Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fu Ping's Interview with WNYC's Leonard Lopate

On January, 14, 2013, Fu Ping was the guest on WNYC's Leopard Lopate show in which they discussed extensively her life and book. Among the highlights:

  1. Fu Ping stated that "I went to research that and I saw hundreds of baby girls being killed right in front of my eyes. I saw girls being tossed into the river when their embryonic cord still fresh." [She had since claimed that she misstated.]
  2. Fu Ping claimed that she became a factory worker starting from age 8, which provided her "root" in manufacturing.
  3. In this version, the original idea of developing the Mosaic browser came from Marc Andreessen instead of Fu Ping herself.
  4. They discussed the earlier, Chinese version her her autobiography. The host expressed surprise that she was able to publish it in China.
  5. In this version, the three English words Fu Ping knew when she arrived in America was "hello", "thank you", and "help". 
The half-hour interview can be heard in its entirety here. Below is a transcript:
Lopate: Ping Fu has not only helped develop the web browser Mosaic, advised President Obama's administration on entrepreneurship  she is also the founder and CEO of the Geomagic, a leading 3D digital reality solution company. But before all of this, from the ages of 8 to 18, she endured the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a political prisoner, factory worker, and sexual abuse victim. Ms. Fu talks about her journey from the troubles of her youth in China to the frontier technology in America in her memoir Bend, Not Break. It's published by Penguin Portfolio. I am very pleased to welcome her to our show today. Hello.
Fu: Hello.
Lopate: What part of China were you born in?
Fu: I was born in Nanjing, a city south of Shanghai.
Lopate: Famous in most people's mind because of the terrible things happened there during the World War II.
Fu: That's right.
Lopate: Is that where you spent the childhood yours?
Fu: No. I was sent to Shanghai on 11th day after I was born in Nanjing to be raised by my aunt and uncle.
Lopate: Was there a reason for that? Did you know at the time why they take you from your parents and sent to your aunt and uncle?
Fu: My Mom is a working woman and she didn't want children. So my aunt picked me up and raised me.
Lopate: And Shanghai was still considered the Paris of the East in 1966?
Fu: Yes, I think it has always been considered as the Paris of the East.
Lopate: Well, Shanghai is an odd city. It almost felt for a while it's out of the loop. How fast did Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution reforms reach Shanghai?
Fu: Shanghai was the target because the Gang of Four, who was responsible for a lot of the propaganda and atrocities of China, was in Shanghai.
Lopate: And Shanghai was seen as the most westernized city, probably the one that needed to be cleansed the most?
Fu: That's correct.
Lopate: Let's look at your title for a moment. It refers to part of the three friends of the winter. The book is called Bend, Not Break, based on the quality of the bamboo. Why did you pick the bamboo instead of the other friends of winter, the plum blossom and the pine tree.
Fu: My Shanghai Papa said that I need to be bamboo, as if he knew that atrocity was waiting for me.
Lopate: So you had to learn to bend without breaking.
Fu: Yes.
Lopate: Is that something that stayed in your mind throughout your childhood?
Fu: It was. I thought my Shanghai Papa was very wise to pick the bamboo because he knew that I would be killed if I stand too straight.
Lopate: Well, then the Red Guards took you from that Shanghai home and put you alone on a train back to Nanjing. You were just 9 years old.
Fu: I was 8 and I arrived in Nanjing just a little bit too late, when my biological parents were sent to exile.
Lopate: Why were they sent to exile? Were you one of the people who had to deal with the fact that your parents and their families had been merchants or had some wealth before the revolution?
Fu: Yeah, my Mom come from an entrepreneur family and my Dad is educated. He was a professor. So both of them were targets.
Lopate: I would assume that would also apply to your Shanghai family?
Fu: Yes. Shanghai Papa was from a banking company. Shanghai Mama would stay home. So she did not get to send exile.
Lopate: So here you are at Nanjing. Your parents are sent into exile. Who did you live with?
Fu: I was live by myself and was my little sister. She was 4 years old.
Lopate: You just lived in a school dormitory?
Fu: Yeah, they put us into the emptied university dormitory which is kind of a ghetto for all the "black elements" kid.
Lopate: Sometimes you found a little surprises at your door. What were they?
Fu: We didn't have any food. Sometimes I find food left out of the door for us.
Lopate: Did you ever find out who gave that extra food?
Fu: One of the person who were giving us food was our neighbor's son. I only found out after Cultural Revolution was over (Lopate: when he could admit it.) Yeah, they had to risk their lives to do that.
Lopate: So, could you describe your daily routine when you were living in this student dormitory?
Fu: In the beginning it was a lot of chaos. We were put into "bitter meal" sessions or denunciation sessions that go on stage and condemn ourselves and our families.
Lopate: But you were 8 or 9 years old. How much could you even know about your family?
Fu: I didn't. I just mimic what other people do and try to not get in trouble. Otherwise, they hit me.
Lopate: And then at 10 you were sent to work in a factory?
Fu: I started factory pretty early, I think even at 8. Soon after. A few months after.
Lopate: Were you getting any schooling at this time?
Fu: Not official, not the academic study. I did learn a lot by doing things.
Lopate: Well, what kind of factories were you working in?
Fu: When I was 8, I was there peeling plastic covers to separate them and then I started to build radios around 10.
Lopate: So, do you think that experience is as awful as it was working in a factory at 10? Is it the source of your interest in technology?
Fu: I think that certainly was the unconsciousness behind my mind to start Geomagic in the manufacturing sector and combine technology with manufacturing as well to do with that experience.
Lopate: You were 10 years old working in a factory. Were you alone or were there other kids who were in the same situation?
Fu: There were hundreds of "black kids" being in our sector...
Lopate: "Black kids" because your names were blackened?
Fu: No, we were told our blood was blackened. We had a black lineage. So we were born with black blood.
Lopate: Even though, when you cut yourself, it turned out to be red.
Fu: Right. But...
Lopate: Which is the color of the Communist Party. I doubt they can explain that.
Lopate: There was a man named Wang. He was really important to your life at that time.
Fu: Yes, he was my supervisor at the factories. He gave me a lot of encouragement and taught me that I can do things that I thought I couldn't do.
Lopate: So, despite the harshness of your life there were strangers who express kindness to you.
Fu: Yes, often I've seen kindness in people, even in my tormentors.
Lopate: You said you had black blood. Were there punishments people with black blood automatically received?
Fu: Yes. Because we were stripped with all rights, we had no rights and were nobody. We have no rights to go to school and no rights to take a decent job. We can't even fall in love with people who has red blood.
Lopate: You were publicly humiliated, weren't you?
Fu: I was told to scream out of my lung that I was nobody. I was gang-raped at age of 10 and then being publicly humiliated as a "broken shoe". So, at 10, I was a ruined woman.
Lopate: So, the Red Guards raped you?
Fu: Yes. There were about 10 or 12 Red Guards. They threw my sister into the water canal. I jumped in to save her. She was saved but I was not spared.
Lopate: Now, the Red Guards were supposed to be the moral conscience of China at the time. How could they reconcile with what they did?
Fu: At that time, the Red Guards did a lot of things. Raping, killing, taking things from people. And it was encouraged. They were told that they were masters of the country. They were told that the bourgeoisie class had deprived them for better lives so they were allowed to do anything. It's kind of like the Nazies.
Lopate: And you were keeping a journal at the time. That didn't help when they found the journals?
Fu: Yeah, my journal was the only friends I had. I didn't have anybody to talk to so I wrote a journal on the backside of the Communist propaganda and hoping that it wouldn't be discovered. But it was discovered when I was 13. It was burned right in front of me.
Lopate: So, you developed a sense of shame about your family's wealthy background. How long did that last?
Fu: I think that last almost entire life. I am getting better now. Sometimes it will still catch up with me.
Lopate: You are an entrepreneur. Your family have been entrepreneur  So you must see at some level that there is almost a generic reason for you being the way you are.
Fu: I do believe I was born with good genes, good temperaments. But I do, with that kind of experience I do have doubts in my head. I had to consciously working on it.
Lopate: You can never really recover from the trauma of that kind of situation in which you received sexual abuse. But how long before you were able at least to try to pick up the pieces and try to move on with your life?
Fu: When I was 13 or 14, one of my uncle, Uncle W who I wrote in the book, brought me some western literature. I read them at night. I wasn't caught by reading those literature  That opened a different world for me. Then when I got older, I started to question the authority's message. I started to develop my own independent thinking.
Lopate: You were admitted to Suzhou University, even though you barely received a formal education. How did you get into the university if you had black blood?
Fu: After the Cultural Revolution was over in 1976, China was going to reopen universities in 1977. Many of us studied to pass the national exam to get into universities and I did pass the national exam.
Lopate: What did you study at the university?
Fu: I want to be an astronaut but I was assigned to study Chinese literature. So that's what I studied.
Lopate: Then you were deported? What have you done?
Fu: Yeah, I was doing my graduation thesis research and I heard that there were baby girls being killed in the countryside due to one-child policy. I went to research that and I saw hundreds of baby girls being killed right in front of my eyes. I saw girls being tossed into the river when their embryonic cord still fresh. So I wrote a report and that got picked up by Chinese newspaper, then got picked up by international newspaper. That caused a outcry for human rights violation in China and I got in trouble.
Lopate: So, were you thinking of yourself as an activist journalist at the time?
Fu: No, I was just trying to graduate. But I did care about that issue. What I saw broke my heart. So I raised the issue to the national consciousness.
Lopate: It's still a problem for people in China who want to write about things you observed. You can't call yourself a journalist but you can blog about what you observe and perhpas getting in trouble.
Fu: That is still true. The freedom of expression is still not quite allowed in China.
Lopate: So you left China. How old were you?
Fu: I was 25 when I left.
Lopate: Have you ever returned?
Fu: I did return in 1993 after I became a US citizen.
Lopate: You came here knowing how many words of English?
Fu: I tried. I only remember three when I landed here, which is "hello", "thank you", "help".
Lopate: Then you ended up going to the University of New Mexico.
Fu: They were the one who issued me a visa for English as a Second Language. That's my first landing point.
Lopate: You had to support yourself.
Fu: I worked. I cleaned house and I worked as a waitress and tried to get through school.
Lopate: Have you brought any money with you?
Fu: No, I was penniless. I only had 80 dollars as traveler's check to buy a transfer ticket from San Francisco to New Mexico and I told that story in my book. When I got to San Francisco I was 5 dollars short for the ticket. In China, price never change and in United States price do change. In this case it went up. I couldn't buy my ticket. There was an American man standing behind me who gave $5 to the counter. That's my first impression of America. People are generous and warm.
Lopate: Although you had experienced some generosity in China as well.
Fu: That's true.
Lopate: So, you have studied literature. Now in New Mexico. Did you continue to study literature or did you move to computer programming?
Fu: I couldn't study literature because my English was too poor. I didn't have formal K-12 educations so I didn't know what to study. Somebody told me to check out computer science which was a new field in the early 80s. I asked, what's that? The person said, it's man-made language that makes stuff. I thought, great! I am good at language and I know how to make stuff. That's what I am gonna study. So I ended up studying computer science which is a great field.
Lopate: How did you get involved with the Mosaic browser?
Fu: I was at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. I hired this student whose name is Marc Andreessen. We were doing supercomputing applications at the time. Marc and some other younger programmers came to me with this idea of writing a browser. I supported them to do that.
Lopate: How did the browser work?
Fu: At that time, we actually tried to write a browser that helps us to manage the public domain software so we don't have to type in the network address all the time. That was also hard-coded. Then we found gopher and WWW from Switzerland so we decided to make it more smart. Marc came up with this idea of what is called inline imaging which can be configured to take you somewhere. That is what made the browser much more popular.
Lopate: That led to some degree the Internet boom, didn't it? It made it easier for a lot of people like me to be able to use the Internet.
Fu: Right. We worked on a lot of Internet technology like telnet, imaging software, and collaboration software. Browser is what made it really popular. In fact, the browser brought down the entire university network one day because a lot of people were trying to access our site and at that time the Internet couldn't handle that kind of volume. That's when we knew that something really, truly remarkable is in hour hand.
Lopate: It's always a problem of doing something like this and making money from it. You were probably tempted to make it a lot more expensive than it turned out to be.
Fu: We gave Mosaic out for free because we were a federal center. Everything that we developed was put into the public domain. Marc left the university after graduation to start the Netscape with Jim Clark who was a big sponsor for our center. I stayed behind, went to Hong Kong to help them build a mini-supercomputer center.
Lopate: Were there other research teams at the time developing browsers?
Fu: There wasn't any other team developing graphic-based browser. We did have licensee. So like Microsoft licensed Mosaic into the Internet Explorer.
Lopate: So you say you went back to China?
Fu: I went to Hong Kong.
Lopate: At that time still under the control of Britain or had it already been given back to China?
Fu: That was right before Hong Kong went back to China so they are still not being controlled by the export policy. They can still do supercomputing center in Hong Kong.
Lopate: Did it feel odd that you are kind of in both worlds?
Fu: Yeah, going back to Hong Kong is kind of my way of half way of getting back to my roots. I still wasn't comfortable to go back to China. Hong Kong is a neighbor to China so it's trying to go back to my lineage.
Lopate: At this point you were working with groups but what led you to be come an entrepreneur?
Fu: I call myself a reluctant entrepreneur. When I came back from Hong Kong, Netscape went public. University went crazy. They wanted to find the next killer app so we had a lot of people talking about starting a company but nobody started one. My boss Joe Harding said, "I am so sick of all the talk, no actions." I raised my hand and said I will start one.
Lopate: That's what led to Geomagic?
Fu: That's what led to Geomagic. When I first went out to start a business I did not know what I should do. There was an Internet high. I was wanting to do something that has value. I think it's kind of natural for me to try to combine the Internet technology which I was writing sick of it with manufacturing which was how I grew up. I just combined the two and started Geomagic.
Lopate: But I would think you would face challenges other people may not face. First of all, that field was much feeling like a boys club. On top of all you are also an immigrant. So, did that make it harder? Or, in some ways did it make somewhat easier?
Fu: It was hard in the beginning and I made a fatal mistake because of that. I went to an investment conference, walked in with all these men with black suits. I felt very out of the place. So my decision was to hire a CEO to help me run the company rather than me running it. That was more of a woman not having the confidence at the beginning  And being an immigrant and don't have the experience. I should have just run it myself but I didn't know it at the time.
Lopate: Well, your co-founder of Geomagic was your husband Herbert.
Fu: Yes. He decided to stay in the university as a professor right after we started the business.
Lopate: So, he could have joined you in the business but he didn't?
Fu: He didn't want to. He is a really a mathematician.
Lopate: At the time when you started Geomagic, your daughter Xixi was only 3. So, on top of everything you were starting this company and being the mother of a very young child.
Fu: Yeah, at the beginning I thought I didn't want to start this business because I thought my daughter was too young. Now looking back I think I am blessed because I have a daughter. She was the only one that could take me away from work. So I didn't eat a lot of French fries and working into the middle of the night because I had to go home.
Lopate: So, doing this have led you into a lot of other things, consulting with the President for example. When did you decide that you want to write a memoir?
Fu: I thought about writing it in 2006. Then I stopped because I thought my daughter was too young to deal with that. I decided to write it when she turned 18, which is earlier this year.
Lopate: So you had more time on your hand. She went to school, I assume. You wrote with Meimei Fox. Did you talk in Mandarin or in English when you were working on the book?
Fu:  We talk in English. Meimei can speak Mandarin also. She was born in Hong Kong although she is American.
Lopate: Was it painful to recall some of the traumatic experiences in your early life when you were writing?
Fu: It was painful sometimes. Sometimes I just want to forget it. It certainly brings back all the memories I had already put away.
Lopate: Maybe some people who had been victims of sexual abuse don't talk about it. They just pass over that part of their lives because in many cultures they wind up becoming the blamed rather than the abusers, like what is being played out in India for example. Did anybody ever give you a hard time about it?
Fu: In China certainly that's considered to be shameful and considered something you will not want to talk about it. In America I think it's still a little taboo to talk about it. But I decided to tell my story.
Lopate: You described reading the journals of your grandfather after you took a trip to China in the 90s. Who gave them to you?
Fu: My Shanghai Papa gave it to me before he passed away. He wanted me to see my blood was red after all.
Lopate: Your Shanghai Papa is not your real father. He is the uncle who you lived with for a while?
Fu: He is the uncle who raised me from 11 days to 8 years old before I was taken away.
Lopate: How did reading the journals make you feel about your socalled family history which gave you black blood?
Fu: The journal was very interesting. In the journal there was a newspaper article about my grandfather from the father and mother side married their first children to raise money for their local school during the second world war. It's also a journey of their entrepreneurship in China in the 30s. But I didn't know any of those and they run such a parallel track of my current life it's very enlightening to read them.
Lopate: You wrote another book, didn't you, that was published in China in 1996 before this one? What was that one about?
Fu: When I was at Hong Kong I wrote a book about my first 10 years in United States and my experience as an immigrant and student.
Lopate: Is it only published in Hong Kong?
Fu: That was published in mainland China.
Lopate: Didn't you have a tense relationship with the government authorities at that time?
Fu: I did. But that book was strictly an immigrant and student experience story. There was nothing political so it was allowed to be published. Also I think in the early 90s China just started economic development, a lot of people want to read that material.
Lopate: Although were you honest when you wrote in that book "I will never be an entrepreneur because business people hate their jobs and love money. I love my job and hate money"? Did you really think like that?
Fu: At that time I did. That was two years before I started my business. That's amazing.

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