Dear ALA organizers, librarians, authors and fellow book lovers,
I’d like to say, “thank you.” It’s a great honor to deliver this speech.
It is very hard for me to put into words what libraries mean to me.
Living with my Shanghai parents as a child, the library was where Shanghai Papa cultivated in me a lasting appreciation of ideas, which he said, like books, required proper care.
Later, as a college student – new to our country – libraries large and small became places of refuge. My favorite is the Geisel Library at UCSD, a lantern design building with a strong geometric form and a fabulous Dr. Seuss collection.
There, I could escape from the world and sit quietly. Surrounded by the 360-degree glass windows, I could go into the world of ideas, of intellectual challenges, of the experiences of others. And, as a scientist, I could immerse myself in the never-ending search for facts and the truth. I could refuse to be diverted either by what one might wish to believe, or by what could have been the beneficial social effects if it were believed.
All of this is self-evident for Americans, in large part because of the extraordinary work done by the librarians.
What I’m saying is that libraries made me feel safe: safe to explore new places, wonders, and controversial ideas. Safe to go off-path, safe to question.
And I have to share with you: There were times before I came to this country when I did not feel safe. There were times when even asking questions was dangerous.
So I couldn't, as my Shanghai Papa urged, properly care for my independent thoughts.
I was eight when my world changed.
My beloved parents were university educated, but in the Cultural Revolution, learning was a crime. As a result, the government cracked down on teachers, professors and intellectuals. Like many other educated Chinese, my parents were sent to the countryside for hard labor camp.
Suddenly, I was stripped of my afternoons in the library. And I was a long way from the happy kitchen in which my Shanghai Mama taught me the five essential elements of cooking: aroma, color, texture, taste and love. Although only a small child, I was placed in a one-room dormitory with my younger sister, Hong, under the vigilant watch of the Red Guards.
I was supposed to be in first grade, but schools were closed and books were forbidden. My days were spent studying the works of Chairman Mao, working at factory to build radios, and following the Communist party’s strict code of obedience.
There were no libraries for my sister and me, or for anyone.
I was so young and the mind works in ways to protect us from our worst experiences.
Today is not the time to relive those struggles, but I want you to know that although it was 47 years ago, I can still feel the trauma as my memories flutter like butterflies at the edges of my consciousness. By no means is it impossible, however, for an unexpected trigger to bring the trauma from the periphery to the center so that I actually relive it.
Those memories have faded into my dreams and my dreams into my memories, but I know for sure the only thing that kept me going was the responsibility for my younger sister and trying to reach a safe place. Fortunately, even in the most vulnerable moment, I can always regain my strength in a good piece of writing.
You see, life has been messy for me, as it has for most everyone. But we put ourselves back together, don't we? We continue on, toward our journey.
We heal, leaving small fissures and cracks behind, but these imperfections are okay because it is through these cracks that our authenticity shines.
We develop compassion, which is emotion shared.
And it is by revealing these cracks that we can learn to see and be seen deeply. The power of resilience is in all of us, in body and soul.
When I first arrived in US, like many first-generation immigrants, I had no money or support system. I could not study comparative literature, my previously chosen field, because my English was too poor.
Talk about being stuck and feeling hopeless!
But I went forward, going off the beaten path.
I gained remarkable support from faculty and new friends. And I found those safe places, those libraries, where I could read what I wanted, think independently, and let my mind and spirit venture into new worlds.
While the study of English was difficult, I found – in science libraries – the language of computer science, which opened to me a whole new world. Instead of writing essays on Montaigne, I was coding for a future that was not yet imagined, a breakthrough that switched the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally.
I began working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which was on the vanguard of innovation. There we took on the “grand challenges of science.” We worked on analyzing protein folding, predicting earthquakes, and revealing the nuances of quantum mechanics.
Every day I had fun, was challenged, and felt happy!
We were fortunate. We had few budget constraints and no limits set on our imaginations. We wrote history in scraps of software and tossed much of it into the public domain. We took the work of theoretical scientists and gave it dimension, color and transparency.
As a child, I had always sought out beauty. This had been a critical part of my survival strategy.
Now, I had found beauty in the most unlikely place as creating beautiful objects from computer programs was an integral part of my everyday life. For the first time I felt a sense of space and time evaporate as I lost myself deep within my work – the experience of being “in the flow.”
I believe that innovation is imagination applied. And my imagination and confidence that I could overcome life hurdles didn't allow me to stand idle. I had to innovate. In 1996, I saw a demo from Chuck Hull, the inventor of 3D printing. I was mesmerized. From my factory work in China, I knew the milling machine and casting process. But this was different. Just as a regular printer lays down ink on a blank page in order to form words and pictures, this machine laid down materials – plastic, metal, or ceramic – a layer at a time in order to make parts and products.
These 3D printers depended on 3D computer models for which I wrote software at NCSA. This was my Aha! moment. Just like how Adobe and Microsoft reinvented desktop publishing, with this technology, we could reinvent desktop manufacturing. This is the Internet of things. This is not about display and sharing data, this is about using data to make stuff. The product is in the software code. My head spun with possibilities.
It was those possibilities that led Prof. Herbert Edelsbrunner and I to start Geomagic in 1997, a software company to create 3D content for design, print and more.
When I was growing up, I dreamt of being an astronaut.
I couldn’t have imagined that the technology we created would be installed on a NASA space shuttle to guarantee the safe return of astronauts.
Our software has also been used to preserve world heritage sites, such as statue of liberty, and to create beautiful smiles with Invisalign.
This has been my journey, a circle connected by resilience, compassion and safe places along the way. I was once that broken child. Today, I am the chief strategy officer of a trend-setting public company, 3D Systems. I am an advisor to president Obama on innovation and entrepreneurship, and above all, I am a proud mother of a wonderful daughter.
And I have a voice now.
“Bend, Not Break” is a memoir. It is a book, and today it sits on the shelves of libraries around the world.
I wrote my story – my memoir – in the voice of a mother talking to her daughter, not just any daughter, of course, but my own lovely daughter.
And I wrote for all the other daughters, too.
I want to think that in the years to come, a young girl, long after we here are all gone, will reach up and take “Bend, Not Break” from the shelf of a library where she can immerse herself in the words of wisdom.
And pull it down.
And turn the pages one by one.
And say to herself, "I can do this thing, this thing we call life that is sometimes so hard, I can push back the painful dreams and memories and experiences, I can go on.”
“And I will not break...”
Thank you very much.