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Living between two cultures
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A Shanghai doctor had a unique experience of 20th-century China as the daughter of a Chinese man and an American woman.


Nina Tu is a pale-faced, white-haired woman who speaks English with an American accent. But she surprises Chinese with her easy ability to converse in their language. "They absolutely go gaga when you come out with their dialect."


She speaks Mandarin and Shanghainese fluently and can also converse in several other dialects.


Dr Tu was born in Shanghai in 1935 to an American mother and Chinese father. She has spent most of her life in China, moved to the United States in 1981 and now at the age of 72 returned to Shanghai to work as a pediatrician.


Though she can move seamlessly between languages, her cultural identity has not always been an easy thing to live with.


Dr Tu's parents, Muriel Hoopes and Tu Yuching, met in the States in 1919. Dr Tu Yuching, who had gone abroad as a Chinese scholar, was due to return home after finishing his degree. But before he did, a subway ride changed the course of his life. "It was very crowded then and the subway came to a real jerk," Dr Tu says. "He lost his balance and stood on somebody's foot."


That foot belonged to his future wife. The pair got to talking and romance blossomed. They struggled to find a priest or pastor willing to marry them, but eventually one agreed. Mr Tu returned to China, and his new wife later followed. The couple spent five years living in Nanjing before settling in Shanghai, where they raised four children.


At that time, Mrs Hoopes-Tu's marriage to a Chinese man meant she lost her American citizenship when she left her home country.


"She lost her citizenship, therefore she became stateless," Dr Tu says. "Neither Chinese, nor American. She believed that probably saved her from being put in a prison camp during the Japanese invasion, while many of her friends ended up there."


Later, she was granted Chinese citizenship.


Even as a child, Nina Tu was conscious of being different. People would stare at her and she was called names. "More politely it would be a foreigner. Less politely, mixed-breed. I am half American and I am naturally not going to look like a typical Chinese."


The difference was not only physical. She was influenced by her mother's ideas, and also her attendance at church and Sunday school. "My ideas and opinions were partly Western, so I didn't fit too well. I would always be criticized because I was different, not only my appearance but my ways.


"It became a disadvantage for me. Since childhood and all the way through my adult years up till 1979, it had been always a disadvantage for me, always got me into trouble."


After graduation, she was posted to the medical clinic of Shanghai's Donghai Shipyard. "I worked at that factory till 1979, but I really felt I was not able to use my medical knowledge to the full capacity."


Meanwhile, her father had a difficult life, often under suspicion for being married to an American and because of his links to the YMCA. "Somehow he was always the target, whatever the movement was."


During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), her father was put in isolation for more than four years and died not long after being released. Her mother was also locked up for nine months.


After China began opening up in the late 1970s, Nina Tu's life changed. Her ability to speak English became useful. Through her sister, also a doctor, she was asked to help teach English to Chinese medical specialists who were traveling overseas.


In 1981, she herself moved to the United States to begin studying toward a master's degree in public health, leaving her husband and adult children behind. Tragically, her husband died suddenly soon after she arrived.


She became a pediatrician, a job she carried out for 15 years. Her children have all settled in the United States, as have all but one of her siblings.


But Dr Tu's mother stayed in China. By the time the country began opening up, she had already lived there 60 years.


"She went through all the different changes. By then, there were very few American women who had lived there. She was probably one of only a handful. She was very well-known as the American dame," she says. "What people thought of you changed with the times. You were the dirt under their feet one day, then all of a sudden a rose, a fragrant rose."


In 1980, the United States apologized for the loss of her citizenship and offered to restore it. At first, she declined. "What use do I have for American citizenship now? I'm a Chinese, I have lived here all my life," she says.


But after some persuasion, she accepted. It meant her daughter also gained American citizenship.


Hoopes-Tu died at the age of 89 during a visit to her children in the United States. They had been worried that she was lonely by herself in China and wanted her to join them. "But she insisted she wanted to go back to China."


Nina Tu retired five years ago but this year accepted an invitation to return to Shanghai and work as a pediatrician at the newly opened Sun-Tec Medical Center.


"I thought what a wonderful feeling it would be for me personally after my experience to working in a factory, being thought of and being treated as nobody, to come back and work in this capacity."


Some parts of Shanghai are still familiar - she occasionally stays in the Huaihai Road apartment where she lived as a child - but others are dramatically different. Rural areas she used to pass through on her way to work at the factory have since disappeared.


She wants to stay in China as long as she can continue to work. "I'm in pretty good health, so I think I have a few more years to contribute."


Dr Nina Tu will talk about her experiences at the Community Center Shanghai's Puxi base today.


Date: September 21, 9:30am

Venue: Annex Building, Sun-Tec Medical Center, 4/F, 2281 Hongqiao Rd

Tel: 5175-0510


(Shanghai Daily September 21, 2007)

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