Dori was among the first American correspondents to cover China’s transformation from Maoism to modernization. Her deeply personal memoir follows her rise from rookie reporter to experienced journalist. She reveals details of her cross-cultural romance and marriage, which gave her deeper insights into how China’s reforms led to hopes for better lives among ordinary people. This euphoria reached its peak in 1989, when peaceful protesters filled Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy. On the ground in Beijing, Dori lived that hope, as well as the despair that followed. After Tiananmen, she returned to America yet continued to visit her husband’s relatives in China as the country resumed its growth. Published in 2020, when China’s rapid rise began setting off fears in Washington, her memoir offers insight into the daring policies that started it all—and perspective on what Chinese people really want. This is a memoir of China’s reawakening. Drop In with us to explore the antecedents of today’s tensions and the rhetoric that has brought it about. You’ll find the healing influences of first hand knowledge of this culture and the special time frame during which the author worked, traveled, befriended both ordinary and extraordinary citizens, made a marriage, and became very much a part of the place. Her observations, insights, and impressions will open the lens on a country with which we, outside its territory, are usually only on headline terms. We’ll drop In to learn, live, find the intellectual, political and economic context, and finally, the highly personal and human emotional content. Website: dorijonesyang.com
An award-winning author, journalist, and speaker, Dori Jones Yang worked for eight years in the 1980s as Hong Kong bureau chief for Business Week, covering China during its pivotal years. Educated in history at Princeton and in international relations at Johns Hopkins, she has written eight books, including her memoir of her years in China, a best-selling business book about Starbucks, two historical novels, and two award-winning novels about Chinese children in America. From her current base near Seattle, she also worked as West Coast technology correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, she has traveled throughout China over forty years and spoken about her books across the United States.Leave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers. Conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table. Diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same and now here’s your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everybody. It’s a time when concerns about the pandemic around the world make it clear just how linked we really are. Travel is impacted, summer vacations are off. Since we may not be able to experience one another firsthand if you were to describe America to a person from a foreign country what would you say. Would you talk about our government or the small towns with friendly faces, big cities with chic people, ethnic restaurants and food carts or the natural beauty, the deserts and RVers, mountains and hikers, lakes and canoers, rivers and fishermen, all across this country. Stories of people’s lives or the monuments they create. Here to talk about it and her new book When the Red Gates Opened published by She Writes Press is Dori Jones Yang. It’s about living in Hong Kong and China during the 1980s. Dori’s website tagline gives us a clue. It reads connecting generations and cultures through the lives of ordinary people. Welcome Dori.
Dori: Well thank you very much. What a delight to talk to you today.
Diane: It’s lovely to have you and congratulations on this wonderful multi-layered book. When the Red Gates Opened. It’s called a memoir but I wondered how you might describe. It is it historical, documentary, memoir, both, all of the above? How would you describe your book?
Dori: Well I call it a historical memoir because I did very consciously try to weave together two big threads. One is my personal experience as a foreign correspondent, a young woman on her own in Hong Kong, halfway around the world and what it was like for me personally but also what was going on in China because it turns out that was, the 80s were a really pivotal time in Chinese history. I was a journalist with a front row seat. All throughout in the way that sort of historical fiction does I use that as a model although this is a memoir because if you get really, as a reader very involved in someone’s life, an individual’s life even if whether it’s fictional or real then sometimes you end up learning about a place that’s far away or perhaps long ago that you at the end you think whoa that was really interesting but you might not have read a book about that particular topic.
Diane: I think that you have an inside out approach. You have woven together successfully as you say the personal and the professional and even the political and the dramas that incurred were, they occurred in China during the 1980s. I’m going to give our listeners a bit of a formal bio. This period just is so fascinating. It’s almost hard to get it out in one volume let alone one conversation but we’re gonna give it a try. Here’s the official bio for Dori. She is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker. Dori Jones Yang worked for eight years in the 1980s as Hong Kong Bureau Chief for BusinessWeek covering China during its pivotal years. Educated in history at Princeton and in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. She has written eight books including her memoir, Memoir of the Years in China, a best-selling business book about Starbucks, two historical novels and two award-winning novels about Chinese children in America. From her current base near Seattle she also worked as the West Coast Technology Correspondent for US News and World Report. Fluent in Mandarin, Chinese Dori has traveled throughout China over 40 years and has spoken about her books across the United States.
Dori, I don’t find it coincidental somehow that you wrote a book about Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks because in throughout the world one of the best places to get to know a place is to go to the coffee shop. There you see ordinary people. I think that that’s somehow metaphorical in your approach. Pour Your Heart Into It One Cup at a Time is the title of your biography. Do you consider yourself an ordinary person with all of the exceptional experiences you’ve had?
Dori: I do think of myself as an ordinary person. I guess we all do really. What I really tried to do while I was in China was get to know people on the streets or just relatives, just people that you wouldn’t normally interview as a journalist. In the Howard Schultz book, he talks about a coffee shop as a third place away from home, away from work where people can gather. I really love that whole concept.
Diane: Me too. We’re not going to quite overlook the fact that Dori Jones Yang, you married a Chinese Paul Yang. I think that might have been a further lens into the world but one that frankly you’d already established with your I think very down-to-earth person-in-the-street approach to referring to yourself as an ordinary person albeit with extraordinary talents and viewing the world from street level, from a human level. Talk to us about the labels that attach to countries when we hear news and make generalizations about places and people we don’t know.
Dori: Well I think that that’s a great question particularly about the US and China right now because US China relations are at a low point once again. I really strongly believe that people to people contact is the best way to get to understand another country. That’s kind of what I was trying to do as a reporter in at the street level talking to ordinary people. It’s really unfortunate that among many other unfortunate things about this pandemic that we haven’t been able to travel as you say to other countries, even other parts of our own country. Chinese people who were studying in the US, many of them had to go back. There certainly have been no tourists from China. There have been no American tourists going to China. I personally have felt it that I have not been able to get back to China and see some of my husband’s relatives or people, friends that I met there. The same thing that Chinese people have not been able to come here.
I really think that at a very deep level the relationship between countries has to start with the relationship between individuals. When we cut that off and then start saying really negative or at least hearing our leaders say really negative things about another country it’s too easy to make a generalization that China is this or China is that when really what you’re talking about is Chinese leaders and the decisions that they’ve made and not 1.4 billion people who are individuals like you and me. That’s one thing that has been a side effect of this pandemic that I think is potentially very destructive.
Diane: It’s interesting that you talk about the disconnect that happens with lack of travel and that contact and the ability for us to have direct observation and the sense of other people. I also think that we’re at an inflection point with China because of the former president’s posture vis-a-vis the pandemic and actually casting blame. I don’t think we can avoid that as a kind of elephant in the room here that there is an all-time attitudinal low because of the fact that the former president created a conspiracy theory that China basically contrived or conspired to originate or propagate the Covid 19. I mean even to hear my own words say it just sounds absurd but it happened.
Dori: Yes, definitely.
Diane: It’s happened and it’s happened and we need to acknowledge it. The offshoot of this is the hate crimes that have now arisen in this country. Just a quick April 28 filing from a writer Kim Yam. Research released that shows in the first quarter of 2021 to the same period in 2020 across 15 major US cities hate crimes have surged by 169 percent. Continuing the historic increase in attacks of last year. I know that you kind of coincidentally, I mean talk about timing you coincidentally released a book during the time when this inflection point was happening but maybe Dori it’s a healing mechanism. Address please some of the points here that we’re talking about the misinformation that we’re suffering from.
Dori: I would really hope that my book could be a healing mechanism and my voice as well. I think it’s important to speak up during this time. The Gallop poll has been following US attitudes towards China for a long time. They are at, the approval rating for China, disapproval rating for China right now about 79 percent of Americans have a negative view of China and that’s the highest it’s been even after the Tiananmen Square crisis and crackdown which seemed to be a total low point. There’s even more negative views about China now. I agree with you that one of the important factors in that was the former president’s very combative and ugly characterization of China. China, he used to say and talking about that conspiracy theory as well among many others. I do think that that directly had an effect on these hate crimes. Asian Americans of all, from all different origins whether they’re from China or not have been targets in part because of the hate stirred up against Asians in general which had not been the case for quite a long time.
Historically there have been times but my husband’s been in this country for 60 years and he’s never seen anything like this. He’s always felt very welcome and had opportunities here. This has been, just hearing about the cases on the news and also some immediate friends who have not been assaulted but have been, people come up to them. Strangers come up to them in stores and say go back to your country. One of his friends had been in this country for 60 years and someone said, a young person said that. He was probably born after he arrived here and those attitudes are just really frightening to me and as a as a wife of a Chinese man and we have a Chinese-American daughter. My family looks Chinese. Even the Chinese Americans who’ve been in this country for many generations, people will look at their face and make an assumption that they’ve just arrived from China and that they’re somehow connected with at least especially in the beginning part of the Covid crisis. There were people who avoided Chinese and Chinese restaurants because they thought that Covid 19 was a Chinese disease. The irony is that China controlled it far better than the US did but these attitudes have been really scary.
Diane: They’re devastating and I think in your book you do a wonderful job of revolving around to see the perspective of how the motivation to permeate, promulgate these kinds of hatred might have come about. I think you address that first of all the contrast of how China has contained the virus and second of all how the former administration bungled the attempt at containing the pandemic basically by dismissing it as a non-issue. I think that there are further antecedents described in your book that I thought were very important undercurrents. You talk about even competition and the threat of another country’s economy, the growth of China and the astounding growth when we once dismissed them as the manufacturer, the source of cheap goods that no one would buy when in fact now we are totally interrelated with the Chinese economy.
I wonder about the flow, the ebb and flow of business as a kind of great equalizer because it certainly doesn’t look at these kinds of attitudes when formulating positions to take in terms of exchange, trade and dependencies on a production of goods. How has this been for you because you straddled the business writing world?
Dori: Right, exactly. I had my, because I worked for Business Week I really saw China through a business lens when I was a reporter there. It was very interesting writing this memoir over the last five years because five years ago Americans were fairly neutral about China. Some were positive. Some were negative and then as I was writing the novel these opinions got more and more negative. I didn’t expect the book would come out at a time like this. The business in China traditionally was, American business in China was especially during the 80s was very excited about the possibility of China opening up. That was a big part of what I covered as a reporter. American companies that were all kind of scrambling to get into China and once they got there they didn’t know what they were doing. Here’s some rather amusing stories about them getting there.
China really wasn’t ready to modernize in the 80s but they just went ahead and did it anyway. Business was kind of a cheerleader for, US business was a cheerleader for China for decades. Then in the last five years or so the American business as well became fairly negative and started talking about unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property and things like that which also contributed to the negative opinions of China. One of the things that, an insight that I got from it is when I was there and also for many years the US looked at China as sort of a younger brother. They were poor. I can’t exaggerate how poor they were in the 80s when I first went there and that’s in my lifetime and in the lifetime a lot of people. It was a very, very poor country. It is very prosperous now. Not as prosperous as the US but very prosperous.
At that time and for many years we just assumed that China would be like other Asian countries that they would produce as you say goods that nobody really wanted, cheap labor things and that had worked for American business who were producing cheap labor things initially in japan and later in Korea and later in Taiwan well now in China. Those were initially tended to be jobs that Americans didn’t particularly want to do but then as China developed and sort of went up the technology ladder. They started with cheap toys and Christmas ornaments and clothing and then they kind of started producing more and more sophisticated things. As they did they started to compete with companies that were producing in the US. Furniture was one of the earliest ones that we still had a viable furniture manufacturing business in North Carolina and elsewhere back now just 10, 20 years ago.
China started producing more sophisticated things and now they’re producing high-tech things as well. They’re producing, most of our iPhones are made in China. They aren’t just a contract manufacturer anymore. They don’t even have cheap labor anymore. The standard of living has gone up. Labor’s gotten more expensive. We can’t think of China as a younger brother anymore. US China relations just cannot go back to where they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago because they’re much more of an equal. They’re not our equal yet in technology but they’re trying really hard and they’re putting a lot of money into educating their young people in science and technology and engineering. They’re trying to innovate and get patents on various high-tech areas. They’re targeting some of the highest tech areas so now they really are a strategic competitor. That’s just not what we thought of back in the 80s and 90s and even in the early 2000s. They’re not a younger brother anymore.
As anybody who’s ever had a younger brother who then kind of grew as tall as they did or maybe taller you have to change your relationship over when the younger brother grows up. That’s really underneath it all that’s what’s happening here and we’re not really quite sure how to do that because when we were competing with the Soviet Union they never really developed their economy very well. Their living standards never got very high but China is actually pursuing a very different path. They are raising living standards and they are innovating and we have to figure out. The US hasn’t had an equal on the world stage for a long time. I don’t know when was the last time we had an equal. Certainly Soviet Union well maybe are equal in military matters but not in economic matters. We’re not just used to it.
Diane: Right and Dori, we have to pause for a break here but I think the point that you’re making is a brilliant one. China has defied all expectations and we were entirely unprepared for it or any equal to the United States because we have always regarded ourselves as paramount. As Howard Schultz said it’s all good when you’re young and scrappy but not when you’re big and bigfoot and therefore become a threat. When we come back we’re going to continue talking about how binary assumptions are poisonous and toxic to foreign relations with China and how we’re going to have to cooperate ultimately on things like climate change. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re here with Dori Jones Yang, author of When the Red Gates Opened. It’s a multi-tiered historical memoir about China and your time in Hong Kong Dori when you really experienced firsthand a lot of the news stories that we were only reading about. There was a perspective obviously from the Chinese point of view that we didn’t know about was that somehow also the United States had succeeded in humiliating China at a certain point. I think it’s crucial that we break down some of these stereotypes which is what happens in your book When the Red Gates Opened. Talk to us a little bit about the Chinese experience of the US.
Dori: Well interesting, the Chinese experience of the US and of the west in general I knew about at a kind of an abstract level. There’s one scene in the book where my husband takes me to see a movie about the start of the opium war which seems like just a random historical event to us but it was a time when British troops attacked China. It was a searing experience for the Chinese because the British were trying to force them to import opium when opium was actually illegal in China. I was in a movie theater in in Hong Kong with my husband. I was the only white person there. Everyone else was Chinese and I was actually looking around a little bit scared because the white people in the movie were the bad guys. That’s just not the way our movies work.
It really opened my eyes to listen and look for the Chinese perspective on world events. One big thing I’ve learned about the Chinese perspective from then and more recently as well is that they really value stability. One of the big stories I covered was the negotiations about the future of Hong Kong. When I arrived in Hong Kong it was a British colony but very shortly after I got there the British prime minister went to China to start the talks about the future of Hong Kong after 1997. What really struck me was that the one of the, well Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China promised Hong Kong stability and prosperity. I’ve thought about that for years since then. He didn’t promise freedom and democracy. He promised stability and prosperity.
We in the US don’t think about stability. Although we’ve had some instability recently it’s nothing compared to what China has had over the last particularly over the last hundred years or 200 years really. A lot of older Chinese remember times of extreme instability both before and after the communists took over. Instability is a scary thing for Chinese because the country actually fell apart completely in the 1920s. There was no functioning central government. To them having a strong government is really important because when they had a weak government throughout history they had instability. They had warfare. They had civil war. They had drought. They had famine. People didn’t have enough to eat and their sons were being taken away to fight these endless wars. They hated those periods of weak government.
They have a view of government that a strong government is really necessary for stability. We in the US don’t really, we don’t have to think about stability because of our history, other than the Civil War which none of us remember. We’ve never had a terrible period of instability. We’ve never certainly never had foreign countries occupy us. Those kinds of things are of different values lead to different governments. Because they value stability and strong government that’s why they have it now. They are actually prospering under it. Chinese people, it’s easy for us to say oh they don’t have the same kinds of human rights as we do. They certainly don’t have, they don’t have one man one vote but they do have stability and prosperity. From a Chinese point of view that’s rare in history. That’s something to be valued and not to be overlooked. That one of the things that I learned along the way about trying to step out of my personal American perspective which is based on what I’ve learned and the history of my own country and try to step into their perspective, how they view things. Stability is really an important thing for them.
Diane: It’s so interesting to me too that you really had, I mean excuse the expression a really white bread kind of upbringing.
Dori: That’s true.
Diane: Right and then you had a Princeton education, Johns Hopkins doesn’t get any better than that and I think that for you or first of all be drawn to China fascinates me. I think that somehow you’re your identity as both a kind of common man identity and a kind of an unassuming, unaggressive kind of personality. You described yourself in the book as an introvert. It was difficult for you to as a journalist to dial the number to get the interviews going and to make the calls. I think to myself there’s something, there’s some kind of corollary there too where someone with your education still comes across with humility and dignity. I think there might be an affinity there. I wonder if you felt the same thing upon arrival in Hong Kong.
Dori: In terms of the affinity between my personality and the Chinese one?
Dori: One thing I did notice with Chinese in general, now anytime you generalize you have to worry about stereotypes. Not every Chinese person is the same. Not every American person is the same but it is generally true that barging in and demanding things doesn’t work very well in China. Sometimes it does work well in the US frankly. Some of the most successful tech entrepreneurs, look at Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos have been the barge in and try something new and don’t listen to other people and sow chaos kind of leaders. That approach is not very accepted or approved of in China. The fact that I was unassuming and unaggressive. Initially I thought this was right after Watergate where everyone in journalism just admired the reporters who opened up the Watergate story and aggressive reporting was considered a very good thing.
I was not just by nature, I’m not very aggressive. I thought that was a real weakness on my part. It was embarrassing to say I was a reporter but I just wasn’t terribly aggressive but actually in China that was a good thing. To approach people with humility like I don’t understand this. Will you explain it to me even if I did understand it pretty well and giving them their dignity and not trying to push my way in really helped me? I didn’t realize that until decades later looking back. That’s one of the things about memoirs when you write it you look back and you reflect on who you were and why things happened the way they did. That’s one of the things I learned from writing the memoir is that having that sort of unaggressive, unassuming approach helped me to really get people in China to trust me and to open up and to talk to me whereas if I’d gone barging in they wouldn’t have.
Diane: How many cover stories did you have for Business Week? I’m just going to try to put this in perspective. It’s the cover of BusinessWeek magazine which was in tactile magazine. How many cover stories for Dori Jones Yang or how many for when you were writing under Dori Jones because…
Dori: I was Jones at first and was Yang only after I married my husband Paul. As you point out for a newspaper writer the big deal is to get on the front page. For a magazine writer the big deal is to get a cover, a story that’s so big that it’s featured on the cover. It took a while before I was good enough or had the right kind of story to do that but I was in Hong Kong about eight years and I would say I had about eight cover stories. Every time I did I would blow up the image and put it on my wall so it was delightful. At the end I had all these blown up images of the cover stories that I did. That was when there was a really big story and actually I was very lucky because the 80s were a time of big news in China. Things were changing.
Before the 80s China was still under Maoism which was the kind of crazy version of communism that really was very destructive and involved a lot of persecution and poverty. In the 80s China just opened up amazingly. They allowed in capitalism. It’s very hard for us now to look back and realize how incredible that was because there had never been a communist party that allowed capitalism. China did that in the 80s. It was just mind-boggling. I remember the first time I read that they were going to do a stock market. There’s nothing more capitalist than a stock market and yet China did that. They still have one. We just don’t even think about it today but a communist country with a stock market. It’s mind-boggling and they have billionaires now which is not what Marx had in mind. There were so many, there was so much news at that time that’s why I was able to do quite a few cover stories which is very exciting for me.
Diane: Very much so. When you were running out of wall space and had these covers blown up I also think your timing of the release of this memoir When the Red Gates Open might be a bit incandescent as well because what timing. I mean the Chinese, the consciousness of China is and these threads that you bring together, the political and economic threads, the interplay and how some of those forces rise to the fore while the others are diminishing or still there and reared their ugly head as in 1989 with the massacre in Tiananmen Square. That was the capitulating moment for you understandably when I think the world was traumatized by this.
I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment here and go back to the idea of green economy which is going to be a market force throughout the world as we move on because climate change and working against it is going to impact all of us. There is evidence that the animal trade in China owing to the destruction of habitat which occurs the world over because we overbuild, because there’s too many of us and the cities deplete resources. This pandemic Covid 19 it did originate with animal trade in sick animals that had become sick because of their loss of habitat. Other pandemics Ebola, originated in Africa but the bottom line is we need to cooperate here in this more transcendent cause of fighting climate change.
You talked in the book about even witnessing charcoal burning stoves in homes and granted this is going back now to the 80s. I wondered if you felt that first of all are our stereotypes of China blocking us from being able to reach out and do the necessary work that we’re all going to need to do together and how much is China going to be a willing partner in the green effort do you think.
Dori: The green effort is actually one of the few areas where China and the US under current leadership are both committed to responding to climate change and lowering greenhouse gas emissions but both of us are together we are the two biggest emitters of carbon. In China’s case they have developed a lot of solar panels and wind and also electric cars. They’ve really invested in those. In some ways they’re ahead of us so we’re importing solar panels from them which is actually something we could be producing ourselves. At some level China’s really committed and obviously pushing ahead but at another level they don’t have any oil at all. They have a lot of coal so they are actually continuing to build coal plants. That I think a lot of people don’t know but that’s the worst kind of pollution that you can have in terms of the effect on the climate.
We really need to both cooperate where both of us, both the US and China very deliberately try to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. When you’re mentioning that the animal trade and the loss of habitat I will also say on that one of the problems is that Chinese people like to eat exotic animals. They finally passed the law saying that they couldn’t sell exotic animal. It’s now illegal to sell exotic animals in markets but there’s been not a lot of Chinese but a small percentage of Chinese who really like that. That has been a problem as well. They really I think with this pandemic they really learned their lesson on that that they have to crack down on that and tell people that they can’t do that anymore but both the US and China are going to well together. We emit about 15 percent of the carbon in the air so the rest of the world also needs to take action. Every country needs to take action but it is one thing where both Biden and the Chinese president are at least they say the right things. They’re committed to trying to improve the situation so that’s one sort of bright light in the and what otherwise is not a very good US China relationship.
Diane: Well thank you for throwing the window open on that. We’re talking with Dori Jones Yang author of When the Red Gates Opened. It couldn’t be more fascinating Dori and insightful that you know some of the things that I’m not sure we’re entirely aware of because of the labels that we attach to over almost 1.4 billion Chinese and the way in which we’re going to have to open our minds and maybe combat xenophobia, maybe combat age-old, decades-old prejudices that come from the cold war about communism. Lots and lots of stereotypes that you break down I think in this really magnificent memoir When the Red Gates Opened. We’re going to pause for a commercial break but when we come back we’ll continue with Dori Jones Yang on her very wonderful love story with a real man and a real country. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone we’re sitting with Dori Jones Yang, the author of a wonderful and multi-tiered book When the Red Gates Opened. We’ve been sort of at the macro level I would say but I’d like to zoom in now to the personal level, the woman behind this book and this sweeping book. There is a woman here Dori who is I think you named it when you described your personal symbol as the yin and yang. You really are a balance, a study in contrast. You grew up and I think what would be a very sort of predictable environment. Yet you talk about in the book which is something I thought was quite wonderful losing yourself when you fly into an unknown place, losing yourself even because you were fluent in mandarin and at times became so immersed that you kind of forget yourself.
I wondered about the loss of boundaries, you were expected to grow up and have a country club life, marry into the Presbyterian Church. This idea of marrying into someone who is not from your father of your “own kind”. This was the antithesis of any family expectations and yet you found it liberating. You found it exhilarating. I wonder if you reflect on that now as you’ve written the memoir how this expanded or even released the boundaries that you grew up under.
Dori: I love that those words liberating and exhilarating because that is the way I felt about marrying a Chinese man. As you said I grew up in Ohio in a very white bread community. Certainly had never met even a Chinese person. It never occurred to me to go to China or learn Chinese until really after college but I just really initially I just love the language because the language is so deliciously difficult. I started with the language and then thought well now that I’ve learned the language I need to learn something about the country but it was only in writing the memoir that I looked back and said and asked those questions that you’re alluding to which is why would I even where I came from, why would I be drawn to a place so different.
One of the things I didn’t mention in my memoir is that when I was a kid I really loved the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. At the back of the Lord of the Rings there’s this whole appendix with these elvish and dwarvish languages that Tolkien made up because he was a linguist himself. The idea of people who didn’t look like me and who spoke a different language but who had a fascinating faraway culture just really appealed to me. When I started learning the Chinese language I just thought I just really want to get to know that place but you’re right. Once I decided I wanted to marry Paul it was kind of hard to break it to my parents. That was the hardest part of the book well one of the hard parts of the book to write is the discussion I had with my parents when I told them that Paul and I wanted to get married.
I was concerned about losing them. They were from a very structured world where most people did what their parents expected them to do. Marrying a Chinese man was just not part of that and plus he was 15 years older. He had been married and divorced and had two kids which is also not what they wanted for their little girl. It was kind of a painful part of the memoir to write when I had to remember how it felt. Fortunately I did have a journal and I had written how it felt at the time. I was able to go back and access that but I do think that loss of boundaries and when I kept calling it going into the unknown. I’ve always just loved to do that in my reading. I love to read books about unknown places and just going off the map. I love it when my GPS doesn’t have any roads on it. Then so of course the GPS goes out after a while but just to be in a place that I’ve never been before that not many people have ever been before. It’s been something that I’ve I just love.
Rest of my family thinks I’m very strange I have to admit but it’s just something that that appealed to me from early on and I probably wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d asked me that I would marry a Chinese man or marry a man that’s very different from me. So far it’s worked out really well. We’re still married and getting along very well. We find things that we have in common. Part of that is that he had lived in the US and understood, spoke fluent English, understood and appreciated my culture and where I came from. I spoke Mandarin and had traveled widely in China and really appreciated the Chinese culture where he came from. He was actually born in China. He’s an immigrant so he very much identifies with China and that helps that we each had gone way over 50 percent of the way to really understanding and appreciating one another’s culture.
Diane: It’s a beautiful balance in the sense that I think about the yin yang symbol and the dots on either side. The way in which you enrich one another clearly it’s a commitment that took a lot of patience, a lot of long-term view and planning because I think in contrast to the American fall in love overnight. It’s absolutely love at first sight. We’re engaged within six weeks. This was something that evolved over the course of two years for you and Paul. I think about the word challenge when because it came up in my mind time and time again reading this really sensational memoir is that you talk about Tolkien and learning the language and the glossary at the end. I mean that’s a challenge.
Okay, I’m going to learn a language completely different than my own whereas in America sometimes and I think in all countries we suffer from otherness and fear of otherness where you kind of decided to launch yourself into otherness. You have a motto in the book where you say we all enter the world while leaving the comfort of our own zone. I think this was so interesting. You created a home in China that really was of China. A lot of people stick in the expat community. They don’t intermingle. They more or less transfer their home from their home base and install it in the country in which they’re living. I think the fact that you were unapologetically adventurous, unapologetically ambitious. You had a strong sense of dreams and you followed your dreams. I think that there’s something very intuitive about that. Have you developed new dreams now that you’re in America, you’ve written a memoir? How has it been to do that and what is it like to be in this medium of communicating your personal self?
Dori: I appreciate your description of that because that’s the way that I did feel that I did not have any fear of others. I was actually attracted to people who were very different from me. I think today when I read about Americans who fear immigrants in our country I just don’t even understand them unfortunately. I wish I did but I just, immigrants have enriched our country so much. I just don’t, I can’t see why people wouldn’t see it that way. Aside from the indigenous people the vast majority of Americans are descended from immigrants sometimes not, sometimes relatively recently. I think it’s important to see immigrants with open eyes and to follow the dream of traveling overseas and really understanding them once overseas travel becomes possible.
Diane: You talked a lot about breaking the molds from the old and forming new ones. You weren’t living in the past. You were forward looking. Do you think that the business aspect of things and the pioneering sense that business naturally incurs influenced you in that way to always be looking ahead?
Dori: Maybe it did because a business entrepreneur, my dad was a small scale entrepreneur. He had a bookshop, has to be looking ahead and thinking of new possibilities. My daughter is an entrepreneur as well and breaking the mold. I think that’s one of the things that Americans are very good at is imagining something that didn’t exist before and creating it either whether in art or in business. That is a strength that we have in the US.
Diane: You gazed at one point up at Notre Dame and said the stability, the strength, the stone of this place and what it’s endured. There was a kind of trial by fire in your personal and professional life that you overcame. Do you have any parting words? We’re just about out of time. We’ve got about a minute left. Any parting words about this idea of being both flexible and strong?
Dori: Well I think that it’s as I said it’s really important for all of us in the US to either travel overseas or talk to people from other countries and be able to see the world from their point of view and that does take both flexibility and confidence in yourself. I hope that I think we as Americans can do that but it worries me that at some level we’ve forgotten how to do that but I think we can do it.
Diane: We can do it. We just need the practice. You overcame a lot of self-doubt to become Dori Jones Yang. We thank you very much for being with us. Your website is dorijonesyang.com. You’re on Facebook, LinkedIn and Goodreads so it’s delightful having you. You talk about sleeping in the same bed but dreaming different dreams. I think this is just such an important message for us to retain that connectedness. Thanks to our engineers Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller, to our executive producer Robert Giolino and most of all to you our listeners. Remember to stay safe and keep dreaming different dreams. Till next week thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.