January 2013

Terry Hong

nonfiction

Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds by Ping Fu, with MeiMei Fox

This is not a spoiler: If you take a good look at the cover of the recent memoir Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, you know the pages will deliver a happy ending... okay, if not happy, then certainly marked with all the signs of outward success. Author Ping Fu's name is clearly annotated with "Founder and CEO of Geomagic, Inc." At top right, the single blurb from Tony Hsieh -- the founding CEO of Zappos.com, who authored the New York Times number-one bestseller Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose -- makes his public declaration of support for Fu's journey to "the top of the American tech world." Turn to the back cover where further endorsements are many, from bestselling authors, publishing executives, and well-placed journalists. The book all but shouts, "Get your next great American success story here!"

No shortage of feel-good, do-good, against-all-odds survive-and-thrive true stories line the bookshelves in libraries and bookstores. Some are just okay, too many are predictable, but every so often, a few are stunners. Bend, Not Break falls in that last category. Think you've heard it all? Try just the first chapter of Fu's story -- three English phrases ("hello," "thank you," and "help"), a generous stranger, a kidnapping, two mothers, two fathers, a stolen childhood -- and see just how far you get. I'll confidently predict all the way to the final page. Written with clarity and purpose -- choosing journalistic-like detachment over self-pity in the worst of times, allowing for open vulnerability and empathy in moments of achievement and joy -- Bend, Not Break is a significant accomplishment befitting Fu's extraordinary odyssey from privilege to deprivation to imprisonment to lasting freedom.

For the first eight years of her life, Fu grew up in a grand house, the adored youngest child to five older siblings in a well-educated, wealthy family. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution arrived in Shanghai -- its sophisticated, international veneer no longer able to protect its cosmopolitan citizens from the onslaught of Chairman Mao's less-than-equal communism. Wrenched from her family, Fu was sent alone to Nanjing, where she spent the next decade in room 202 of a Nanjing University dormitory.

She learned with great shock that she was not a pampered Shanghai last daughter. Instead, she was the firstborn of a couple she believed to be her aunt and uncle. She arrives in Nanjing just in time to see her birthparents forced away by the Red Guards for destinations unknown. With a desperate shout from the crowded truck, Fu's Nanjing mother transfers total responsibility for the left-behind four-year-old Fu thought was her cousin. Still so much a child herself, Fu becomes sole parent -- nurturer and protector -- to an even younger sister she never knew she had.

Marked as a "black element," Fu is stripped of all rights for the crime of being born into an educated family. Endlessly, she is told she is less than nothing. She is ridiculed, dismissed, beaten, and forced to eat "bitter meals" made of dirt and animal dung. At age ten, when unspeakable horrific violence is perpetrated on her already deprived little body, she is labeled a "broken shoe," an insult so severe she will not comprehend its heinous implications for years to come.

Fu survives, sustained by moments of unexpected kindness in a bewildering world of daily abuse and deprivation. An unknown generous soul leaves much-needed food outside her door. A faraway uncle visits, bringing with him unimaginable delights contained in forbidden Western novels. A first best friend -- whose peasant roots make her an ideal citizen -- risks her own safety by becoming Fu's brave companion and outspoken champion.

With Mao's death in 1976, China's Communist regime loosens its suffocating grip and slowly allows families to reunite, even return to some semblance of their former lives (in most cases, in drastically reduced circumstances). After years of propaganda conditioning, schools reopen. Fu reunites with both her Nanjing and Shanghai families, earns university admission, helps publish a literary journal, and then writes a thesis that appears in the international media on a subject so embarrassing to the Chinese government that she lands in prison. Her life is threatened, and her only choices are prison or deportation; once more she is jettisoned from all that is familiar, this time to the other side of world.

In 1985, already twenty-five, Fu arrives in San Francisco, unable to speak English, completely alone in the world. She is five dollars short of being able to pay for her connecting flight to Albuquerque where she will study English at the University of New Mexico. A stranger hands her the cash that will allow her to fly, together with a life lesson: "'When in doubt, always err on the side of generosity.' It is a value I held dear to my heart ever since."

As a brand new American-in-training, Fu reinvents herself again and again. While a student, she pays her tuition with babysitting, house cleaning, and -- when her English improves -- waitressing (she slaps "Rambo's" cheek -- "hard" -- for "grabbing [her] rear end with his enormous right hand"). Once degreed, she joins the technical world, as a novice programmer, an innovative manager, and eventually the founding CEO of Geomagic, Inc., a global company which creates "mass customization software for the benefit of humanity" through 3-D image modeling technology that designs and enhances everything from prosthetics to vintage cars to the space shuttle Discovery. She lands on the cover of Inc. magazine as "Entrepreneur of the Year" and serves on the National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In the midst of the busiest time of her life -- the founding and start-up of Geomagic -- Fu begins her greatest life adventure, as a mother: "The fact of the matter is, if [daughter] Xixi hadn't demanded my full awareness, our family life and health would have suffered... she was my priority." Through her daughter, she even reclaims some of her lost childhood.

As Fu's success grew, portions of her life story began to appear in the media. For the sake of that daughter, Fu kept most of her past buried: "I wasn't sure whether she could face the brutality of her mother's youth." When she was initially approached to write this memoir, she "couldn't imagine why anyone would want to read about me," not to mention the thought of sharing her life was "intimidating and uncomfortable." Now Fu's daughter is in college. And Fu weathered a shattering divorce.

When she finally began to write, she did so "not because of what I have become but because of the nobody I once was. I write because I wrote many pages long ago, more than these, in secret and at night, and they were burned in front of my eyes [by the Red Guards]. I write because I am fortunate enough to have lived a life that I never could have imagined possible, and sharing the tale of how I got here seems to be the generous thing to do." All the while she warns, "This book is not intended as a blueprint. I believe that all people should... treasure their own life journeys."

That said, her life lessons we could (and should) share are many, even as she does "not wish for anyone to live the life I did." What she learned was "tenacity" and "resilience," and even more importantly, "flexibility and compassion." Always holding fast to her humanity, Ping Fu indeed "bent, but did not break."

Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds by Ping Fu, with MeiMei Fox
Portfolio
ISBN: 978-1591845522
288 pages

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.