As a child in Tianjin, China’s third largest city, Yang Yang experienced all the cataclysm of the early years of Chairman Mao’s communist state: the Great Leap Forward, with people’s communes and backyard pig-iron furnaces, the “natural disaster years”, when food became so scarce that people resorted to eating the bark off trees. Nevertheless, like most young Chinese, Yang Yang believed she was helping to build a better, stronger China.
Thus, when Chairman Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, Yang Yang, like thousands of other idealistic, educated, urban Chinese young people, volunteered to go to a remote village thousands of miles from her home in Tianjin to be “reeducated” by the peasants. Instead, she found the peasants living in the direst poverty, ignorance and misery.
Troubled by the primitive health and sanitary conditions, Yang Yang took pity on the peasants, especially the women, and became a so-called “barefoot doctor”. Availing herself of some medical courses and advice, she became doctor and midwife to a village of 1000 inhabitants. When she was finally allowed to leave the village and return home, five years later, the 75 women whose babies she had delivered came out with their children to wave good-bye.
Although she wanted to study medicine, Yang Yang was sent to study English at Tianjin Teacher’s University. Then for ten years she taught English at the College of Finance and Economics. During these years her attempts to go to graduate school, either in China or abroad, were constantly thwarted by the authorities, who at all costs wanted to keep her as a teacher at the College.
The situation in China gradually changed. In time, after much effort, she was finally allowed to join her husband in London, from where both of them emigrated to America. Yang Yang followed her husband to the Voice of America.
Teaching English in Tianjin, Yang Yang had had her students listen to VOA’s Special English broadcasts. When she found herself working for VOA years later, she knew that she wanted desperately to tell listeners in China about what was happening in the world, about life in the United States, and about the existence of another kind of life than the one they knew.