Saturday, March 9, 2013

Ben Locke: She may have been Successful, but her Real Life Story isn't Inspiring at all

The following review of Bend, Not Break was published on Amazon on February 21, 2013:

It is now clear that, from the author's backtracking and forced admissions, and more importantly, from the just unearthed memoir by the same author published in Chinese in 1996, most of the main events described in the book are fabricated stories. Together with additional investigations both by the Western journalists and by bloggers in China, an entirely different picture of the author's life story has now emerged. The following is a synopsis of the real life story of Ping Fu, based on the information revealed so far. 
She had a fairly unremarkable childhood, born to a college instructor father and a government clerk mother and grown up on the campus of Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, located in the provincial capital of Jiangsu province. In China, the most important determinant of one's quality of life was the place you live. If you lived in a major city like Nanjing, your life would be much better than those living in smaller regional cities and 1-2 orders of magnitude better than those living in the countryside. According to her neighbors, her family wasn't classified as the "black elements" and hence didn't receive any harsher treatments than other faculty families on the NUAA campus during the Cultural Revolution. Like most of the NUAA faculty, her father spent anywhere between a few months to 1.5 years in the countryside studying Mao's books and doing farm work (the so called Five-Seven Leadership Schools) at the height of the Cultural Revolution. However, in her father's absence Ping and her sister were taken care of by her mother or her relatives. Due to housing shortages, most families lived in government-assigned dorms. You could say that conditions in these dorms were "ghetto-like", comparing to the modern day apartments. However, living conditions on university campuses were actually better than most other places in the city. It is safe to say that most, if not all, of the horrors described in the book never really happened to her and her family. If she suffered any hardship at all, it would have been no worse than other city kids during the same period of time. 
Schools were disrupted in the first two years of the Cultural Revolution. Classes resumed in 1968 following Mao's instructions. By then the once destructive red guards had morphed into an "honor society" type of organization controlled by the school authority. Middle and high school students were allowed to join the organization as long as they behaved in school and their families did not belong to the "black elements". Ping became a middle school student in 1970 and joined the red guards soon after. Until 1976 when Mao died and the Gang of Four was arrested, grade schools were required to integrate practical skills training into the curriculum (so called "learning from workers, peasants and soldiers"). In practice this meant several weeks of tightly supervised field work each year. For students who went to schools during that period, it was an experience mixed with fun of getting away from classrooms and sometimes harsh living alongside poor peasants. However, in Ping's memoir, this experience became "10 years of forced child labor". After graduating from high school, she also became one of a lucky group that avoided the fate bestowed to most of the "educated youths (aka high school graduates)" due to a policy change that exempted the first born. The educated youths were usually required to go to "the great countryside" to get "re-educated by peasants". Instead, she obtained an enviable factory job with a steady pay. 
It is clear that she actually enjoyed a privileged life in China. Thanks in large part to the good home environment created by her educated parents, she received much better education than most students in her middle/high school years, which served her well later in her life. She cleared the background checks (meaning that her family had no political problems) and participated in the first ever college entrance exam since the Cultural Revolution in 1977 (failed to get in) and again in 1978, becoming the top 5% or so high school graduates lucky enough to earn a coveted spot in a college that year. However, her performance at the exam was apparently not that great, as it was only good enough to get her into a third-tier regional college called Jiangsu Teacher's College (there are several top-tier colleges in her hometown, including one called Nanjing Teacher's College, which I'm sure she would have preferred to get into). This point will become relevant later. 
Unlike most other colleges, the government covered all the expenses associated with the education at a teacher's college, including books and meals. In exchange for the 100% free education, graduates from a teacher's college were expected to accept jobs as grade school teachers. At that time being a grade school teacher wasn't considered a good job for college graduates, and this was the reason why the government subsidized teacher's colleges. Also at that time, jobs of college graduates were assigned by college administrators. Towards the end of her senior year, Ping learned that she would likely be assigned to a city in the northern part of Jiangsu province. If you are familiar with China, you would know that there is a big difference in living standards between the metropolitan Nanjing and the less developed Northern Jiangsu region. Of course had she performed better in the 1978 entrance exam and attended the Nanjing Teacher's College instead, she would have had much better chance of staying in Nanjing. Faced with the prospect of working as a grade school teacher in the Northern Jiangsu for life, she and her family frantically searched for a way out. Luckily for Ping, her family had resources not available to the vast majority of her peers. Her uncle was in the US and willing to help, but first she needed an excuse to avoid the unfavorable job assignment, because if you were assigned a job by the government and refused to go, you would have hard time getting a passport from the government. Another option was to postpone the decision by getting into a graduate school. Ultimately they decided that the best course of action was for Ping to fake a "nervous breakdown" and quit the school. Through the financial sponsorship of her uncle in the US, she managed to get into an ESL (English as a second language) program at the University of New Mexico in January 1984. 
Her life as a student in the US mirrored many of her fellow international students: supplementing her income by working illegal odd jobs as a waitress, a babysitter, etc. Being a woman with ambitions, New Mexico didn't provide enough excitement. In a couple of years she moved to California to take advantage of the many opportunities the golden state had to offer. One of the opportunities available to young women was a quick green card through marriage. Not every woman has the will to go this route, because you have to be willing to exchange your body for the benefits. This apparently didn't bother Ping, as she quickly married a Joe Blow only months after moving to California. The INS requires that to secure a green card, you must stay married for at least 2 years. She didn't waste much time though, divorcing the Joe Blow like throwing away a soiled napkin three years later ("green card marriage" usually lasts three years because that is how long it takes to replace the 2-year temporary GC with a permanent one). This transaction must have taught her a very valuable business lesson. With a green card on hand just 3 years after landing in the US as an ESL student, her future looked as bright as ever. Later she managed to marry another guy who could help advance her career, this time it was a college professor with expertise in computer algorithm. Eventually she became the CEO of a small software company with 120 employees that is about to be bought by a larger company. Owing to her talent in self-promotion, she is now sort of an unofficial spokesperson for the 3D printing industry. 
Yes she may have been successful, but her real story wasn't that inspiring at all. To sell the book she had to make up all the drama, including a bizarre tale of getting kidnapped by a Vietnamese man on arrival to the US and slept on a concrete floor for two nights in a locked apartment with the man's three young children. However, she conveniently failed to mention the contribution of two real men that were most important to her success in the US: her two ex-husbands. Written as a memoir, the book is deliberately deceptive and thus deserves no more than a one star rating. 
Note added on 2/24/2013 
My review was based on Ping Fu's own account that she obtained her green card through her first marriage. She told the New York Times reporter that she married on Sept. 1, 1986 and divorced three years later, and the reason she didn't mention this marriage in the memoir was to protect her first husband. However, not only did she fail to mention her first marriage in the book, she went extra length to hide it. Before she shows her marriage/divorce paper, it remains possible that she actually obtained her green card by filing a false asylum claim, and subsequently wrote the made-up stories in her asylum claim into the book. Sing Tao Daily reported last year that Ping Fu obtained her green card through political asylum. 
Contradictions in her book: 
(Page 95) "I was almost thirty years old and had no personal life. It had been more than 5 years since I'd landed in the United States, yet I still wondered, what was an American life exactly? I had much to learn and to experience if I wanted to make this country my home" 
(Page 96) "what finally transformed my personal life was not a class I took or a book I read. It was something totally unplanned and unrelated to these well-intentioned, purposeful efforts to make myself "fit in": a romance." 
No personal life? Either "more than five year since her arrival in the US (1989)", or "almost thirty years old" (1988), she should either still be married to her first husband or just divorced!
The book goes on to say that she decided to leave California in Mar. 1988 and actually moved to Illinois in the summer of that year, apparently leaving her first husband behind. It is obvious that her first marriage, if happened, was a marriage of convenience at best.

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