bite of my dinner even if I’m full because I have to be grateful for my meals, or how he pushes me to work hard every day at school to secure my future. I didn’t understand these things when I was younger, and I didn’t understand why it was important to know Chinese culture if we were living in America.

I still wonder if I had tried just a little harder to learn Chinese when I was younger if I would know the language better now, and be able to speak to my relatives better like my sister can. I even wonder if I have kids later on if I’ll fail to pass on the language or culture. I have unresolved fears and sadness about my connection to my heritage, and wondered if my parents shared these, but after these conversations, I see they accept me as I am.

“I think you probably know more about Chinese than you realize. Sometimes you probably feel too self conscious about speaking, that gets in your way. If you don’t worry about how you speak, how people would react, then you can probably speak better,” my mom said. “So next time we go to China, you can try to talk in Chinese more. You’ll be surprised how fast you improve. Because like when we went back in the past, after a week, you can actually speak pretty well. So, don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

I’m still in my youth and have plenty of time to learn more Chinese and be closer to my extended family, my parents said. I should put aside my fears and move forward. A good first step is to keep having conversations like these.

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