I was born during a time of great promise: 1989 was the year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The Tiananmen Square Massacre took place on June 4, 1989, just months after I was born. It was because of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that then-US President George H. W. Bush issued Executive Order 12711. Executive Order 12711, issued on April 11, 1990, deferred deportation of Chinese nationals and their direct dependents who were in the US between June 5, 1989 and April 11, 1990, waived the 2-year home country residency requirement, and gave them employment authorization through January 1, 1994. It was made permanent when the Chinese Student Protection Act was passed in 1992.
My parents were graduate students at the University of Tulsa when they decided to have me. Both my parents studied engineering at TU: my mother earned her Master’s of Science in Chemical Engineering in 1989, and my father his Master’s of Science in Petroleum Engineering in that same year. My father would go on to earn his PhD and, with a green card in hand, wound up employed with Texaco: the Texas Company (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texaco). The move took us from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Houston, Texas. He would stay on with Texaco for ten years, up until it was acquired by Chevron in 2001, forming ChevronTexaco (now, once again, Chevron).
I am quick to peg his achievements as attributable to a ‘normal’ functioning meritocracy. However, as I research more, I find that circumstances surrounding his early life and ultimately coming to the United States are extraordinary.
Since I was very young, my father told me that he left his home at 15 to attend college, finishing his degree in four years. The circumstances behind this are strange: his was the first graduating class out of China’s high schools to sit a college placement examination since the exams were cancelled in 1966 because of the Cultural Revolution.
“On July 1966, the NMT was officially canceled and substituted by a new admission policy of recommending workers, farmers and soldiers to college. During the next ten years, the Down to the Countryside Movement, initiated by Mao Zedong, forced both senior and junior secondary school graduates, the so-called “intellectual youths”, to go to the country and work as farmers in the villages. Against the backdrop of world revolution, millions of such young people, some full of religious-like fervor, joined the ranks of farmers, working and living alongside them. However, they were soon disillusioned by the reality of hard conditions in the countryside.”
“university placement exams were cancelled after 1966, and were not restored until 1977 under Deng Xiaoping”
[上山下乡运动 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_to_the_Countryside_Movement, a policy instituted in the late 1960s and early 1970s] [relevant? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-education_through_labor])
What motivated him to work hard and to excel in his studies, I can’t say for sure, but let’s call it good parenting and a desire to gain honor, even in the face of uncertainty. For all my father knew at the time, his hard work may have landed him in a slightly more proximal rural area.
However, this was not the case. Instead of being carted off for re-education (hard labor frees the intellectual mind) in the farmlands, he found himself very well-prepared to sit the first college entrance exam.
“The first such examination after the Cultural Revolution took place in late 1977 and was a history-making event. There was no limit on the age and official educational background of examinees. Consequently, most of the hopefuls who had accumulated during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution and many others who simply wanted to try their luck emerged from society for the examination. The youngest were in their early teens and the oldest were in their late thirties. The questions in the examinations were designed by the individual provinces. The total number of candidate students for the national college entrance exam in 1977 was as many as 5.7 million. Although the Ministry of Education eventually expanded enrollment, adding 63,000 more to the admission quota, the admission ratio of 4.8% was the lowest in the history of the PRC, with only 272,971 students being admitted.”
The star student placed near the very top of Zhejiang province and was placed into the Chinese University of Petroleum (中国石油大学, or 石大; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_University_of_Petroleum).
The university (which also has a campus in Beijing) was located in Shandong province, which came as a surprise to my father, because its name (华东石油学院 = Hua Dong Shi You Xue Yuan) suggested a more easterly location. He apparently thought that it was located not far from home, but found instead that it was in Dongying, Shandong province. Back then the journey required a bus ride to Dinghai, followed by an overnight ferry to Shanghai. Upon reaching Shanghai, he would have taken a bus to the train station, and he’d travel to either Jinan or Zhangdian by rail. This would be followed by yet another train ride, which would deposit him in Dongying. All told, it was a journey of over 1,000km.
Years later, when I encountered trouble absorbing IBHL Math, my father would relay to me for the umpteenth time the stories of his experiences with academic failure. He told me that he failed a chemistry exam in his first semester of college. In response, he went through the book relentlessly, doing all of the practice problems that he could. He would pick apart his exams with his professor, going through each step in his thinking. By committing himself fully to his studies, he was able to distinguish himself in the classroom. By challenging the professor on each earned demerit, he earned back points that would have otherwise been lost for good.
After my father graduated from college, he took another round of examinations to gain admittance into a prestigious program that would take him to America. Again, he worked his way in through his academic merit. He was amongst the brightest, young minds that China had produced. All of China, it seemed, was backing these scholars.
At about the age of 20, however, he suddenly fell quite ill and was hospitalized.
The details aren’t clear. He tells me that during this time, he became enamoured with a nurse. I met her once, in Hangzhou, and she sings beautifully.
My father left China for the United States wearing his newly tailored suit. He told me how the pilot of the flight pointed out to him that he ought not to wear his tie over his sweater. Otherwise, I imagine he looked and felt like a sharp, young cat.
One of his first stopping off points was New York, where members of the extended Zheng family had been living for some time. If not for them things would have been quite different for my father and his immediate family.