Tao lives with her husband and three children in New Jersey. In the 1990s, she arrived to America as an international student from her hometown of Xinjiang. We sat down with Tao on May 18th to talk about immigration, collectivism, Buddhism, and the shameful undersides of Chinese history.
Samantha: So if you first just want to talk about why and how you came to America--you know, what’s your story.
Tao: I came to America in the 1990s. China has been through a lot of changes since around that time until now, so if you go back to China in the recent years, it’s very different from the time that I lived in China. At that time, the social, technological, and also the scientific and cultural wise--America was regarded as the pillar of the entire world. You probably can’t understand that, I don’t know if you understand that, but America just had this really high regard. I think it’s probably their own public media and also what they are doing around the world that had put them in a really positive light in a sense. And it just felt like America was the epitome of civilization, and you’d want to go there to further your studies.
At that point I’d just graduated from college. I’d finished my masters degree also, and to go to America seemed like a very natural way to go. At that point, going to America was not very easy. Essentially, studying in a university was probably the only way to go their legitimately. There are many people who went by very difficult means but legitimately, the only way to go to study was the only way to go to America and see what was going on--the best place in the whole world. Of course, in our field of study, I was in pharmaceuticals--a pharmacist. All the textbooks and science-related fields, you know, America at that time was also very much advanced compared to China. So, that was our dream, to go to America and get a Ph.D., that was on many people’s minds.
Samantha: Yeah, I think it’s the same with my parents pretty much, and they always talk about the fact that at the time America was, just like you said, this peak of arts and culture and science. Right, today we treat the "American Dream" as almost a joke? or an impossibility? But to them it was so real at that time, although now, in their opinion, at least, China has surpassed them in all that.
Tao: You know, I’m not sure if China has surpassed them yet, but it’s definitely on the way. When I came to America, the first thing I felt was this culture difference. Of course, there’s a lot of American culture that’s promoted around the world, like the food or burgers and McDonalds. Before I left China, actually, people would treat me by taking me to McDonalds--it was such a posh thing! You can't understand that, but at that time it was really like that.
So when I came here, the culture was so different. Everything you see in America is pretty much artificial things. They don’t have a lot of history, there’s very thin or very superficial in terms of the culture, they only talk about what’s going on around them, and there’s no going on to think what this is related to. They will go to the depth of how it affects the human culture, but they don’t go very deep, because they just don’t have that kind of background in mindset.
Samantha: Actually, that kind of brings me into my next question, where in American History the first thing we’re taught are these American values of freedom, liberty, natural rights, and these are the recurring themes that really dominate and drive our history. Whereas in China, it’s very much the opposite. It’s very much about collectiveness, family, and community and kind of sacrificing yourself to be part of something greater. And I guess since you’ve been exposed to both of these, do you have a stance on which one you should believe in, if America should learn from China or vice versa?
Tao: Yeah, I think it’s a very drastic difference between the two cultures. I think the way China evolved to how it is today benefited a lot about these individuals sacrificing their values for the greater good, I think for an Oriental country, there’s a big population. And to motivate and mobilize such a big population, you need, at least in China’s case, you need that kind of direct order from the top-down to mobilize the population as a whole, you know. And individual identity is not considered very significant, and individual contribution is not significant either. It’s a collective effort. It’s a big body, we look at big bodies. So in China, I think it worked well. It worked since the ancient times, I think it worked well. Even now, China only has the Communist party--one party. There’s no democracy, the Western kind of democracy, going on, so that’s probably the criticism you hear the most. That it’s a totalitarian regime and there’s no democracy. The kind of democracy that China has, if you want to compare it to Western standards, really is a long way until we can get there. I think we will get there at some point, at this point, I think the totalitarian regime remains beneficial to China. Just compare China and India, you can see the difference.
Samantha: Right, of course I guess that’s a disparity pretty striking in the news these days.
Tao: India has the big population, big lands. They have a caste system--there are so many people in different economic situations. We don’t have a caste system in China, but there’s also a very similar economic situation. To be able to do anything efficiently… I think the kind of one-party politics is beneficial.
Samantha: Yeah, and I’d agree, because I think especially like you were talking about studying history and--correct me if I’m wrong--but I think considering how China’s been attacked by England and then the Mongols, you see such a need for strong leadership, because all their fears are built on being separated and being weak. And I think it’s because America has never really faced that external pressure, so that it’s never felt the need for strong, centralized leadership. And I think that’s interesting because, of course, the American press and education system glosses over that, while in China there’s a very deliberate reason for this desire for unity and collectivism.
Tao: Yeah, yeah, it is very important. You’re just talking about the Mongols and English people--there’s a lot more (laughs). Throughout Chinese history, China has been broken up and reunited so many times. So, China is a very resilient culture, place, people, very incredible. So I think to argue anything against China because of its political system, which Americans like to do, is not doing China justice.
Samantha: So, on the note of history, we’re all treating this as if it’s very far back but China’s been transformed in so much as you were growing up, which is crazy, that you’ve actually witnessed some of China’s most radical changes. So if you want to talk about some of the historical events you’ve lived through and how perhaps they’ve impacted you, or, on a larger scale, your country.
Tao: Actually, I was born at the end of the Cultural Revolution. I’m not sure if you know that period of time, but it’s when the entire country was fighting--I’m not sure you can call it anti-government--but the country was very much in that kind of state. People with authority were being taken from their positions and--well, it was all upside down. I was born at the end of that time and Mao Zedong died when I was four.
Samantha: Oh, wow.
Tao: Yeah, so what I saw very significantly was a tight grip of Mao Zedong on the people at the time. And from there you could see the country open itself up, very slowly, and until I left China, it was on the path of reinventing itself and opening up to the Western world. They were taking its policies to its own benefit, essentially changing a lot from Mao’s time. What She's doing right now, also very different from that. It all can attribute back to the time that Mao’s control came to an end and the country really focused on developing its economics and freeing up its people.
Samantha: Oh, I see. Yeah, I think it’s just so cool that you really experienced this change before your eyes. And I could never imagine that because I think the U.S. has been stagnant in the past sixteen years--well, that’s not really true, but I think there’s something un-new about it, almost.
Tao: Yes, you know, when I came here, the first place I went was to see New York City. All those big buildings, the Empire State building, those places you only see in books--and the subway systems! But America had that like a hundred years ago. If you go there now and compare to China, it’s really hard to believe that this place has so much significance. But really, if you imagine 100 years ago, the entire New York City was just a magical place for sure. But the world has been catching up to America--almost everybody has, but for America to develop any further, well, would take a lot of steps when its political system for sure makes it so difficult to do anything. Any infrastructure projects, where the money will come from, that has to be debated by both parties and all the interest groups. It’s just very difficult to get anything done. Not like China--if you want a project done, a few people will make the calls and everybody will just follow.
Samantha: Okay, so the next thing I want to ask you about is I guess the more shameful side of Chinese history? For instance, I know my mom lived through Tiananmen Square and you mentioned the Cultural Revolution, which I think as necessary as it was to push China forward, there were a lot of just terrible things that happened to well-meaning individuals. So what are your perceptions of these events--do you think they were kind of necessary for China and we’ve moved past that? Or do you think it remains something it needs to address?
Tao: Oh, It’s definitely something China needs to fix and address. Tiananmen Square, well, I think it stems form social inequality. What about your parents--what do they think it represents?
Samantha: Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if they can answer that question, but for them, it’s just the fact that the government was moving in this kind of unjust direction that students didn’t believe in
Tao: Oh, yes, I think I was a teenager at that time. I think it stems from the social inequality and the rampant corruption in the government. And, you know, for these types of demonstrations, it’s not like in America where if you want to get one, you just register yourself and get the agreement from the local police--you just go ahead and do it. But in China, this is almost unheard of. Almost every time this kind of gathering is being organized, it’s being watched very closely. They just don’t want this unrest kind of activity going on in the crowd--none at all--because that will jeopardize their control of the people. Which was very important in Mao’s time, one of the most important things he could do. Even today, the policing of people, to know what they’re talking about, is something the government will monitor very closely.
I remember at one point in the U.S., I’m not sure if you know, maybe you’re too young, but somebody was criticizing the Democratic party--somebody or somebody in the Democratic party was eavesdropping and getting people’s information from their phones, I think it was after 9/11. And there was this big debate of if the government could wiretap people’s phones because its a breach of their privacy, right? But for me, I don’t think it’s a big deal. I just don’t think it’s a big deal. If they want to do it, let them do it--I have nothing to hide! But I read later, this is a very typical mindset of someone from a totalitarian regime. So this is how China has shaped my perception of the world. I think this kind of breach of privacy is fine, I think it’s no big deal. (laughs).
So, Tiananmen at the time was this kind of social unrest that made the government very very uneasy, very very nervous. So, when things become hard to control, what we were told, you know, we got information from one source--we were told that after a couple weeks, all the separationist groups from outside China came into the student body and they just asked the students to do all kinds of terrible things that weren’t in their initial intentions. They were a small group, a few bad apples who just made the students do the things to overthrow the government. And that’s why the government started to crack down on the demonstrations, on the students. That also coincided, I think, with the time the Soviet Union collapsed. So it was just a very sensitive time that the Soviet Union, at that time was the biggest Communist country--and it just collapsed overnight, it felt really unbelievable. And that’s why this kind of social unrest was watched very very carefully, the government was very very uneasy. So they cracked down on it very harshly, and I think they knew what the consequences were, and they wanted to take those consequences, compared to a total regime change of the Communist party collapsing overnight. Compared to that risk, they wanted to take this measure of shooting at innocent people. So China, I think, certainly needs to take time to correct those injustices of Tiananmen Square, at least when they were initially organized.
So, China has been, at least what they say, trying to crack down on these things. And every couple years you’ll see a certain official was brought down or something, but the corruption was very widespread. So then, China definitely has a lot of work to do, because it’s one single party that’s in power, you know, there’s nobody else supervising it. It’s inevitable. So there has to be some way it figures out to make its body more healthy, so that its more acceptable by the people.
I mean, we’ll see. I think right now China is trying to correct its problems. Especially since Tiananmen Square, now with the rise of social media, there’s new things that are easy to hear about, that’re very difficult to hide. So of course there is still corruption. But at least these officials can’t do that as openly as they could have.
Samantha: Yes, I think I’d agree. I think what you said about Tiananmen Square—well, I had no idea that coincided with the Soviet Union collapsed—but of course that has to breed this culture of fear and paranoia—which translates into violence and oppression. Does that still exist today?
Tao: Yes. Well, you see less unrest, but that's also because the government keeps this tighter control on people.
If you go back you’ll see policemen guarding places, or maybe police in plain clothes. And they’ll listen to what you talk about so even right now, when I go back to visit, people tell me “don’t talk about sensitive things!” because they can literally report you and get you into trouble. So, no, even now there’s such tight control that these things are made impossible to happen.
Samantha: Right. Well, I guess now we’re focused on the broadl, but now just to focus on you as an individual whose experienced both, you know--the tight control of China, where you’re willing to sacrifice your privacy for this collective good, and then you’re also experienced America, where you’re bred with such an individualistic mindset--do you think you’re able to find a middle ground? Or do you think it’s the opposite, when you’re kind of constantly pulled in both sides, and you can’t really reconcile anything.
Tao: Um, I think, you know, for a nation to progress like America or China, the middle ground will benefit everybody. I think the Western kind of cultural and philosophical things will have their benefits, and the Oriental flair to it will also benefit. So certainly, I think America can learn a lot from China and vice versa, and globalization is certainly helping with that. It’s becoming easier for people to communicate and see each other’s opinions from that.
For me, we have to find a middle ground. I mean, I’ve studied here, worked here for decades. You cannot get rid of how you were brought up, those personality traits in a lot of Chinese-Americans--they tend to listen to directions from above and there is a lack of innovation. You know, you can hear a lot of these criticisms about Chinese people, that there’s no innovation and people kind of just take orders. There’s certainly some exaggeration in these statements but there’s truth too (laughs). But in America, you have to play their games, so of course you have a middle ground.
Samantha: Yeah, and I mean, well this is my personal opinion now, but personally I’m really grateful for how I’ve been brought up. If you look at me—and of course if you look at your own children, I’m sure—we have this very individualistic mindset that, yes, I'm going to do what I want, but we also have this culture of hard work and generally being respectful and family-oriented kids to a reasonable extent—I think it’s honestly a really good mixture.
Tao: Yes, I’d agree. I think you guys all get the part of Chinese culture that advocates for hard work and being a respectable person, being very helpful to others—those are key parts of Chinese traits. I’m not saying they’re not American things—but these are very integral to Chinese. But like you said, you have this American way of having this independent mind and finding things to do, that you’re passionate about, to enrich your life and community. And those are all very important things, so I certainly think you guys are very lucky, to almost be able to pick and choose the best of both worlds.
Samantha: So, purely speculative question now—if your kids were to have kids, and their kids had kids and so on, where’d you hope it would go? Do you have any aspirations for what becomes of your legacy, I guess?
Tao: Oh, wow. You know, hm, that question… I think the immigrants of the second generation or even further—they’ll be more and more Americanized, I think. I do think it will be that way. Maybe after three generations you can hardly find any cultural traces to China, if you assume that they’ll totally assimilate into an American culture. But as long as the personal values like hard work and following rules and being nice and friendly—as long as these are not lost, then I don’t think that Chinese culture influence will be that important. Because these are all traits that are universal. They can just be like family values that are passed on.
Samantha: Oh, wow, that’s really well-said. I never thought about it like that, yeah. Because I think there’s always pressure—it’s not like my mom’s telling me to do anything—but like I, for instance, can speak Chinese half-fluently. And I’m not going to speak it to my kids, at least not instinctively, ever. So that leaves the question of, yeah, where do we go? So I think maybe the more artificial parts of Chinese culture are going to be stripped away, which is honestly really sad to imagine.
Tao: I think, yes, if you don’t know the language, then the culture will be lost on you for sure. But it will not be realistic to hope for that kind of specific influence, cultural influence, can stick around for too long, I don’t think so. But it’s the family value that’s important, that for sure should be passed on.
Samantha: Okay, so I’ve just about gone through my list of questions. All I have left is some things your daughter mentioned to me, she suggested one, a story about your mom having grown up in the Chinese Civil War? And two, she said as you’re a very devout Buddhist, so if you'd like to talk about that and how its philosophy influences how you choose to life your life?
Tao: Alright, I think I’ll talk about my mom. My mom was born, I think, in the Chinese Civil War time. So that generation really went through a lot. They were born into a very tumultuous time and they never had a really good life until their old ages. So she was born I think in the thirties, and the new China was established in 1949. So she was a teenager at that time. And it’s a communist country, so the Communist party will change things so drastically, even on the the people level, they just destroyed the social system. Completely. Well, what is a social system? It’s just individual people, right? The Communist party will just go in and break it all apart.
The people in the higher positions are all brought down and they encouraged the peasants, the farmers, to take up the land and also the government positions and all that. So it’s a very, very confusing and—just a very confusing time. So my mom in her teenage years, she was born into a very well-off family. And family wealth at that time was considered a very bad thing. Because part of the reason the Communist Party—at least at that point, the people in the Communist party, this is their way to treat social injustice. To take away the family wealth from well-off families and spread it out among everyone else. So a lot of the wealthy families are brought down. Their family often went through very difficult times, and families are broken apart.
So my mom in her middle school years—she wasn’t allowed to study anymore. Simply because she was born into a rich family, that was kind of a crime. That you were born into such a family and that was a crime—you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that. She couldn’t go back to school, and she couldn’t get a job either So the only way she could do something for herself was to go to a remote area to support the construction of the very remote and undeveloped places. So she went to Xinjiang, and she was one of the first group of people who established a college in the remote city of China. So she had been through a lot of changes to go from a good family to a point that her dad was executed, the whole family was just totally brought upside down, and she had nowhere to go, she had to go this place very very far from home and do a job she’s never done before.
So many people in similar situations as her also went through a lot of hardship. It’s just--it’s a very confusing time, that the Communist party and this idea bout how a Communist party should be like, and everything not in its ideal--they’d just take it down and reshuffle. There’s no law, no court system that directs people to do this and that. No. What every they say, you do; whatever they want, you give. So there’s a lot of policies that Mao and how government has designed to reshape the Chinese society. So a lot of injustices were done at that time. And my mom’s family was just part of that. So my mom saw the establishment of the new China, she saw her family being broken apart, she went to this remote place to work—and at that time everyone made the salary. Maybe, I don’t know, 7 or 8 dollars a month?
Samantha: Oh, my.
Tao: Well, everything else was free. Housing, Medicare, a lot of free things but—everyone was poor and you only have so much money that you get from your job. People even hate food that through rations, distributed per capita, you’d have a ticket for those things. So everyone as very poor--you wouldn’t see anyone who was chubby, for instance (laughs). Everyone was so skinny! But I read this book by an American journalist who said everyone was skinny, everyone was on bicycles. It’s an ocean of bicycles, there’s no cars, because there’s no social inequality. That’s how the Communist party was able to do that. To make everyone equal.
So, yeah, my mom had been through a lot of that time. And it was only until like when I was a teenager, when I was about her age, that we are about 30 years apart—when I was a teenager her age, China’s social situation started to lift and become freer. That what kind of family you were born into could no longer be held against you, and everybody is considered more or less equal. And you can do things based on your own merit and don’t have to worry about conditions that are put down before you. So things started to free up quite a lot, and I came to America maybe in my early twenties? Mid-twenties, maybe. So at that time, China had already started to develop economically quite rapidly. And my mom only started to have, you know, some good times in her life, they only came in her forties or fifties. That she was able to enjoy compensation for her past injustice, and the social status then, that people wouldn’t say things behind her back anymore.
Yeah, China really has gone through a lot of changes. And my mom was part of that.
Samantha: Wow. I mean, wow. That’s amazing. Like obviously she’s been through her incredibly fair share of hardships, now I think when you hear about it, it’s really just an incredible story. I think and it’s also just unimaginable to me--it sounds so backwards that being born into wealth is what makes you oppressed. I just can’t fathom it. And I had no idea--that’s really so cool. Thank you for sharing.
Tao: Oh, no problem. That was a big thing that Mao did during his time. You know, people used to own land and wealth. But those were all stripped from those who owned it. A and redistributed to peasants and farmers. And they did it in a very brutal way--they didn’t do it very nicely, talking to you to get some middle ground--no, no, no. They just did it very forcefully. So if you talk about the shameful past of China, that was also a really bad time. So, yeah, my mom always goes back to that time and tells us stories. Until her old age, she didn't like the Communist party. Just because of that. They did so many horrific things, she’s really done a lot.
So to your other question about religion, this is another thing you may say is something the Communist party does not like. When they first came into power, I’m not sure if you know about this, the Dalai Lama was exiled in India. Do you know about the Dalai Lama and the Tibet situation?
Samantha: I don’t, actually. Well I know about the contemporary situation, but I never learned the history.
Tao: Yeah, so, when the new Chinese government came into party, one place they wanted to quote unquote liberate was Tibet. So they sent the armies into Tibet and they wanted to do the same thing they did everywhere. The social system that they’d already established—they said, we don’t recognize it, we want to tear it down and replace it. But in Tibet, a lot of monks, Lamas, are very high up in the social system. They not only have very high social status, but it’s their spiritual leader. You cannot just pull them down and kill them—people do not want to see that to happen to them either. So the Dalai Lama just escaped one day. He escaped and went to India and set up his own little camp there. So that’s why he’s a very active critic of the Chinese government--he still is, actually.
In China, religion at that time is considered a poison. They did say, you can’t practice at all, so a lot of temples were deserted, a lot of monks had to go back to regular life. They did the same in Tibet, and that’s why the Tibetan people don’t like the Chinese government. But in other parts of China, they did that quite successfully. Religion was just considered not a good thing. So, when I was little, if you had a religious text, very small book, you had to hide from people. Because if people find out that you have such things, you’d just get in trouble (laughs). So we had to hide it like little secrets. Even when I graduated college it was like that.
It was not so tightly controlled after some years, but when I graduated college, that was maybe the early nineties? It was still like that in China. So you can just imagine what kind of control the government has on people. I always had admiration for Buddhist beliefs, but I had no way to know anything about it. Until I came to America. So that’s the one thing I feel that I was lucky to have. I feel like I was able to be exposed to Buddhism texts and teachings when I come to teh U.S. Even when I come here, it was after years that I started to get exposed to those things, because in the beginning, the kind of education, the kind of brainwashing you receive, it’s very hard to reverse. Very hard to get rid of. But now I can freely get all kinds of information, I can go to temples to practice, I can listen to monks giving lectures and holding all types of ceremonies. I think that’s very lucky for me to have that here in the U.S. Because one thing about the US government is that they have no control of religious freedom. As long as you don’t want to overthrow the government, everything is allowed. So that’s a very good part.
Today, in China, things are better. They’ll encourage religious beliefs because it will also tame some of the social unrest Because religion, in a sense, will teach people to look inward. Don’t look to the outside world for reasons that make your life unhappy--you should look more inward than outside. So that’s just my opinion, and maybe the government will think that’s something they can take advantage of, and that’s why they don’t control religion anymore. That’s just my guess.
Samantha: Oh, wow. I see. My god, I also had no idea about any of that. I mean, I’ve always treated freedom of religion as something very natural--
Tao: Of course, you were born into it, and you’ve never had anything to against it. I remember in college, there was a church a couple blocks away from my school. One Christmas night, my good friend and I walked there, we wanted to see what was going on. And obviously there were some other curious people also, there were like maybe 10, 20, 30 people there with music going on. And they weren’t going near because we didn’t want to be seen (laughs), if we could just pretend that we were passing by and take a look, that’s enough for us.
Samantha: Wow, honestly.
Tao: Yeah, it’s hard to imagine, but it’s real.
Samantha: Seriously. And another thing--I’ve never grown up religious, though, so correct me if I’m wrong--but I think what’s important about religion is it’s very much about morality and being able to act as a good and devout person. And I think that isn’t incompatible with Chinese values at all, for the government or for society, so maybe that’s something we can hope to move toward?
Tao: Yeah, but if you know the philosophy of Communism, they will only worship certainly not any religious figures. They will worship whatever they consider in their system to fit their values. So, that’s why initially, it was a big no-no. But it certainly would not go against the social development.