“I was six when the Cultural Revolution began, and it crushed my college dream” opens Wang Ping’s astonishing new memoir, Life of Miracles Along the Yangtze and the Mississippi. It is the first major obstacle in a life that relishes challenge, a story of a restless mind’s refusal to settle for anything less than the achievement of her ambitions. And there is no getting around it: Wang Ping is a wonderfully ambitious person. These ambitions do not take the form of material wealth or fame, however, but rather the ability to “cross oceans, the East China Sea, the Atlantic, the Pacific, to explore the world.”
For some, the phrase “college educated” is a euphemism for a certain kind of social standing. It suggests that education is not valuable in and of itself, but as metaphoric fuel to drive a person’s economic mobility, offering an escape from one’s current plight with promises of pastures new and green. For Wang, however, there is no metaphor about it. Born shortly after the Chinese Civil War and growing up during the oppression of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, education quite literally offered her the only passage out of a life of compliance to Party rule.
Life of Miracles Along the Yangtze and the Mississippi traces Wang’s journey from a book-obsessed girl growing up in a navy compound on a small island in the East China Sea—where books were not only difficult to come by, but dangerous to possess—to a professor of English at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by way of Flushing, Queens; and the Lower East Side. Wang illustrates her immigrant’s journey in an enviable voice, idiosyncratic and exact; and explores the often chasm-size differences and carbon similarities between her two cultures, Shandong-Chinese and American. As is the way for most emigrants, after leaving China in 1986, she struggles to feel a true sense of belonging in either place: no longer fully Chinese, never truly American.
College was the “wildest of all wild dreams” for Wang, who at 14 had no formal education.
“The Cultural Revolution had closed all schools for years. When they finally opened, we studied Mao’s words 70 percent of the time….I had no math, chemistry, physics, geography, or history. But it didn’t stop me from dreaming.”
The newly reopened colleges admitted only three kinds of people: soldiers, workers and peasants. Wang realized that due to the poverty of her youth, she lacked the physical strength to be a soldier or worker. She therefore decided to leave the navy compound and her family to become a “peasant” so that she might be recommended for college as a “reeducated youth,” changing her city residency for a country residency, “a suicidal act at the time. Once a peasant, forever a peasant.” After 12 years of working the fields, Wang earned a college degree from Beijing University, “then two master’s degrees in New York, then a PhD, while writing poetry and novels on the side. I should have been happy, and I was, for about a day after each book, award, degree, before I became restless again and my eyes wandered off to the next goal.”
Wang’s achievements are no foil for life’s quotidian struggles, which are intensified because she is both an immigrant and a woman. She must return to her teaching job while nursing her second child; she is held up at the border for hours for no other reason than having the wrong color passport. But these challenges seem to inflate rather than extinguish her ambitions, which include traveling down the length of the Mississippi, documenting migrants displaced by the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan, and climbing Everest for an art project that included releasing a chain of river flags made by people who live along the Mississippi, Yangtze, Ganges, Amazon, Po and other rivers.
Wang’s attachment to rivers is important. She sees in them the essence of our human community: The waters of the world join us. She feels at home in Minnesota because it is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” At a time when relations between the two most powerful nations on earth seem to be devolving to ever-new depths of dysfunction due to purely economic concerns, Wang’s story is a valuable reminder of how much of our human story we have in common—the importance of hope, the necessity for empathy and the inevitability of struggle. Life of Miracles Along the Yangtze and Mississippi is as expansive, challenging and beautiful as its author’s dreams.
(University of Georgia Press, 2018, $26.95)