Twofish's Blog

July 18, 2006

Family history – My history

Filed under: china, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 10:45 am

This article is a work in progress.

In 1972, Henry Kissinger wanted to establish relations with the People’s Republic of China. The problem was how to communicate this to the PRC. Diplomatic communication is always dangerous, and difficult, and what ended up happening was that Kissinger wrote a letter which was send via a channel in Pakistan. The letter was in blank paper with no letterhead. They got a letter back, also on blank paper with no letterhead, and from these beginnings, eventually Nixon was able go to ChinaThis had an effect in that my parents decided that if Nixon could go to China, that they could send a letter. Since the late-1950’s when communications out of the PRC had stopped, my parents had communicated with their family only once. My father wanted to let his parents know that he was getting married in 1969, so he had a friend who was going to a conference in Hong Kong physically take the letter, go to Hong Kong, send it, wait for the reply, and hand carry the response back to West Virginia.

What I later found out from my relatives was that letter my parents sent in 1972 caused some huge problems. It was a deep dark shameful family secret that they had relatives living outside of the PRC, and when a foreign letter from the United States arrived, it caused my grandfather to lose his job at a courthouse, because getting a foreign letter put you under a cloud of suspicion.

So communications is always difficult. Even in the internet age.

I’ve been thinking about exactly how and why I want to talk about what I want to talk about in public, and part of it involves Mark Latham’s diaries. The thing about his diaries is that they really are useful at explaining what goes on inside politics, and I think the more accurate the history, the better the decisions.

So let me bring in a bit more of family history….

After the fall of the Tang dynasty in the mid-eight century, a person named Wang Shenchi started a kingdom known as the “Min Kingdom” in what is now Fujian province. There are a lot of stories about him and he did pretty well improving the commerce of the region. His stories and the stories of his decendants have been written down and passed through the generations. I happen to be generation 38, and whatever I do is going to be recorded in the family histories and passed down for the next thousand years.

I don’t want to mess up, because if I ended up doing something like advocate bad economic policies for China, I’m going to end up with a very, very historical record associated to my name. The existence of this book of family histories dovetails with my Sunday school teachers talk about the “Book of life” which will be opened on Judgment Day. I’ve seen the Book of Judgment, and my name is in there with the genealogical connections that go back a thousand years. At some point someone will write some about me, and my worst nightmare is to have it say “Wang Chen-Yu – The guy that advocated bad economic policies for China, leading to unrest, war with the United States, handing ultimate victory to Al-Qaeda in the Long War. May his name be spit on for a thousand years.”

The other family story is my great-great-great-great grandfather Wang Wanlong who is a local hero for fighting the British in the Opium Wars. His tomb is empty because he went down with this ship. But on one side of the tomb is the inscription. “Died 1832 fighting the British in the Opium War.” On the other side “Tomb rededicated in the year 1997, the year of the return of Hong Kong to the motherland.” People have long memories in that part of the world, and there are plans and visions that last generations.

We can date the effort to “modernize” China to the defeat at the end of the Opium War in 1832. That started a chapter in Chinese history that will not end until at least 2080, which is the most optimistic projection for when China reaches first world status assume no disruptions, and that’s part of a longer history that stretches back to 2000 BC, and stretches forward to who knows when.

When that history is written, I want to make sure that I have some sort of role in it. I also want to make sure that my role (either positive or negative) is portrayed accurately in it. If everything falls apart, which it might, I want it to make sure that it is stated in writing that I tried to do the right thing. If everything works, I don’t want a whitewash, but I want to let future people know how much effort, luck, and sufferring it took to accomplish what was accomplished.

And its hard for me to get anything done……

So when I see someone that I knew at MIT once get stuff more done a lot easier. I get jealous and angry. Said person has worked hard, is a very nice person, and deserves all of the stuff that they got both at MIT, and since then, but they have had some advantages, and had to deal with less non-sense than I’ve had to deal with. I absolutely detested said person at MIT, but had to hide those feelings of resentment and hate because they really didn’t deserve it, and I had assumed that when I left MIT that I’d never cross paths with them ever again.


The annoying thing about these successful academics is that they just keep appearing in newspapers and magazines, reminding us unsucessful academics what lousy lives we lead.

When I read about a classmate that is getting all of these academic awards, publishing papers, and generally getting ahead in academia, I look at the fact that I’m out of academia, and all of the really nasty, jealous, hateful, ugly feelings that I had there just come back.


And I look at myself in the mirror and wonder what if anything I’m doing wrong. Maybe I should have tried harder for a post-doc. Maybe I should be trying to be more “traditional” and not do stuff like dabble in quantitative finance. Maybe I am a total failure. Maybe I should have punched that person in the face while I was at MIT instead of being polite and cordial.

And maybe I’m doing nothing wrong at all…..

Which makes me even more angry and resentful. Said person has worked hard, but has always has always traveled on the highway paved in front of them. Having college professors as parents is useful. I wish I could have coauthored a paper with my father. I’ve always been trying to build my own highway and its been slow and painful, but I haven’t had any choice. And said person has never had to deal with some of the family and health issues, I’ve had to deal with. The magazine article talked about an “idyllic childhood” which really hurt. My parents did what they could for me, but through no fault of theirs, my childhood was hardly idyllic, and my years at MIT and after were even less so.

And I really wonder sometimes…..

When I was at MIT, I sometimes wondered if everything was really as good as their life really seemed to be, and when I read the magazine articles about the classic immigrant story, I sometimes wonder what the article isn’t saying. Life is about choices, and one thing I’d really like to know is whether the choices I’ve made are really that bad, and I’d really like to know that underneath that hypersuccessful science machine that there is a human being there, that I can relate to.

Are you sometimes tired of trying to live up to other people’s expectations, of being the model minority? I know I am. Is there something in the past that you regret doing or regret have happen to you? I know there is for me. And I think the answer to these questions is probably yes, because you are human, just like me. What makes you angry? What makes you sad? You don’t have to answer that because the answers to that question are deeply personal, but if you are human, something makes you angry. Something makes you sad.
And what I really want to know is that you are human and not some science machine, so that I can stop hating you each time I read about you, because I know that I’m going to read a lot more about you, and I want this game to stop, because I’m tired of it, and because I may someday see you win the Nobel Prize, since you are a lot closer than me to getting it. Damn it. You’ve got grants. You’ve got titles. You’ve got graduate students working for you. And the worst part is that I’m not that much younger than you, and I’ve got nothing, and from the nice write up that the article gives you, you seem to be balance this with your family. (Congratulations by the way.)
I spent so much of my time at MIT in your shadow and in awe of you. I spend a scary amount of time,just wishing that I were you and I had your life and your advantages. It would make me feel better to know that once in a while, you wished you were me.

No one is going to be writing magazine articles about me any time soon, and if they do, I want people to know that there is more than the article says. Hate breeds the desire for revenge, and I’m trying to turn that into something positive rather than negative. Something that I can control, rather than something that controls me.

I’ve written this because people read about you, and they know nothing about you, and they learn nothing that might possibly be useful or relevant to their own life. Someone reads this, and they learn something about me, and possibly find some insight that might be useful for some situation they have. A thousand years from now, I’m sure your papers will still exist, your books, may be even your Nobel prize, and of course all of those magazine articles about what a success your are. But may be the only surviving record of who you were as a human being, would be something that I wrote about you.

Lame…. For a revenge fantasy, this is really lame.

Let me come up with another one.

I hope you trip and fall when the King of Sweden hands you your Nobel, and you get sick on the dinner at the banquet.
I hate you. I really do.


1 Comment »

  1. Hey, I’ve followed your blog for a while it only just occurred to me that your ancestors might be from Fujian. I actually live in Fujian, and I’m always interested in the whole cross-straits thing vis-a-vis the local kin connection between there and here. If you’re keen, drop me an email, I’d love to chat with somebody in Taiwan about it.

    Comment by davesgonechina — January 13, 2008 @ 11:38 am

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