Personal Stories of America at Work
How a Reluctant Chinese Engineer Designed a New Life in the US
Loneliness sparks creativity
I was born in Manchuria in 1957, the son of intellectual parents who were from wealthy families. Seven years before my birth, the Communists seized our property and labeled us enemies of the people. In later years, my father was jailed, tortured and exiled. Because this bad family background, I was ostracized from society at a young age.
With few friends to play with I became creative, always working on projects. I made up dance steps to music from the radio, fashioned a flute out of a flagpole, carved a Japanese sword out of a wood plank, and taught myself read music.
My father was sent to live in a remote village in northern Manchuria. During one of my visits, I devised a heating system for his kang (brick bed) so we would have at least one warm place in his small adobe home. You could say that was one of my first engineering inventions.
Cultural Revolution ends and engineering begins
The Cultural Revolution began when I was nine. Intellectuals were demonized, and all colleges and universities were closed. Red Guards even killed some of the professors. My parents divorced so that our family would not have to go into exile with my father. Life was difficult for most Chinese then. We were often hungry. The lack of food haunts me to this day. I still do not waste a morsel.
When the Cultural Revolution ended after Mao’s death in 1976, my father was exonerated and colleges re-opened. In 1997, 5.5 million of high school graduates from the past ten years took the national college entrance exam; only 5% were admitted. I was one of the fortunate ones. This is where I began my career as an engineer. I loved liberal arts but realized that censorship would stifle my creativity and being a journalist, artist, or writer would require me to speak for the Communist Party. Of all the professions, engineering was most respected because it was challenging and relatively free of corruption. So engineering it was.
From east to west
After spending a few years teaching engineering, I was selected by my school to do academic research in the U.S. for a year, along with several other promising faculty members. I applied to many schools and got into four of them, including UC Berkeley. Ecstatic, I traveled to Northern California to live on a $540-a-month stipend from the Chinese government. Even though my wife and young son could not travel with me, I was determined to go.
When I arrived in the U.S. in September 1993, it was a shock! Everything was new to me. I had never even seen hamburgers, pizza, tacos, salads, and knew nothing about the choices of condiments, toppings and dressings. Going to the grocery store was daunting. Stores in China were small. You can smell and touch the food. Here supermarkets are huge, and the food is packaged up. I had no idea what they were. I handed the cashier a-hundred-dollar bill for three items and he asked, “paper or plastic?” I had no idea what that question was about. I didn’t know how a bank operated and had never seen an ATM machine. I didn’t know what a drinking fountain was until I saw someone using it.
Seeking political asylum
Soon after my arrival, while visiting a local museum, I met a man who invited me to his home. When he learned of my financial difficulties, he hired me to do yard and repair work for him. When I mentioned that the Chinese government had blacklisted me after I left the country, he introduced me to an immigration lawyer and paid the attorney fees himself. I had never experienced such kindness. Later, when I had the money, I tried to repay him but he wouldn’t accept it. He is an angel who has helped many people simply out of kindness. We remain the best of friends.
Before filing for asylum, the attorney recommended that I bring my wife and son to the United States and include them in my application. I could not work legally. I made $1,000 to $2,000 a month by tutoring and repairing and reselling televisions and bicycles. It was more than enough to eke out a living for three of us. In September, 1994, the INS issued me a work permit.
Thriving in the right job
Exactly one year after arriving in the United States, I landed a position at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It still amazes me how a person can get a job the way I did. My neighbor worked at the lab and gave me the contact information for the division director. I called him, got an appointment, and soon had interviews with three scientists in the department, one of whom brought me in as a guest researcher. Within a month, my boss decided he couldn’t continue, in his words, “to take advantage of me.” So he hired me as a temporary employee, which enabled me to earn a regular salary. Soon, I was given a three-year position. Once my immigration status allowed, I received a career position. I remained in this department, working on an energy efficiency program, for thirteen years.
On my birthday in 1995, we bought a car. However, none of us knew how to drive yet, so we would just sit in the car together having a virtual ride. My son’s engine sound effect made it so real. Life was full of hope.
At the end of 1995, my wife and I separated and I became a full-time single parent. Despite the misfortune in my personal life, my career flourished. I landed in the right job at the right time. My boss mentored me in scientific research. I was finally using my best assets—my creativity and my deft hands—to develop a new energy-saving technology. Our technology was so successful that my boss licensed it and started a franchise to implement our technology in residences. I began working as a consultant for him in his garage start-up while working full-time at the lab and being a single parent. In 1998, around this time, I became a permanent resident and bought my first house, which I renovated in my spare time. Life was very busy and promising.
Several years later, I made another breakthrough with our energy technology. Up until then, we had proven its use in residential buildings. The new breakthrough dramatically improved the performance of the technology and enabled it to be used in large commercial buildings. A large heating and air conditioning manufacturer licensed the new technology, which the lab had patented naming me as one of the inventors. I continue to receive royalties from this patent. I am a U.S. patent-holder on a second technology as well, and received three Outstanding Performance Awards during the fourteen years that I worked at the Berkeley Lab. I am very proud of my accomplishments as an engineer.
On June 4, 2001, I became a citizen of the United States. I love this country—it has provided me with more freedom and opportunity than I ever dreamt of when I was in China. America is truly my home now since I cannot return to China. When my father passed away in 2000, I was not able be at his deathbed because I would have been arrested had I returned as a Chinese citizen. After becoming a U.S. citizen, I tried to visit my family, but the Chinese government denied my entry. My mother visited me here two years ago, after sixteen years apart. That is probably the last time I will ever see her.
As I approached fifty, I became anxious to explore my interest in liberal arts and other subjects that I did not have time for while working full time. I was eager to return to school to have the full experience of an American college student, quenching my thirst for knowledge, which is deeply rooted in my childhood. I calculated that I had enough income to live comfortably without working. In March of 2008, I retired one month short of turning fifty-one.
Over the past few years, I have taken classes in music, communication, literature, and writing. With the help of these courses, I am now writing my memoirs and singing with the UC Alumni Chorus. I have also taught classes on Chinese history and occasionally help friends with home improvement projects and software development. I studied backpacking and made solo trips to the high Sierras. Through these activities, I have made new friends. I have been associated with universities for over thirty years—as a student, in the faculty and now as a returning senior.
My first challenge after retirement was to slow down. I had been so driven since coming to the U.S. I feel that now it is time to enjoy life. I have to remind myself it is okay that I do not have a tangible weekly achievement. Another challenge is to explore new fields by using my right brain hemisphere. Enjoying life means new learning, and learning is not always easy.
After almost three years of retired life, I have settled into a life pattern that suits me very well. Mornings are for writing my memoirs. Afternoons and evening are for learning and other activities like reading, watching videos, singing, playing the piano, taking a hike, or playing badminton on the UC Berkeley campus.
I met my second wife in a ballroom dance class eleven years ago. We continue to share a passion for dancing (we even built a dance practice room in our basement). We have a wonderful relationship, sharing a happy life together while enjoying independent activities with others. These are the best years of my life.
I believe that if something challenges you, you will learn from it. My father always told me, “You cannot control what people think of you, but you can control what you can do. If you do something, own it, do it well, and be proud of it.” That is how I have lived my life.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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