I Am Proud To Be An American – Yawei Liu

I was born in 1960 when China was a firm part of the Soviet coalition which had engaged the United States in an epic ideological and strategic rivalry called the Cold War. When I was ten, China’s great leader Mao Zedong issued his famous statement entitled “People of the World Unite and Defeat American Imperialists and their Running Dogs”. I was a freshman on December 16, 1978 when the college PA system broadcast the Sino-American Normalization Communique. Like everyone else, I was flabbergasted.  How could China enter into a relationship with an evil nation that we were trained and taught to overthrow? I was home celebrating the Chinese New Year in 1979 when my family watched on a small black and white television of Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to the U.S. We were once again stunned by what we saw on the screen: there was no sign of a country crumbling because of capitalists’ exploitation, racial tensions, Wall Street’s quest for profits and political corruption. However, living in a nation at the time when the media reports were carefully choreographed to reflect the Party’s open agenda and when listening to VOA was considered a crime, it was hard for us to figure out the significance of these two events at the time. Not too long after, American professors arrived on our campus.

Translating American literature and studying abroad

In 1982, I graduated from the college with a degree in English language and literature and was assigned to be an editor in the Shaanxi provincial publishing house. My college professors were able to visit sister colleges in the U.S. When they came back, I would often visit them, going through the books they brought back and making decisions on which ones to be translated into Chinese. I had no knowledge of copyrights and decisions to translate and publish American literary works solely hinged on whether it had any academic value and if it could generate a profit.  I spent more than five years editing pirated American literary works and even translated a few American novels myself. Some of my college classmates and colleagues were sent by the government to study abroad but I was never chosen. After my elder brother came back from a visit to the U.S. organized by the U.S. Information Agency in 1985, he encouraged me to go to the U.S. to study. I was very reluctant to apply because I felt I could not pass the physical as I was almost shut out of Chinese college because of a physical disability. In addition, where would tuition come from if admitted? After I learned no one needed to pass a physical to study in American universities I decided to apply.

I am both a beneficiary from and witness to the importance of peaceful and productive relationship between the U.S. and China. There are millions like me across the Pacific Ocean. – Yawei Liu

In August 1987, I arrived at the University of Hawaii at Manoa with two suitcases and $200 in cash. I was going to pursue a master’s degree in American history. As a graduate assistant, my tuition was automatically waived and there was a monthly stipend.  Teaching American undergrad students was hard and learning equally difficult but life was exhilarating.  I was supposed to return to China with the master’s degree but I chose to pursue a higher degree in American diplomatic history. I applied to a few graduate schools and was admitted by all of them. I decided to go to Emory University because it offered me a Robert W. Woodruff Fellowship which was given to about 12 doctoral students annually. It meant I would get $1,000 a month for four years without working at all. Since Woodruff was one of the instrumental leaders of the rise of the Coca-Cola Company, upon my setting feet on Emory campus in August 1989, I made the decision not to drink Pepsi anymore. I have encouraged my family members and my students to do the same over the years.

Volunteering for the Carter Center's Chinese Village Elections project

In the fall of 1996, I was teaching American history at DeKalb College when one of my professors at Emory, Dr. Robert Pastor, emailed me and asked if I could help him to get to know more about China’s village elections. I told him that Chinese villages did not have elections. I was obviously wrong as Chinese villages began to have elections according to a provisional law in 1988 and the Carter Center was invited to observe these elections that were held every three years on close to a million villages in China. I began to volunteer for the Carter Center’s Chinese Village Elections Project. I met with President Carter for the first time in October 1996 when I was an observer of the Carter Center’s election observation in Nicaragua. Two years later, I joined the Carter Center on part-time basis. Ten years after he and Deng Xiaoping made the decision to establish full diplomatic relations, I began to work for the man whose courageous and visionary action has forever changed the life of me, the fate of my birth country and the wellbeing of my adopted nation.

Travelling with President Carter

In 2001, I traveled with President Carter to China for the first time. Since then I set up all his trips to China until September 2014 when at the age of 90, he made his last trip to China. President Carter likes to engage Chinese college students when he was in China. On many such occasions he would recall very fondly the 3 am phone call he received from his Science Advisor Dr. Frank Press who was visiting China to discuss U.S.-China scientific exchanges and he asked the latter to tell Deng Xiaoping all Chinese students and scholars were welcome in the U.S. (see letter above from President Carter to the Chinese Embassy on November 21, 2019)

I have lived in America for more than 32 years now. One thought that keeps coming to me is: Could Americans go to China at my age (27), study, get a chance to teach and even be able to land  a job working chance for one of China’s senior leaders? I know there are many Chinese whose career is like mine in the U.S. I do not know any American who have done the same thing in China. If there was, we would certainly know it. My work and life in America is a small reflection of the essence of this great nation, a footnote to her domination of political, scientific and academic affairs in the world, and a comforting idea at this difficult time when there are Americans who are aggressively calling to decouple with China.  I was born and raised in China and I am now a proud American. I am both a beneficiary from and witness to the importance of peaceful and productive relationship between the U.S. and China. There are millions like me across the Pacific Ocean.

1 thought on “I Am Proud To Be An American – Yawei Liu”

  1. I looked up Yawei Liu after hearing him on an ICAS webinar about “Guardrails and Floors” on 30th November. I taught English Literature at Hangzhou University 1986-1988; I’ve lost touch with all my former students but always follow “China in the World” news with interest. In depressing times, Dr Liu’s personal history – like today’s other presentations – cheers me up. Thank you!

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