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Long Road From Labor Camp Led To Cornell

 

Mike Kilen

 
Huang holds a photograph taken after his release from labor camp. He arrived in the United States with $30 and went on to earn a PhD and teach at Cornell.

His name is Ko-hsing Huang. He is 48 and lives in a very modest one-story American home. The basement is play space for his two children. He drives a Geo and listens to a “joke tape” during trips from Pella, Iowa, to Mount Vernon, where he is in his fifth year teaching politics and is coordinator of International Student Services at Cornell.

Huang took a long, troubled route to this all-American street.

Begin with the hatred, so blood red that it burns behind his eyes. It is in the 1970s. He doesn’t know which year. He is in a labor camp, placed there by Communists. Years have passed. Half his young life, in fact.

Day in, day out, he builds reservoirs, works in rice fields, chops wood, suffers punishments, and sees his friends die before him.

“I think suicide,” he says. “I remember the day. Very heavy rain. The leader of the military, he forced me to clean out the pig house. I think, at least the pigs have a place to hide, behind the hay, out of wind. I’m shivering, cold, wet, with no coat or umbrella.

“So much anger, so sad. Even pigs here better than me, I think. They have a place to hide.”

But on that rainy, sad day Huang thought of his parents and fought on. Huang Yan, his father, had been a meteorologist, a highly educated man and the third generation of educators in China. The family, including his two brothers and mother, had led a happy life in Beijing. His father had few problems after the civil war ended, although he had been a nationalist when the Communists came to power. The family learned the Communist ways and little Ko-hsing learned it with relish in school. But in 1966, the Cultural Revolution arose.

His father, considered an intellectual, was not in favor of the new ways of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Tse-Tung, who sought to celebrate the common man. Instead of new instruments for meteorology, wise, old men were summoned for their weather knowledge.

“He told them to go to the country and get an old guy with a pain in his knee to see if it was going to rain,” Huang says.

Often, they observed animals for clues to weather. His father proposed that the budget be used for updating technology and equipment instead of sending people to the countryside to look at animals. When his proposal was ignored, he told his superiors they could just send people to the nearby Beijing Zoo. His father became a target. By the time Huang was 12, the family was forced to work in labor camps, although they were able to stay together. But the Communists often ransacked their home, even grabbing the pet fish he loved to tend.

Four years later, they were all sent to separate labor camps, Huang to southern China, where he would spend the next 10 years.

Even then he knew he must take the lessons of his family of teachers and become educated beyond the grade-school level he had attained. He smuggled in his first three books: A Communist textbook, an English dictionary, and a history book. “Anything to read,” he says.
He fashioned a homemade oil lamp and lay in his hut with walls made of sticks and mud, the moon shining through the grass roof, and read everything he could. A group in the labor camp devised a system of trading books.

“We copied books all by hand, mathematics books and everything. When we go to markets, if we see someone with a green bag you ask them if they have a book,” he explains.

Today, he compares it to the drug deals he later saw on American streets. When authorities came to his hut, he always had a copy of Marx on top of a stack and was never questioned.

By 1975, the situation in China began to change and he was selected to teach in a school. During the beginning of diplomatic relations with the United States in the following years, he learned of opportunities to study here.

Huang had $30 in his pocket when he landed in San Francisco in 1981, bound for Illinois State University. He was terrified by the speeding traffic. He spoke no English, although he could read and write it.

Through years of study, at Illinois State and then Johns Hopkins University, he began to shed the anger that almost killed him. He married Ning Chia and they both earned doctorates at Johns Hopkins, his in political science.

She took a job teaching history at Central College in Pella, he at Loyola College in Maryland. He found he wanted more. He wanted a family and decided to move to Iowa with his wife. They had children, a son, Shenstone, 7, and a daughter, Bellara, 2. Life started to work for him.

Students at Cornell say he’s passionate about Asian politics, especially because he can offer a wealth of personal experience. He’s even been known to call students who miss a class, says politics professor Craig Allin.

The rewards have come, too. He could buy cars. His children could play the piano—Communists had taken his mother’s piano when he was a boy. He now has several fish tanks in his home, prompting fond memories of his childhood. He has long since buried the bitterness of those days, he says.

“The amount of suffering is the same for everybody,” he says. “You can suffer early or suffer late. Lately, I find that Americans have a lot of suffer, too. Suffering is an important condition for you. For experience and become more educated.”

Huang is the fourth generation of educators in his family. He learned more than any book could teach, suffering early, surviving a rainy day of despair, then picking up three simple textbooks that led to a new life.

Mike Kilen is a Des Moines Register staff writer.

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