Emily and Jason Wang grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, a decade of widespread poverty and social upheaval under the leadership of Mao Zedong. At the time, Mao feared that Chinese leaders were moving the country in the wrong direction, and launched the Cultural Revolution to revive the sense of revolutionary spirit that had led to civil war and the formation of the People’s Republic of China 20 years before.
Maoist leaders mobilized thousands of radical “Red Guards” to rid the country of the “Four Olds”—old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Religious houses were shuttered, books and art destroyed, schools closed, and millions of educated people were demoted to menial jobs in Mao’s attempt to create a society where there was no gap between urban and rural, laborer and intellectual.
Emily Wang was born in southern China but moved north as a young child when her father was relocated, driven out of his teaching position during the Cultural Revolution. Emily said her father could speak multiple languages, including Russian, Japanese and English. “I saw him always reading, always learning, which influenced me to focus on study,” she said.
Jason explained that Emily’s father, “was basically demoted. He was a scholar, and went to Japan to study when he was young. Japan was considered an enemy country at the time, and the Chinese government thought it was politically incorrect for him to be teaching young soldiers in a military academy, so he was sent north to a factory to become a common laborer.”
Rebuilding after the Cultural Revolution
“After Mao’s death and Deng Xiaoping came into power in 1978, everything changed,” Jason continued. “The Revolution failed miserably and people were starving, and Deng Xiaoping said we need[ed] to try something else.”
Deng began a series of wide-reaching reforms to rebuild the economy in China. One such experiment took place in Shenzen, a town north of Hong Kong. In 1980, Shenzen was designated a special economic zone where free market-oriented economic policies and flexible governmental measures permitted foreign trade and investment.
“The government allowed foreign investors to come in and compete, basically to practice capitalism,” said Jason. “The market would dictate how things went, of course still under the watchful eye of the Chinese government. It was a huge success and was a prelude to opening up China to the idea of market-guided competition and private enterprise."
During the 1980s, China reestablished a commitment to education. Jason said that, “over thousands of years of Imperial history in China, until the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals were admired. The only way for a commoner to become a noble was through study. In the old dynasties, there was a government-sanctioned testing system for this. There is a path you can follow—if you pass all of the exams, eventually you will better your life.
“Without an education, you get by, but you don’t really get anywhere,” Jason said. “A lot of Chinese deeply believe that education can change your fate.”
Emily added, “Even if you are a farmer or laborer, learning can improve your life. If you pass the test, you can get a better education. We were all lucky. We had the opportunity to get educated.” Emily attended Zhejiang University and majored in biomedical engineering and instrument science. Jason attended Shanghai Jiao Tong University to major in computer science.
Different backgrounds, similar path
Jason has a slightly different upbringing from Emily. He was born in northern China, but both of his parents lost the opportunity to receive an education during the Cultural Revolution. “My parents worked in state-owned factories and have no background or social stature. They believe education is the best chance for a better life.”
As a result, Jason paved a practical and steady path to his own advanced education. “I always just worked on the most immediate goal in front of me. First it was elementary school, then junior high and high school, then the college entrance exam. I knew if I could get into a top college, then I could start to think about what to do with my future.”
Jason said colleges in China are fairly similar to Western universities, and Emily added that the top Chinese universities were influenced by and established with help of the U.S. over 100 years ago. Students choose their own majors, but STEM fields are most highly regarded.
“Chinese people believe science is fundamental,” said Emily, “and the government thought it most important for the development of the economy. My father said, ‘if you learn mathematics, physics and chemistry, you can go anywhere in the world.’ I had more interest in art, but thought I should still focus on science.” Emily said her inspiration at that time was Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. “I admired her very much and wanted to be a scientist like her.”
China enjoyed a new sense of openness and freedom after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Emily recalled enjoying some of those freedoms when she was in college, while absorbing as much as she could learn about the Western world. “Everything was new to us. I had more opportunities to choose courses outside of my major, so I took industrial design, art, painting, and in my spare time I learned even more,” she said. “For graduate study, I chose industrial design. Then, after receiving my Master’s Degree, I went to Shenzen, where entrepreneurs were being encouraged to start their own businesses. Before that, private enterprise was not allowed.”
As a graduate student, Emily was offered an internship at a television station, and soon discovered that she was interested in 3D animation technology. “I liked design and art, and my skills were better in those areas than in mathematics. The computer was easier for me than for traditional art students, so I had found the perfect job for me.” Several years after she graduated, Emily started her own full-service production company that created television advertisements.
Jason, on the other hand, continued to follow a steady path. After he graduated from college, he could have looked for a job. “In my mind, though, if I could get a higher degree, I wanted to pursue more study. My family believed that the higher degree, the better your future would be.”
He applied to graduate school. “The best educational system in the world was in the U.S., it still is, so I applied for a Ph.D. in the U.S. and was admitted to The Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. I had gotten a few job offers, so I probably would have worked at SONY in Tokyo if I had not gone on for the Ph.D. It is common for college students from top Chinese universities in China to study abroad. Emily concurred, noting that six women from her class (there were 10 women total), ended up in the U.S. as well as one in England. Jason said all four of his college roommates also left China.
Emily said she, too, wanted to study abroad. “I always had that dream, but I was so busy with changing my major, then my internship, then starting my own company. I was very, very busy. In Shenzen, efficiency is money, so people work very hard and have no life.” But after working in Shenzen for ten years, Emily needed a rest. “I wanted to know what kind of life people were living in western countries. I had made enough money from my company to be able to travel, so I went to visit some relatives in Australia, then I went with tour groups to Europe and the U.S.. I wanted to see the world, but I also wanted to learn management so I could run my business better,” she continued, “and still pursue my dream of studying in the U.S.”
“After I started working, I didn’t need to learn more English, so it was hard for me to catch up enough that I could pass the TOEFL exam that was required to be able to study here. I had to pass the GMAT as well. But I started to study English again, passed both exams and was accepted to the MBA program at UMass Lowell.”
On a collision course to meet
When Jason went to Arizona for his Ph.D., he decided to switch his major from computer science to information systems. “People in information systems tended to get academic jobs at the time, and I got a position at UMass Lowell.” Jason is currently an associate professor in the Operations & Information Systems Department of The Manning School of Business at UMass Lowell. He started to laugh when he remembered how the university assigned him a young, hard-working female graduate assistant who had just arrived from China.
“Of course we were very professional,” Jason chuckled. “Two days after I met Emily, I was buying gas at a local station and ran into her buying gas at the same place. It turned out that we were both living in the same apartment building. We were thousands of miles apart in China, then after leading very different lives and coming to the U.S. for very different reasons, we ended up in the same building.”
Fast forward a few years: the couple fell in love, got married. After two years in the U.S., Emily decided to close her company in China. “At first I wasn’t decided about whether to stay here. When I first came, I thought I would go back to China, but after meeting my husband, I decided to stay here.” Emily had few personal connections left in China since her parents had passed away years before, and she is pleased that her sister now lives in the U.S. as well.
Jason’s parents live in China, and he said that they try to alternate visits to China with his parents coming to the U.S. He believes his parents are happy for him, and for his success living in the U.S. “My parents believe that whenever you have an opportunity, you should take it to move to a higher place,” explained Jason. “They would tell me that ‘If you can succeed in the U.S., you can be anywhere. To prove yourself, you have to go to the top first, then you will have choice to do what you want.’” Jason said his path to higher education was clear from an early age, and his parents always expected him to leave home for a bigger university in a bigger city, and eventually bigger opportunities.
Settling in Carlisle
After Emily graduated from the MBA program at UMass, she tried to find a job, but it was difficult. “If I had stuck to science, I would have found a job easier,” she joked.
“The country was in a recession in 2008 so it was hard to find a job. Bad timing.” She was grateful that Jason was working so there was no pressure to find work immediately. Emily did get her real estate license, so she has been fortunate to have the flexibility to work at her own pace to balance family and career.
Emily recalled that while in grad school, people from her church arranged for international students to have Thanksgiving dinner with American hosts. She had dinner with a family from Lowell who took her to Carlisle afterwards to meet their parents. “I loved it. It was beautiful, all natural. In China, we lived in big cities, all buildings, but here it is all nature life. It’s totally different. When we got married and wanted to buy a home, I suggested Carlisle.”
Jason agreed. “Shenzen was a standard international megacity with skyscrapers everywhere, neon lights everywhere. I never heard of Carlisle before we bought a house here.”
“We saw the first house, with the big yard, and there was a deer,” Jason remembered. “I saw a deer! We had never seen anything other than people walking around. There was a deer, and a rabbit…It was a fairytale.”
“Now we have learned,” Jason continued. “Deer are not always so great. They chewed up our cherry tree!” Emily said, “I loved squirrels at first, they are so lovely. But then I found out that they steal the bird seed, so I don’t like them so much anymore!”
The couple now has two children who go to the Carlisle School, Anthony (7) in second grade and Amelia (5) who entered kindergarten last fall.
Reflecting on the paths chosen Emily said life would be very different had she decided to return to China after grad school. “I would be very busy in China. I used to work from 8 a.m. to almost 10 p.m. on my business, so I was always very busy. China is very complicated—you may not have your own time if you work for the business. Our employees worked day and night, and when a project came in at night that needed to be finished the next morning, I had to call my employees who had already gone home to come in to finish it. It’s a crazy life. That’s China. Everybody had to work hard, maybe just to get a better life.” “Sooner or later she would have burned out,” said Jason.
“We went back to China to visit my friends and classmates who stayed in China,” Emily continued. “I saw their work, their life. They are all very successful, but it’s hard to have a family life, especially for Chinese women. They have to balance work and life. If their life is better and they have money, they can hire a nanny to take care of the children. But if you quit your job, you have no position in society. Being a full-time mom is not admired, and most families can’t afford it.”
“And that’s only been possible over the last 10 years,” added Jason. “Before that, no Chinese family could live on a single income and have enough to support a family. It was absolutely necessary for both to work.”
Citizenship still in the works
The Wangs have applied for citizenship but have not completed the process yet. Since Jason teaches at UMass, it is easy to get a green card so there is no pressure. He noted that COVID has further delayed the process.
“A few years back”, Jason recalled, “if you became a U.S. citizen, you would have to apply for [a] Chinese visa to go back to visit family. It’s quite some work to go through the visa application process. The green card satisfies a niche need since I am a still a Chinese citizen while being a legal resident of U.S., so I don’t need a visa to go back and forth. Now it is easier to get a long-term, multi-year visa in China. Our life is here, and we want to finally become officially part of this country. We’ll be able to apply for a multi-year visa to China and it won’t be as much of a problem to travel.”
What can the U.S. learn from China?
Emily said that “people from China think everything is better in the west, that it’s all better than China. In China, people want to learn everything. I think Chinese people may know the U.S. better than the U.S. knows China. The U.S. has been on the top for so long, Americans can have the attitude of ‘why should we learn anything from China?’”
“China dominated the world economy for 1,600 years,” said Jason. “About 400 years ago, China had the same mindset the U.S. seems to have now. China means middle kingdom—the place between heaven and hell. China had the attitude that we have everything here, so we don’t need anything from anyone else. That’s when China started to fall back. When you have that kind of arrogance and closed mind, you are going to be left behind.”
“We hope that the U.S. does not have that tendency now. After a country becomes rich and stable, it is easy to lose sight of the reasons why you became a prosperous kingdom in the first place, and corruption can start to take over. I believe that the democratic system we have is the best system, because this system has the strongest mechanism for self-correction. When there’s something wrong, there is still a way to come back.”
“But when the pendulum swings too far to one side, it takes a strong pull to bring it back to center. Sometimes it can swing too far and our biggest fear is that it will swing too much and we can’t come back.”
Jason and Emily said the relationship between China and the U.S. achieved a really good balance for a period of time, but they “are saddened by some of the things that have happened recently. There is propaganda on both sides, and the truth is somewhere in between,” said Jason. “It’s never as bad as it is portrayed in the media.”
Emily said she feels that, “Asians in America are more worried than in the past. Some people seem to be so easily influenced by the leaders but blind to their own thoughts.” “We are in an uncomfortable position,” added Jason. “One country we were born in, the other we want to die in, but they are at such odds. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Trying to raise children with awareness for their heritage
Emily and Jason struggle with how to teach their children about Chinese culture within the context of an American lifestyle. “It is a challenge for American-born Chinese children,” said Emily. “Of course we want them to recognize that they are Americans, but still we need to keep some Chinese cultural traditions alive. Learning Chinese is a big one—their grandparents speak only Chinese, and it will be important to know the language for jobs in the future.”
Jason agreed. “It is a difficult balance to keep. We only got to see the world after college, and in our view a lot of things have changed. The kids can only see China through the two of us. They go to Chinese school on the weekends, but they don’t really like it. It’s good for them to learn [the] language and have exposure to different perspectives, and hopefully they can grow up better than us. My life was changed a bit too late, so I hope they can see more at an early stage than I did. It’s going to be a challenge—every Sunday!”
This article was published in The Carlisle Mosquito on March 25, 2021.