Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Broken Fact: Fu Ping's (In)Famous Three English Words

The Original Story:
On Page 3 of Bend, Not Break, Fu Ping wrote about her lack of English skills when she left China for America:
..yet I knew little about America. I had no home, no friends, and no sense of what awaited me there. I didn't have a single spare dollar in my pocket or speak more than three words of English. 
When we were airborne, the flight attendant came by, wheeling a cart. She was an American with blond hair, blue eyes, and a warm smile. In English, she asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink. I didn't understand her since I knew how to say only "Hello," "Thank you," and "Help,"...
The tale of "three English words" is so cute that it was repeated in almost all her speeches and media interviews. The trouble is, she doesn't always know which three words she knew at the time.

For example, on March 9, 2010, she told The Story:

Fu: I took basically a English phrase book and hecticly remember some of the useful words. By the time I get here, I can only remember three. [laugh] I can't remember many.
Gordon: which were?
Fu: which is "thank you", "help", and "excuse me".
The Changing Story:
After being criticized, Fu Ping issued a clarification on February 1, 2013:

Forbes said you arrived in the United States knowing only three words of English, yet there are different sets of those first three words: Inc.: Please, thank you, help; Bend, Not Break: Thank you, hello, help; NPR: Thank you, help, excuse me. 
In college, English language classes were offered, but not required. I had "level zero" English, just like most Americans know a few words of Spanish or French. I tried to learn more English when I knew I was going to the U.S., but when I arrived, I only remembered a few. 
Two weeks later, she produced yet another version on NC Bookwatch:

Fu: I didn't have money and I didn't speak English.
DG: You have 3 words in English, didn't you?
Fu: I tried to remember more than 3, but by the time I get here I only remembered 3. That was help, thank you, and sorry. Very useful words. 

In subsequent interviews, she did apear to be modifying the story slightly to allow the possibility that she did learn English while still in China. On March 1, 2013, she talked at the Downtown Speaker Series:
I had 80 dollars traveler's check and only a few words of English. I tried to learn English when I was in China when I knew I was going to come to the United States. I tried to memorize them but somehow by the time I landed in San Francisco I only remembered 3 words. That was "help", "thank you", and... there was another word that I can't remember. 
On March 19, on John Batchelor Show:
Batchelor: You could not speak English at the time. What did you say? You had the words "Help", "Hello", and "Thank you". That's all the English you have.
Fu: I did try to study English when I was in China but when I arrive I couldn't remember most of them and I couldn't speak. 
The Debunking:
In her clarification, she claimed that English language class was not required in her college. That's a lie. Ever since the reinstatement of college entrance exam in 1977, colleges in China has always required English classes regardless of students' major. A letter from Suzhou University also confirmed that it was the case for her and she actually earned pretty good scores in her English classes.

In addition, she has stated that, in her senior year in college, she was planning to go to graduate school and might have taken the entrance exam for it. All graduate school entrance exam include English language tests. It would be impossible for her not to study English while hoping for getting into a graduate school.

Furthermore, her earlier autobiography Drifting Bottle included several passages of her learning English while in China and boosted that she found her English was pretty good upon arriving at University of New Mexico.

As a young Chinese arriving to an unknown, foreign country in the 1980s, it is understandable that Fu Ping might have felt intimidated and awkward when she was forced to communicate in English for the first time. There might be occasions that words simply escaped her. But to claim that she only knew three English words is just not a factual truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment