By Ling-Mei Wong
Ping Fu epitomizes glamorous success. One of the developers of the first Web browser, founder of a successful start-up and adviser to President Barack Obama, Fu’s name can be found with entrepreneurs and billionaires.
And yet Fu’s memoir celebrates being a nobody. Candid, insightful and devastating, her narrative is ultimately one of triumph.
In “Bend, Not Break,” written by Fu and MeiMei Fox, Fu recalls a happy childhood in China interrupted by the Cultural Revolution when she was 8. Overnight, she was ripped from her doting aunt and uncle, who had raised her as their own with their five children, and sent 200 miles to Nanjing from Shanghai. Her professor father and accountant mother were shipped off for “re-education,” leaving her to raise her 4-year-old birth sister Hong alone.
“If only I could fly. I’d soar like a bird up into the heavens, out of this nightmare, and back home to Shanghai, to my loving mama and siblings and our peaceful home,” Fu wrote.
As children of “black elements,” the sisters were forced to “eat bitterness” made from animal dung, tree bark and dirt. In struggle sessions, they loudly called down curses on their family. Fu suffered a brutal gang rape when she was 10, with her attackers going unpunished.
Despite the horrors, Fu remained resilient. When Mao Zedong died in 1976, schools across China reopened. The 19-year-old Fu was admitted to Suzhou University’s literature program.
Fu’s thesis on China’s one-child policy involved two years of interviews with villagers and medical staff. She personally witnessed baby girls drowned in rivers, flushed down sewage systems or tossed into the trash. A story based on her research broke in a Shanghai newspaper and the government-sponsored People’s Daily. When the international outcry about female infanticide became too great, Fu was exiled for shaming her country.
The 25-year-old Fu came to America with just $80 and no English skills. She boarded her first flight and refused all food from the stewardesses, assuming it had to be paid for. After enrolling at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, she worked her way through school as a babysitter and waitress. She transferred to the University of California, San Diego, and studied computer science while working for a software start-up.
The rest is history. Fu went from being a broke student to a billionaire, founding 3-D imaging company Geomagic with ex-husband Herbert Edelsbrunner. In 2010, she served on the National Advisory Council for Innovation and Entrepreneurship under the Obama administration.
Fu’s remarkable tale is without self-pity or rancor. When her husband leaves her for another woman, she accepts it. Instead of rage, she lets go and chooses to appreciate the kind people in her life: An anonymous friend who left food; an uncle who shared banned Western novels; and a fellow waitress who stuck up for her.
“Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the capability to bounce back from even the most difficult times,” Fu wrote.
For a “nobody,” Fu lived life to the fullest no matter what. Her bold spirit and fierce loyalty is an inspiration to us all.
This post is also available in: Chinese