(Continued from previous blog)
Bend, Not Break largely shifts between Ping’s nightmarish childhood and her adult life in the US. In America she grows, step by painful step, into a successful businesswoman in the software industry. Before this, sometime after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government demanded she leave China. This is because of the “innocent” research she was conducting into China’s then new One Child Policy and the effects of secret abortions of female babies because parents wanted only the prized male, particularly in rural areas. China has never taken well to any research depicting her ugly side, no matter how well intended.
The constant shifting from Ping the child in China to Ping the adult in the US is striking and effective (skilfully edited by her co-writer, MeiMei Fox). The growth of the child Ping is in many respects mirrored by the growth of the adult Ping. The switches from childhood to adulthood anecdotes mimics the difficulty with which Ping deals with repressed memories, with her deep sense of unworthiness as a woman because of the horrors she endured as a child, especially her gang rape at the age of ten. She did not know at the time it was rape. Her own words are the best and I need not give away the “reason” for the gang rape, as, of course, there is no reason or excuse:
“Then, suddenly, the beating turned into something else — something I couldn’t quite grasp. ‘Take off her clothes,’ someone ordered. I fought with all my might, but I found that I could no longer move my legs … I’d been attacked by a pack of hungry wolves … I could not hear. I could not scream … all I could do was feel the boys cutting my clothes off … ”
Ping was utterly ignorant of what was done to her for many years. This vividly reminds me of some university students I’d taught who had had no sex education and were utterly “chaste” (see previous blog). And Ping definitely could not cope with the fact that she was blamed for the violence done to her. “I felt unwanted, dirty, unworthy.” These were among the repressed memories that came up during a retreat session run by Grinnell Leadership when she was CEO of her American-based company, Geomagic.
She realised that all her life she had subconsciously regarded herself as “a ruined woman”, and even rejected by her own country, China. She learned to acknowledge there were many memories she battled to name, “hidden away in that broken girl”.
The way the memoir moves back and forth from Ping’s childhood growth to her adult growth is deft and shows how memories, repressed or conscious, inform so much of what we do. She goes from waitress to CEO. Ping’s depiction of her life in the tough business world of the US, the dotcom era, the development and marketing of Geomagic’s unique 3D software applications and the massive out-of-court settlements, is superbly handled. (Among her public achievements, she received a Woman of the Year award from Business Leader magazine.) This side of the memoir is informative, caveat reading for the wannabe or seasoned entrepreneur.
But I have not focused on Ping the entrepreneur here. A terse summary of her American and international business experience is this apt quotation Ping uses from a business colleague, Reid Hoffman: entrepreneurship is where “you jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down”. Though Ping Fu became very “successful” in the way the American Dream deems success to be, she came within an inch of bankruptcy on more than one occasion.
My core experience of this haunting memoir is that the rape produced the woman. An admirable woman who got to know the Obamas and became a very successful employer who wanted the best for her employees. This is, of course, not to glamorise what was done to Ping. But it is easier to see how young Ping the carer of her sister became the carer of so many employees. The title of the memoir refers to plants that her Shanghai papa taught her were the friends of winter (hard times) because of their resilience, and one is bamboo.
I am aware of the scathing criticism (especially, unsurprisingly, from China) that Ping did not experience certain “atrocities” (the word rape is avoided), and that she may be withdrawing these “atrocities” as “inaccuracies” from the next edition of her memoir. No one can ultimately decide what did or didn’t happen for Ping. And does not this censorship remind one of the women (and men and children) who have kept the violation and shame done to them “a secret”? That — somehow, somehow — the public outrage vented for exposing the “secret” outweighs that which is perpetrated against the woman or child? Do deeply repressed “memories” have the risk of only being fictions? Merely the way in which things become already remembered? How can victims be healed of this when they are uncertain their experiences were genuine?
The denial of the violations done to Ping as a child in the Seventies in Suzhou (how can her critics know?) reminds me of the continued “repression” of the facts of the Nanjing Massacre, a horror, including endless rape, perpetrated by Japanese soldiers. Both Chinese and Japanese authorities alike are mostly silent about the massacre. This holocaust is documented in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. Like Ping Fu, Iris Chang met considerable resistance and took personal risk in standing up for the dead victims; she became so obsessed with championing their cause and the plight of women in China she became deeply depressed, increasingly isolated and committed suicide. Ping Fu also often contemplated taking her life after it was essentially destroyed for her. But she lives, and offers us a brave, vulnerable, beautifully crafted memoir.