"No one really thought about China at that time," an interview with Mary Pan '99

In February 2012, Jocelyn Richards '12 interviewed Mary Pan '99 about growing up in China, how she got to Brown, and how her time at the University shaped her.  Below is an excerpt from their conversation.  This interview was conducted as part of the Year of China Oral History Project.

Q: In a previous interview you talked about your time growing up in China, including how you grew up in an educational commune. I am curious what the style of education was like there and what you remember from that experience.

MP: I actually have a blog as part of the Year of China with photos of the commune. I happened to be in an academic commune, which was a university with a beautiful campus, much like Brown, except at the time it was entirely walled in. When I tell people about the changes that China has gone through, it’s tremendous. Although we were considered a very privileged class— the academic class—in our commune there were no paved roads or cars. And there was no garbage collection system because we didn’t really produce waste; so packaging was completely foreign to me. It’s hard to describe that being foreign, but the fact of the matter is, there was no market so there were no packaged things. We didn’t buy things with money; farmers from farm communes brought us food everyday.

On TV we only had one station, which was run by the government, and you only had maybe eight hours of programming a day. In terms of my education on the commune, I remember that the map of China was surrounded, not by water on all sides, but by nothing on all sides. So, I didn’t know that we bordered other countries.

Q: Wow, did you know that other countries existed or seen a map of the world before? 

MP: I had never seen a map of the world before in my life—I had no idea where the United States was.

Q: And how did you first end up coming to the US?

MP: I actually wasn’t aware that I was going to the US permanently—my mother didn’t tell me.  The year that I left China was the first year that China was opening up to the West in terms of letting its citizens out of the country. That year, China issued a grand total of only 10,000 passports—including diplomatic passports. My mother had to interview for a full year before she could qualify for a visitor’s pass to the United States.

The first day in California, my father decided that my brother and I should go with him to Disneyland. Now, we had no context to appreciate Disney—I remember hating having to take pictures with this thing that smelled like mothballs, which I later realized was Mickey Mouse.

Q: Did you find it hard to adjust culturally, especially after being raised in a traditional Chinese household and then coming to Brown, a liberal arts school?

MP: Brown’s very specific because it’s a northeastern, liberal intellectual tradition. And it’s even different than New Mexico, which is where I went to middle school and high school. It was a big cultural shock even from that perspective. It took quite some time for me to adapt, but the one thing that I had in common with everyone here, was coming from outside Rhode Island. One thing that you always have in common with each other is intellectual curiosity. Once you realize that that’s how you can relate to each other, bonds can be forged and friendships can be built.

Q: You mentioned in the previous interview that you also struggled financially to pay for Brown before you obtained a green card, is that right?

MP: Yes, Brown at the time was the second-most expensive school in the country. It was certainly not a school that my parents could afford, who were paid minimum wage as illegal immigrants. My initial visa to the US was only good for two weeks; I just overstayed it. As an illegal immigrant I definitely wouldn’t have had access to any government funding or scholarships. It was really down to the wire. As I mentioned in a previous interview, we went through all three branches of the US government. With the judicial branch, we lost the case, but it went all the way to the Supreme Court.

We also petitioned through the legislative branch, because I interned on a US Senator’s election campaign. But the senator wasn’t able to pass legislation on our behalf because at the time, our case was still in the courts. So that avenue failed as well, and what finally happened was that Bill Clinton announced general clemency for x number of Chinese immigrants that were already in the United States. It was done in response to the Tiananmen Massacre, where the US did not take much action against China. We had lawyers on both coasts at that time, and made it into the quota. It was very random, but we made it, and that’s how I got to Brown.

Q: You mentioned that once you got to Brown, most students were less interested in each other’s backgrounds and more in their ideas and intellectual curiosity. But I’m interested in what people thought about your background growing up on a commune or what their opinions were of China at the time.

MP: Well, the thing is, no one really thought about China at that time. It wasn’t trendy— there was no context for a curiosity in China. On my end, I didn’t have a broad enough insight to articulate the experience, which is why I’m very happy that I get the chance to do so now. I was the only student from the People’s Republic of China throughout the entire four years that I was at Brown, which also leads me to speculate, that I may be the first student from the PRC to graduate from Brown’s undergraduate program.

I was here in 1995-1999. Even in 1999, China was not at the forefront of people’s minds, which shows you how much it’s changed in a short amount of time, because now that I’m back on campus again, it’s a huge topic! Everyone’s asking. And it motives me to think more about the country that I’m from, and my own experiences.

Q: Do you think that coming to Brown in particular has influenced your life and career in ways that would be different had you gone to a different school, or stayed in New Mexico?

MP: Oh, Brown’s had a huge impact on my life, which is why I’m always to enthusiastic to be involved in anything having to do with this school. And the reason for that is it taught me skills in education and learning, but it also completely changed my mindset, and how I see the world. The world looked one way when I came in, and it looked completely different when I left. Through that, it’s changed who I am as a person, and I believe for the better. That is something that’s very special and something that one feels a tremendous amount of love for.